We, Not Me: A Guide to Thinking Beyond Service Awards

Increasing public employee morale can be a tough challenge for managers. This blog post offers ways to boost employee satisfaction beyond the use of service awards.

BLOG POST | Oct 1, 2018
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by Rebecca DeSantis, content and engagement coordinator, ICMA

Many jurisdictions struggle with an issue that has plagued offices at all levels of government: employee morale. According to Governing magazine, one of the biggest complaints of government offices is being unable to recruit and retain good employees. Organizational culture plays an important role in employee satisfaction, but it takes more than service awards for employees to feel recognized and ultimately boost the morale of the office or department overall.

Some city and county leaders have dealt with difficult situations in staff satisfaction by moving beyond traditional employee recognition. For Sylvia Carrillo-Trevino, assistant city manager of Corpus Christi, Texas, employees' low morale stemmed from a distrust of colleagues. Willie Morales of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, was dealing with staff members who were riddled with the fear of small-town scandal that left them paralyzed and checked out. Steven Taylor, county administrator of Sherburne County, Minnesota, had to work with staff who were upset that they heard about department changes in the newspaper before hearing from their management. Each of these municipal leaders offered their solutions to their organizational crisis in a panel at the 2018 ICMA Annual Conference, which helped create this blog post on thinking beyond service awards.

It's Nice to Receive Recognition from Executives, but it Matters More to Receive it from Peers

Carrillo-Trevino found that the initiative that made the difference in employees' morale was the addition of the "City Champion" program, a self-funded recognition initiative that was peer-led and peer-reviewed. Employees nominated their colleagues for their service and hard work, which led to monthly and yearly award ceremonies that focused on the success of the staff members. Carrillo-Trevino learned that staff value this peer recognition, and employee morale and motivation improved with this new program.

Establish Organizational Procedures to Remove Subjective Decision Making from the Equation

It’s important for local government offices to have concrete procedures in place to help leadership avoid micro-managing and to take the "personal" out of work. In Sandisfield, the staff members relied on their relationship with their supervisors to get work done, which led to fear and distrust. Morales helped the team create procedures for staff concerning financial processes and other important office functions to allow employees to function independently and to help build trust between leadership and staff. This also meant that there could be a shift away from staff feeling that arbitrary decisions were being made by leadership.

Ask for Input from Staff on How They Want to Be Recognized

Some staff like public displays of recognition, while others prefer to stay anonymous and have their work privately acknowledged. Morales states that "it is important to inventory the needs of your employees" to build a positive relationship between manager and staff and to make sure that employee needs are being met regarding motivation and recognition.

Be Prepared to Defend Your Successful Program

As soon as word got out to residents about the City Champions program, community members were questioning the "time intensive" nature of this program and the possible "waste" of resources. Carrillo-Trevino had to defend the program and explain that the initiative is self-funded through office vending machines and using internal space, and not being funded with tax money. She recommends that any manager implementing a program like this use internal funds and be prepared to defend the program if questions arise.

Praise Staff by Showing Leadership that They Can and Will Work Independently

Morales had a breakthrough with his town leaders when they realized that the procedures they put in place were allowing staff to work independently and they could feel comfortable trusting their employees to work in their absence. Morales explained that this was one of the most significant cultural shifts from this initiative, and staff morale increased significantly following this change. Praising staff by showing leadership their independent successes is a great way to motivate employees.

Use Staff Input and Survey Results to Make Positive Changes

It is key to survey the staff about their experiences and their satisfaction to track trends and changes over time. The true benefit of this type of staff input, however, is that managers can make strategic changes to their organization that are data-driven and employee supported. Taylor suggests that managers can learn a lot from these surveys if they are done correctly and the results are taken seriously.

Want More?

Access this presentation and 22 other 2018 ICMA Annual Conference sessions through the ICMA Virtual Annual Conference archives. 


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