Virtually all living things have something in common: the spirit of competition. Whether it is survival, bragging rights, or a prize at the finish line, we all have our motivations for engaging in the battle. Even though the driving force is different for all of us, the bottom line is that we are striving to attain something and the better the reward, the harder we will fight for it.

The same philosophy is true when it comes to operating your business: the more motivated your employees are, the harder they will work for you and your company. Common sense dictates that an employee who is satisfied with her work life will outperform those who are not. This simple truth begs the question: “Ok, so how can a company ensure employee satisfaction?” Fortunately, we have some answers!

According to a recent customer survey, there is a positive correlation directly linking employee satisfaction and work performance: happier workers equal harder workers. Out of over 1,200 companies surveyed, 57% of them had an employee recognition program of some kind and the number one characteristic, by far, for which employees wish to be honored is “performance excellence.”

Pay Outs That Pay Off

While gold stars and positions of honor (“Lunch-line Leader” or “First Reader,” just to name a couple) may have worked in grade school, it is clear that employees today need a bit more motivation than a pat on the back for a job well done. Cheap plaques and paper-printed certificates that cost the boss less than a worker’s hourly rate can have the unintended consequence of impressing upon the employee that his hard work is only worth that amount to the company. So, the boss’s good intentions leave a sour taste in the employee’s mouth.

Indeed, these peer-pride recognition “rewards” can backfire in the office, as well. Displaying a plaque for all of the others to see can actually cause colleague discord instead of company unity. And in a highly competitive environment, hanging these certificates can be an employee’s kiss of death – now he is the source of jealousy and has a target on his back, all because he did his job well.

Instead, the results of the survey showed that money talks: the most effective currency is currency! Employees would rather have cash rewards or gift cards as a token of an employer’s esteem. Not only do these rewards truly show the boss’s appreciation, but they can be quietly enjoyed by the employee in private without being perceived as his “rubbing it in” to his colleagues.

Other popular rewards differed based on that particular company’s specialty (for example, a company that produces personalized gifts would be more likely to use their products to reward individual excellence), but the overwhelming majority of all responders stated they most valued various forms of monetary bonuses.

What This Means For You

The biggest truth gleaned from this survey is that employers may not have it down when it comes to choosing how to reward their employees for excellent service to the company. In fact, the number one response when asked what contributes to employee happiness: paid time off. In this tough economy, not many employees are likely to admit that the thing they want most from their company is a break from their company. Nevertheless, this is what was found in the survey and chances are pretty good at least some of your employees feel the same way.

Although I encourage you to open the lines of communication within your own organisation, the best way to find out what your employees need to help them do their jobs better is to ask them. Start offering your employees cash, paid time off, and other monetary bonuses to reward their hard work. I promise you, they will thank you! And so will your bottom line.

What are some of the employee recognition programs you have seen in action? Do you get the feeling they are effective? If not, got any bright ideas of your own as to how to improve them?