Best and Worst Rewards: Share Your Stories

Starting today, Government Executive is hosting a mini-blog filled with readers' ideas on the subject of rewards for employees.

We want to know how you've managed to reward your best employees during tight budget times when big bonuses may not be an option. And we'd like to hear about interesting rewards you've earned. Is the $10 Starbucks card a nice little token, or more of an insult? Do you consider a detail assignment to another agency an effective reward? Did you come up with something creative, like the NASA officials who named an asteroid after a stellar employee?

Send your comments to Karen Rutzick at and we will post them to this page. Check back here to see what your colleagues have to say and to see comments on your idea. The best comments may be used in a sidebar to the upcoming April 15 story on rewards in Government Executive Magazine.

Please include your name and agency, and let us know whether we can publish your personal information and if you're willing to be contacted for the April 15 story.

Your Stories

February 23

The "Radical Act of Kindness" I am the operations supervisor in a small office of 12. I came up with an award we call the Radical Act of Kindness (RAK). We give two hours administrative leave to employees who go out of their way to provide some extra special service to a co-worker or one of our customers. We have given out one award so far. We came up with this award to encourage and recognize exemplary kindness in these budget-strapped times.

Joseph Josey
Operations Supervisor, Social Security

Update: Josey gave an example of his RAK award. The first award was given to a claims representative who was processing a payee change. Denise did a thorough investigation and contacted several agencies and boarding homes to find housing for the claimant and get a reliable payee. She showed patience, kindness and perseverance way beyond what was needed for this claimant.

Too Little? I served six months in Northern Iraq as a Defense Department civilian employee. My unit was ambushed at a power station and I carried a wounded interpreter to the vehicle. I was awarded two, 2-star general commander coins, three other commander coins, one letter of commendation and three letters of appreciation. My agency awarded me an Exceptional Civilian Service Award and a pat on the back.


February 26

Free Lunch Two years ago, I nominated my secretary in a radio station contest for "Administrative Professionals Day." I extolled her virtues, including her toleration of my sense of humor. The prize was lunch for four at a well-known restaurant in the local area -- Tidewater Virginia -- some "goodies" for everyone in the party, and opportunities for prizes given away by the radio station and its advertisers. I gave up my seat so that the other administrative professional in the office and both of my Division Chiefs could attend. All it took was a letter of nomination. It went over pretty well.

D. Kevin Hoffman
Director, DCSRM Management Directorate, Army

Thanks a Million As a supervisor, I've always had access to the formal awards process, but I wanted to find a different way to recognize the everyday successes that fell outside those formal guidelines. I was in a novelty shop one day and ran across those fake million dollar bills and decided to incorporate them into an informal, on-the-spot, recognition that fulfills those day to day successes that keep the workplace morale up. Of course I called them "Thanks a Million" certificates. Employees got a kick out of the novelty behind the award.

Bruce L. Myers
Integrated Logistics Support Manager, Federal Aviation Administration

No Thanks I personally would rather have a quarter than another one of those tie tacks or a memo pad with a calculator made in China that doesn't work. Personally, I would love a Starbucks card.

Anonymous, Federal Aviation Administration

Yes Thanks Several years ago I taught an important class for a group of employees who truly needed the information. The manager who had asked me to conduct the training gave me a hand written thank you and a pot of plastic flowers, complete with a butterfly that he took his own time to pick out for me. The flowers still sit on my desk.

Joan Klein
Internal Revenue Service

A Cut of the Savings In taking on a project not required as part of my job, I saved the government $1.6 million, and received a cash award of $2,500 ($1,500 after taxes). I think this comes out to less than two-tenths of a percent (0.16 percent) of the savings.


Star Employee I work at a VA hospital. There is a program where fellow employees or patients can nominate an employee for a "customer service star" for doing something noteworthy. It's a small pin in the shape of a star. There is no money involved -- just the pin. Several years ago, our regional headquarters noted that our station director did not authorize any monetary awards other than to top management and the top management support staff. Our director's response was that he had authorized a number of the customer service star pins and he considered those pins to be sufficient awards.


Side Effect I worked for the Agriculture Department for 15 years. I think sometimes it is a slap in the face that the same people get the awards over and over again.

Anonymous, USDA

Military Model The perception expressed in "Side Effect" by USDA anonymous is that of most people I have met in four years of government civilian service.

When you look at most any staff you have the consistent top performers, the vast majority are average workers and a very few sub performers. Consistent top performers get most of the awards. Isn't that what you are rewarding? But that does not inspire the others to do better, it just reinforces the perception that it's the same people who get the awards every time. If you discuss this with the award recipients you find that most of them did not perform at that level because they wanted an award. They did it because they are naturally top performers. In my view the award budget generally just buys lower morale among the majority.

Based on having served in the Navy for more than twenty years I feel that the military has about the most economical award system and maybe the best. They give medals and letters. These cost little but provide the individual with a tangible recognition of their contribution that can be recognized by others. They increase the self-esteem and often garner immediate respect and informal authority. In some cases they even provide points toward promotion.

Ray Rathburn
IT Systems Supervisor, Social Security Administration

Burnout? In 30 years of service, my experience was that when higher-ups wanted to reward an employee, they gave him additional assignments and more work. When they wanted to express disapproval, they gave him fewer things to do. It seemed odd to me that the best people would be pushed toward burnout, while those who were out of favor (not necessarily poor performers) would be allowed a more relaxed pace. The government doesn't have a good grasp of how to create incentives for good work.

Recently Retired
Homeland Security Department

Steaks on Me Every year I host a party at my home for my employees. I provide the drinks (beer and margaritas on tap) and they each bring an appetizer to share. It's our yearly thank you party.

We have also had thank you luncheons where the managers bring in the food and serve the employees.

When I was supervisor of a unit, I set the bar high for a given goal and told my team that if they met the goal I would take them out to lunch. They accomplished the goal that hadn't been met in our office for four years, so it was a small price to pay to take them all out to lunch at a steakhouse. The next unit I did the same thing and set the bar to reach a goal that no one had reached nationally. They did it and again it was a small price to pay to take them out to lunch to a steakhouse and seafood place.

Granted the money came out of my pocket, but who cares! My employees work very hard for me and the people they serve and it was a small thing to do that paid out big dividends - we all had a great time and even better memories that we talk about every year!

Lois Maxwell
District Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, Labor Department

Layover In the spirit of enlightened self-interest, I would propose that the following reward would be welcomed by me, and it would cost very little. I am sure there are many employees in the same boat. I transferred to Washington three years ago and left my family (mother, brother, sister, etc.) in Fort Worth, Texas. Several times during the course of a year, I have to travel to Denver or the West Coast, and I nearly always can connect either through Chicago or Dallas-Forth Worth. I would really like it if I could have a layover on the weekend and visit my family. The incremental cost difference in the ticket would usually be $200 or less. So, for very little, I would be very happy. The only problem is GSA's travel office, which insists you cannot use the government fares to do this.

Laura Strohbach
Lead Realty Specialist, General Services Administration February 27

Don't Catch Me Some time back, I was working as a generalist in the Human Resource Office. One day, the director came to my office and handed me a "Catch Me Doing Something Right" lapel pin. Of course, eventually everyone received at least one. I never figured out how that was supposed to motivate us. We all agreed that except for the day we received the pin, we must have been doing something wrong. It was a really bad idea that he obviously heard about in one of his many business meetings.


Response to Military Model The military award model I experienced in 23 years of Army service was a joke. Awards and recommendations for promotion were based on how well you were liked by the recommending authority, as well as how well they could write. Awards in the Army do count for promotion so supervisors' favorites got awards leading to the supervisors' favorites getting promoted faster.


No Reward Too Small One year our district office announced it only had $40 per person available for an annual award. However, since $40 was such a small amount, management thought it would be an insult to give it to us - so they gave us $0! I'll take four Starbucks cards any time.

Anonymous, EEOC

March 6

Rewards as a Right Several years ago when I first joined the federal workplace I was amazed to hear, and then see, that every quarter, bonuses were handed out to all members of the business line regardless of individual performance. Then the agency went through a rough spell and the bonuses stopped. I never expected to receive anything extra for doing my job, but my fellow government associates were very verbal about their displeasure as to the failure of leadership to realize they were doing their jobs and deserved more then just the salary they were due. Now the leadership in the organization has changed again, and the stance of our new principals is, "You should do your jobs and strive to achieve more, not for a reward but because it is the right thing to do."

Michael Estrin
General Services Administration

Long Wait In our beautiful Homeland Security Department where no manager can make a decision except the very top, I tried to get an employee a day off as an award for excellent work. After spending many hours trying to justify the time off to upper mirco-management it took about three to four months before it came to the employee. And we wonder why the employees rate DHS as the very worst agency in the government?


March 8

When Pigs Have Wings Though not a supervisor, I started my own way of rewarding my colleagues who took the extra step. Copying the idea of the Hammer Award, I pass out miniature figurines of pigs with wings. Obviously, it's a play on the phrase, "It'll happen when pigs have wings." They're handmade out of jasper so each one is unique.

People seem to enjoy them because of the recognition of doing something special. And they make great conversation starters so that people can brag a little about what they've accomplished.

Jeffrey K. Bower
Defense Logistics Agency

March 9

Dinner-Dance As a first sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, my unit held an annual dinner-dance during one of our training weekends that was open to everyone in the unit. However, most of the junior ranks could not afford the cost of the dinner or the cost of lodging. What I did was have the officers and senior non-commissioned officers contribute enough to pay for two tickets. The names of all of the junior members in the unit were put into a hat and two names were picked. In addition to a free ticket, the winners got access to military lodging. Since lodging was tight on training weekends we gave rooms normally reserved for senior officer and NCOs to the two winners of the drawing. It was a great morale booster for the awardees who got to attend a functions normally only open to the "bosses."


March 13

Back in the Day I had a very thoughtful boss who each year at our holiday luncheons would give a nice speech and a generous amount of his own personal money toward the meal as a thank you to the group for doing a great job during the year. Thank you, John McM. They don't make bosses like you anymore.


Awards for Awards Sake I am retired after 21 years of service in various Defense Department agencies and organizations.

Coming from private industry, I always thought the cash award system was of no real merit. It was based upon how large or small the unit was and its award budget. I was into the government for seven years before I knew it existed.

As a supervisor I have been told I have to give out awards because there is an award budget that has to be met. When I have questioned it, I have been told to find something for which to give awards. Since the employees were used to getting awards I was ruining morale by not giving them one even if I thought that the performance did not warrant it.


March 14

Best Boss I used to work for the Coast Guard on an island in the North Pacific. We knew we were appreciated because my boss constantly told us we were. She made an effort to know each one of her employees, what they did, and how she could help us succeed. She made sure we had the training, the tools, and the support to do our job. She backed us up. She stood up for us when we were right - and when we were wrong. (She made sure we understood why we were wrong though.) My boss always praised in public and took care of any counseling in private.

She often gave letters of appreciation -- or nominated someone as employee or Coastie of the quarter -- which came with a formal letter and a day off with pay. She would sometimes give civilian employees a certificate for "59 minutes" to be used in the future -- just because.

When we had rush or large projects, she was right there working with us. She cared about the job, but she always treated us with respect and expected it in return. She held us to high standards, but she held herself to the same or higher standards.

We would have walked through fire for her. I worked for her for five years - and sometimes wish I still did. Darlene Fisher of ISC Kodiak, Alaska, was the best boss I ever had.

Jerry L. Soper
Contract Specialist, U.S. Army Alaska

March 15

Business Cards I became commissioner of the Federal Technology Service within GSA in 1997. I was anxious to do something to recognize all of the organization. The GSA general counsel, Emily Hewitt, had just gotten approval from the Justice Department to allow the use of government funds to provide business cards to employees.

Our management team decided to provide business cards for all our employees. The cost was about $15 per employee. The employees' response was very positive. I remember being in a regional office and talking with one of our secretarial employees; she had tears in her eyes as she described her pride in having her own business card and related how impressed her family was with them. Since we dealt with the technology industry which provided their employees business cards, our people perceived themselves as equal to their private sector counterparts.

In my 30-year federal career, I never made or knew of an investment in employee morale which came close to the positive impact from providing business cards to all employees in an organization.

Dennis Fischer
Retired as SES level 6 from GSA in June 2000. Served at HEW, HHS, Treasury and GSA for 30 years.

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