Let's just get it out there and out of the way: The economy stinks. The unemployment situation is not good. Some business leaders made bad decisions, and then compounded those bad decisions with more bad decisions. There has been a lot of greed at the top for a long time that resulted in the vast majority of people getting the short end of the stick while those holding the rest of the stick got to buy extra houses, cars, boats and so on. As a result, average people are ticked off because the people who got us into this mess now have the nerve to ask us to help them out of it.
But corporate greed does not extend to every single business decision made by a company—even a company that made bad decisions and was "bailed out" by the taxpayer. And what the media has been calling "junkets" and "lavish trips for employees" are, in fact, mostly rewards and incentives to increase and grow business.
Take a look at Wells Fargo's recognition event, which the media blasted as a "junket for executives." Actually, the event was a four-day meeting for team members who in 2008 generated $230 billion in home loans. (Do people think no business takes place on these trips?) But the nonstop news coverage amplifying the ever-spiraling economic downturn has been effective—at least when it comes to public opinion on corporate travel. Even companies that are still relatively successful have been canceling their incentive travel plans.
The ball got rolling back in the fall when AIG spent thousands of dollars on a trip—and those infamous spa treatments—just days after the people helped it avoid bankruptcy with a bailout of then-unheard-of proportions. With millions of Americans already losing their jobs, surely a little sensitivity was in order. But, as I said, the trip got the ball rolling, and it's been taking down programs of all kinds as it tumbles along its destructive path. People got on a roll, and now every corporate expenditure seems to be coming under fire. Incentive travel for companies taking TARP money? No good. Incentive travel for any other company? Not acceptable. How about travel for corporate meetings? Nope. How about gift cards in place of incentive travel? No way. (A recent New York Post article blasted Citigroup for rewarding its top brokers with debit cards in place of its usual annual weekend getaway, a move that actually represented a savings over the usual reward. In the article, compensation consultant Jim Reda exclaims, "These people are outrageous," calling the cards an unnecessary expense that only cost money.) I've even seen stories lamenting the ongoing use of PR firms by companies that took TARP funds!
Obviously, we here at PIP have a vested interest in seeing incentive programs continue—using both travel and merchandise. And we—and others in the industry—will continue to laud the value of such programs. But hopefully those of you reading this also understand the value and ROI that carefully planned programs can bring to your organizations. And we're hoping you'll do your part to defend that value, quantify the ROI and show everyone that programs like this really do make a difference in a business's performance.
The problem is that a lot of people seem to base their argument on the idea that, "If I can't have it, then no one should get it." A lot of the argument seems to be: Joe the Plumber lost his job so now no one should get any extra benefits. A paycheck is thanks enough.
OK. Hold on a second. Let's all take a deep breath and get a grip. Yes, a handful of companies made some bad business decisions. And then they created a lot of negative feeling—and got a lot of negative, and some might say incomplete, media coverage—by turning around and spending on the so-called "lavish junkets" at a time when a lot of people were only getting pink slips.
We could probably find arguments for both sides of the debate on whether these particular trips delivered value for the investment. I'm not interested in that debate right now. What I want to know is, do the actions of a few justify the elimination of all incentive travel? And by extension, does this mean such rewards as merchandise and gift cards should go the way of the dinosaur, too? Is this really what people are arguing?
"People who are still employed should consider themselves lucky to have a job," one commenter states.
"Having a job is reward enough," says another.
OK, let's explore this line of reasoning a bit.
Let's say you're in charge of a small business that used to reward its top sales reps with a trip to Costa Rica, complete with room gifts of iPods loaded with beach tunes, sunglasses and so on. Now the economy is in the tank. Your business has contracted, though you're still doing OK and turning a profit. Are you now going to tell your top people, "Reward? You should consider yourself lucky to have a job!"?
I didn't think so.
What would your reaction be if someone were to say those words to you?
I think the typical reaction to the statement, "You're lucky to be employed," especially when that statement comes from a person in-the-know or in a position of power, is fear.
And what do fearful people do? How does their job performance pan out for the company? Do fearful people come up with new innovations? Do they create new business practices that help get things done more efficiently and more effectively? Is fear the great motivation they need to come in every morning and really bust their behinds to go above and beyond the call of duty? Are they so enthralled with continuing to work for someone who has essentially threatened them with economic insecurity that they'll continue doing their best even after the recovery starts to take hold?
No, I don't think so either.
You can't let shortsightedness stop you—or your business's leaders—from continuing to inspire, motivate, recognize and reward the people who are so essential to getting business done in these tough times. If they're still doing it well—despite the fact that they're the "lucky ones" who are still employed, despite the fact that the media is sounding the alarm all around them, despite the fact that you've had to cut back on or eliminate specific benefits and maybe even pay, hours and other employees who were important parts of the team—don't they deserve something more than fear?
We need to be thinking long-term here. Now is the time to focus on motivating the troops in the vanguard to carry on—full speed ahead! Now is the time to invest in the kinds of motivation and recognition that lead our top performers to the kinds of innovation that can help get us out of this mess, whether that means an incentive trip to bring together top sales reps or a drawing for that big-screen TV to recognize employees who are inventive and offering ideas for doing things better, cheaper, faster, wiser. And now is the time to demonstrate to your leaders—and, indeed, to everyone you can get to listen—that these programs are capable of delivering big returns for the money invested.
Don't stop the incentives. Don't call off the trips. Don't end the merchandise rewards. These are critical tools for keeping the workforce, the sales force and the channel engaged, connected and inspired.
All the best,
Premium Incentive Products
In the January-February 2009 issue of PIP, we misspelled Dana Slockbower's name. Dana is Director of Marketing for Rymax Marketing Services Inc., and her article on "Wellness Rewards That Fit the Bill" appeared on page 13 of that issue. We also printed the wrong Web address. The correct address is www.rymaxinc.com. You can read more from Dana this month in an article on rewards that fit generational differences, found here. We regret the error.
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