It's more than a little-known Ashton Kutcher movie. TharpeRobbins executive Anthony Luciano explains the butterfly effect and how awareness of it can refocus and reshape your company's employee rewards programs.

Can the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Yes, according to the butterfly effect, a metaphorical principle under chaos theory that posits small, seemingly inconsequential acts over time can lead to large, unforeseen consequences. (It's also a little-known 2004 film starring Ashton Kutcher as a man trying to manipulate the outcome of his life by using the theory, but I digress.)

Just as the flit of a butterfly can influence the weather hundreds of miles away, small acts of employee appreciation can reap large dividends for employers, according to TharpeRobbins, a recognition solutions firm with the mantra, "Recognition changes everything."

As one of the few people who watched and enjoyed Kutcher's take on the butterfly effect, I was intrigued to hear TharpeRobbins' connection of the theory to benefits and employee rewards. I sat down recently with Anthony Luciano, the company's senior vice president of marketing, to get his take on how employers can vastly improve their rewards and recognition efforts using small, butterfly-flit methods.


EBN:Talk about the TharpeRobbins system of employee recognition. How was it designed and what is the concept behind it?

Luciano: What we've done over the past 30 years is employ a tremendous amount of technology to streamline the process of employee recognition. We use a variety of resources to create a program that's customized to [a particular employer's] needs - in terms of merchandise, technology, presentation, process.

The most important thing is that every program and every customer is unique. So, we work to understand each individual company, their population and the goals that they're trying to achieve and create a program that works specifically for them.


EBN:How did you link all of that to the concept of the butterfly effect?

Luciano: The butterfly effect - or chaos theory - is all about cause and effect, and that's also what recognition is all about. It's lots of small touches that yield really big results. So, we started using the butterfly as a symbol of change, but as we looked into and started to understand the butterfly effect, we saw the link between that and recognition programs - how it's not about the specific tangible reward item that you might give to someone.

What's more important is not that you're recognizing your people, but that you're doing it in a public way and with repetition. The more you can recognize your employees, the better results you'll have in the larger context of employee engagement. We've found that to be measurably true across our clients.


EBN:What holes does your system fill among current programs that employers have for rewards and recognition?

Luciano: From a technology perspective, we're able to handle multiple types of programs on one platform. Things like recognition events, length-of-service programs, spot recognition programs for instant recognition or points-based programs, which are more for long-term rewards-we can do all those types of programs all in one place.

Another big hole that we fill is that we truly understand who our customer is - and that's not the person who's paying the bill, per se. It's really the end users, the recipients. We get into the heads of our recipients - among the four generations in the workforce - to know what's really going to motivate them and feel appreciated. We target all of the demographics of a company and make sure we have items in every level of our program to reflect the wants and needs of all four generations.

We also looked at the different reward selections and wanted a program that was diverse without duplicating products. So, we took a step back and looked at retail and a mall directory, then created the pages of our catalog as individual storefronts so that each of the storefronts is unique and there's no duplication. We could have 80 reward items to select from, and instead of having four TVs, we'll have one TV, but it's the absolute best TV you can find at that price point.


EBN:What would you say are the three biggest mistakes employers are making when it comes to rewards and recognition programs?

Luciano: First, there's no presentation factor - they're not doing presentations openly in the workplace from manager to employee. There's some situations where they can't do that, like for employees or managers working remotely, where they can't celebrate someone's achievements in front of their peers. But when they're not doing that, I think they're missing a huge part of the recognition experience, because that's something that will significantly drive and motivate an employee.

Second, I think some companies leave their programs static for too long. They're not looking at the programs regularly to ask: Are they truly successful? Are there measurable results? Can we improve the process?

Third, sometimes managers don't see the link between recognition and bottom-line results. There's pure evidence that engaged and motivated employees create a better work environment, and the best companies to work for are always the companies that have the highest levels of recognition.


EBN:As the economy recovers and employees stop feeling like they need to hang onto their jobs out of fear and/or necessity, how do rewards and recognition programs play a bigger role?

Luciano: What we've seen over the last few years is an increase in recognition in more creative ways. In the past, employers would just throw dollars at people, thinking that's the best way to reward them. It's proven true that [when companies solely use cash rewards], it quickly becomes an entitlement and that to truly motivate someone, the cash reward needs to be 10% to 15% of their base pay. That's tremendously expensive.

So, what we look to do is non-cash recognition programs that combined typically are not only 2% of payroll but also have better results. With the economic downturn, employers don't have the cash, so they're looking to companies to help them increase recognition because they know it's important but are using non-cash recognition to spend less but still get a high perceived value out of their program.

And those employers that continue to recognize employees through the hard time downturn are going to have less turnover as people do switch jobs as the economy continues to grow. I think now is the most critical time to truly motivate employees and reward them for a job well done, because they're likely working harder than they ever have before, often for not much more pay, if no more pay or even less pay than they did before. If you're not recognizing them now, they'll be the first ones to bolt tomorrow.


Top 6 recognition best practices1. Follow the PIC approach.

PIC stands for Positive, Immediate and Certain. Establish a recognition program that is clear in design and has immediate and certain recognition components to trigger repeat behavior.

2. Managers should recognize their employees at least once a week.

In the book "First, Break All the Rules," authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of the Gallup Organization show that a key variable in employee productivity and engagement is whether or not employees are recognized by their direct managers every seven days.

3. Combine on-the-spot recognition with rhythm recognition.

On-the-spot recognition provides praise for contributions when the desired behaviors occur - through recognition cards, e-cards, points cards or conversations with employees. Rhythm recognition is consistent, formal and entrenched, occurring every week, month or year like clockwork.

4. Be specific.

Get the most value from recognition by establishing ways employees and their leaders can communicate and personalize their praise.

5. Break the barriers of recognition.

Incorporate organic, bottom-up recognition into your overall strategy. Allow this recognition to be shared easily within your company and within employees' personal networks.

6. Track and evaluate.

Use technology to allow information to be centralized, tracked and trended for visible return on recognition and reward investments. Over time, this information becomes valuable in identifying recognition gaps, opportunities and employee-specific information for performance reviews.

Source: I Love Rewards, Inc., 2011


15 ways to reward employees without spending a dime 1. Offer flexible hours.

2. Send a handwritten note.

3. Make work fun. One employer asked everyone to bring in a baby picture, post it on a wall, then pick which person matched each picture. As a result, productivity spiked from 58% to 72% - in the same week.

4. Help employees connect - to customers, suppliers, senior managers, each other.

5. Go shoeless. One PR executive says a "no-shoes policy" can increase employee familiarity with one another and trigger increased productivity.

6. Reward effort as well as success.

7. Give free days off.

8. Encourage "coffee talk" to exchange ideas and air out issues.

9. Celebrate birthdays.

10. Pay peer compliments. Ask coworkers to write something they truly like or admire about an employee on a piece of paper.

11. Offer employees a chance to pick their own projects or trade tasks with a colleague.

12. Applaud their efforts - literally.

13. Erect a Wall of Fame to display employees' accomplishments.

14. Create your own "Club Med," dedicating a quiet space or unused office in your building to letting employees relax.

15. Remember two words: thank you.

Source: HR World, 2011.

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