On the show The Office, manager Michael Scott once said, “A lot of the people here don’t get trophies very often, like Meredith or Kevin. I mean, who’s going to give Kevin an award? Dunkin’ Donuts?” Michael’s observation wasn’t eloquent — or kind — but he was onto something. In a study by Great Place to Work, 37 percent of employees said more personal recognition would encourage them to produce better work more often.
Everyone deserves recognition at work. Unfortunately, Michael found all the wrong ways to celebrate his employee’s achievements during Dunder Mifflin’s annual Dundie Awards. Edgy comedy routines and racist impressions do not make for a successful work event. Effective employee recognition depends on factors such as timeliness, specificity, and positivity. Michael lacked in all these areas, as evidenced when he repeatedly gave Pam Beesly the disparaging award for the longest engagement. Poking fun at employees’ love lives doesn’t make them more invested in helping a company.
However, Michael didn’t get it all wrong. He cared about his employees and made his annual Dundies a social event so peers could celebrate each other. He fought against corporate efforts to cancel the annual event because he understood how important employee recognition was. Plus, Michael made sure every employee received an award so that no one felt left out. Below we’ll highlight the best ways to recognize your employees and point out some of Michael’s most epic fails. Then we’ll recognize Michael for what he did right.
How to recognize your employees (and avoid the pitfalls of the Dundies)
Use these tips to avoid Michael Scott’s (hilarious) mistakes and recognize employees the right way.
Limit recognition to professional accomplishments.
All it takes is one inappropriate award to take an event from fun and work appropriate to an HR nightmare. Think of Ryan Howard’s face when Michael awarded him with the “Hottest in the Office” award. Of course, it didn’t help that Michael played “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate when Ryan retrieved his trophy.
Pam’s “The Whitest Sneakers” award may have been a welcome relief to Pam and Jim Halpert because Michael didn’t give Pam yet another award for the longest engagement. But in general, it’s best not to comment on employees’ appearances. You should also steer away from topics that may embarrass the employee (and everyone else). For instance, Michael Scott failed when he gave Kevin Malone the “Don’t Go in There After Me” award referring to Kevin’s trips to the office bathroom. You want your employees to feel appreciated and valued after a recognition event, not publicly humiliated.
Research by Great Place to Work shows employees find recognition more meaningful when it’s tied to a specific accomplishment or objective. In turn, the employee may want to continue the positive behavior. Instead of calling attention to Pam’s relationship troubles or shoe choice, Michael could’ve celebrated Pam for her professionalism, excellent client relations, creativity, or even her good penmanship. By highlighting what Pam did well on a professional level, he would have encouraged her to keep up the good work.
Plan which achievements to recognize and how to reward them.
Feedback is only helpful if it’s specific enough for an employee to enact change. Giving Kelly Kapoor, a customer service representative, the “Spicy Curry Award,” doesn’t indicate the quality of her work. Plus, it was offensive because she was of Indian heritage.
Moreover, Kelly’s trophy, unlike the rest of the awards, was a bowler, because “they didn’t have any more businessmen.” It’s clear Michael didn’t carefully plan the event if he was scrambling to pick up the trophies at the last minute.
With careless mistakes, management could inadvertently squander an opportunity to build trust with employees. Plus, targeting or ignoring particular employees could leave them feeling even less engaged in the company culture.
Unfortunately, Michael isn’t the only manager to miss the mark when it comes to authentic recognition. According to research by O.C. Tanner, 40 percent of employees feel like the recognition they receive at work is an empty gesture. Managers need to understand that the right kind of recognition can make a big difference. Employees who feel appreciated are five times more likely to stay at their companies.
Focus on the positive during recognition.
Happiness makes people about 12 percent more productive, according to a study by Professor Andrew Oswald, Dr. Eugenio Proto, and Dr. Daniel Sgroi from the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. With this statistic in mind, managers should focus on employees’ positive contributions to the company, especially when they’re making comments in front of the rest of the office.
Michael wasted a great opportunity for employee recognition when he opted to award Oscar Martinez and Stanley Hudson with “Worst Salesman of the Year” and the “Diabetes” awards respectively. Those awards only served to shame his employees and bring down the mood at the event.
Michael was more on the mark when he awarded Deangelo Vickers with an award for “Best Dundies Host” to raise his confidence and provide the boost he needed to finish emceeing for the evening. Positive recognition leaves employees feeling happy and in a better mindset to produce quality work.
Make it about the employees.
A recognition event like the Dundies could improve company morale and employee productivity. In research by Bersin & Associates conducted in 2012, companies that recognized the top 20 percent of their employees had a 31 percent lower turnover rate.
But Michael went wrong by putting himself center stage during the Dundies. First of all, peer-to-peer recognition is powerful. When companies strengthen peer-to-peer recognition, they more than double their probability of having a constructive company culture. Since the Dundies was an event for employee recognition, Michael should have made the employees the focus. Had Michael Scott focused on the team hitting their sales numbers, quotas, or any other office-wide accomplishments, he would have demonstrated that management noticed them doing a great job.
Put thought into the event to make it safe and fun for everyone.
Don’t pull a Michael and leave all the planning, including funding, until the last minute. Planning an event like the Dundies should make employees feel appreciated. According to the 2021 Global Culture Study by O.C. Tanner, organizations that invest in understanding employee recognition preferences and recognize their employees appropriately have employees who are twice as likely to be engaged at work. And higher engagement can translate to better performance and higher earnings.
Holding the Dundies at the local Chili’s restaurant, and then making the employees pick up the tab, made the event less of a reward and more of a forced work dinner. Even worse, since Michael hadn’t rented out a special room or section of the restaurant, his employees had to deal with random patrons heckling them and their boss.
If all of that weren’t bad enough, offensive awards such as “the “Don’t Go in There After Me” trophy left employees embarrassed in front of their loved ones and strangers. All in all, the celebration left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, and even drove some to drink (ahem, Pam).
What Michael Scott got right
Although he didn’t always succeed, Michael nailed some of the pillars of successful recognition by attempting to make his ceremony fun, social, creative, specific, and personal. Michael may have taken the personal part too far, but he gave each award to a specific person for a specific reason. In one study, 70 percent of employees saw recognition as most meaningful when it was personalized. Stanley’s “Fine Work” award is a step in the right direction. Michael should have also called Stanley out for a big sale or a specific technique he employed to seal the deal.
Michael designed the Dundies to be fun, with free drinks in the early years and always with his ridiculous, try-hard commentary. Making the event social was a great decision because when an employer highlights an employee’s good work in front of others, coworkers have the chance to weigh in and hype up the worker. It also provides everyone with a clear example of the kind of behavior the company would like to see in the future.
Michael is nothing if not creative. He turned his employee recognition program into a Hollywood-style awards show, equipped with a tuxedo-clad emcee and trophies. In later years, Michael drove to each employee’s house to hand-deliver their Dundie nomination so he could try to make everyone feel like a superstar.
Michael’s Dundie Awards were better in theory than in practice. But Michael was onto something when he made employee recognition a priority, even if he did it in his own quirky way. Employees who receive strong recognition are 33 percent more likely to innovate, and they generate two times as many ideas.
Recognition is good for a company’s bottom line, and it breeds an environment of respect and validation that encourages less turnover. Turnover is costly, especially if a company loses highly trained employees. Companies with employee recognition programs keep employees two to four years longer than companies without them. That difference could add up because turnover can cost organizations from one-half to two times the lost employee’s salary, according to Gallup. Are you ready to plan a recognition event? Take the spirit and enthusiasm of the Dundies, add a private location and careful planning, subtract the offensive jokes, and you have a recipe for a successful event. To boost your employees’ happiness, use our tips to iron out Michael’s well-intentioned but bungled Dundies blueprint, and show your employees you appreciate them.