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A little something extra

  • Douglas Freer, CSP
- Posted: July 18, 2016
Author’s note: Beyond pulling from personal experience, I interviewed and corresponded with other company owners and managers to learn how they incentive their employees, specifically for their front-line winter workers, including sidewalk crews, plow and salt truck drivers and equipment operators. The ideas included in this article come from many people and I want to thank them for their contributions.

Attracting and retaining qualified, responsible and productive front-line employees is one of the top priorities for every snow company since you can’t service your clients without them. Traditional thinking about these employees being lucky to get a paycheck or to have a job with your company may lead to higher turnover if they feel undervalued or unappreciated. Your employees’ experience working at your company will have a direct correlation to employee retention; yet it can be challenging to create a positive experience and establish and maintain a connection with seasonal employees. 

Beyond regular compensation, there are ways to reward and recognize employees with additional incentives, bonuses and perks that will help to keep them coming back. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each company must find what works for them. 

Incentivizing performance for front-line winter workers is challenging. Efficiency from one storm event to the next is difficult to quantify precisely because each snow event is different due to myriad variables (timing, temperature, precipitation, duration, etc.) that would need to be measured. Even if certain performance standards were measured and evaluated, the company does not know what its winter profits will be until after the end of the season when all of the expenses are known. While handing out profit-based bonuses may not be possible until summer, a company can thank their employees for their wintertime efforts both during the season and shortly after it ends.

Is it a gift, bonus or incentive?

As you build your reward program, it’s important to understand the options:

Gift: Additional compensation or reward not tied to a goal or milestone. These are arbitrary, subjective and often infrequent like holiday or anniversary gifts or just a thank you for a job well done.

Bonus: Compensation or other gratuity earned as a reward upon achieving a goal or milestone.

Incentive: Additional compensation used to motivate and reward employees for exceeding performance or productivity or other stated goals.

It’s important to know the tax ramifications that go with each and make sure that any compensation above the normal pay is reported appropriately. Consult your accountant, tax advisor, or HR specialist.

Why reward?
While winter compensation and the opportunity to work during the “off season” may be enough for some employees, additional recognition goes a long way toward building loyalty and rewards those who have contributed to your company’s success.

Individual and group efforts can be recognized as an example of the type of behavior or efforts that are valued by the company. Few employees get out of their warm beds in the middle of winter for altruistic reasons. Research shows that the more frequent the reward the more meaningful it is, particularly with hourly employees. Your team members are working for a paycheck, and if you can keep it light and fun, it makes the long winter nights a little easier to embrace.

While your program can center around team motivation, there’s nothing that says it can’t make your life easier along the way. For instance, common in-season headaches are attendance and proper documentation. Why not create easy incentives that reinforce positive behaviors and benefit the company as well?

. Rewarding attendance can help ensure timeliness and attendance through the end of the season, making it less likely that seasonal labor will wander off before the season ends, even if they are sick of the snow. The program can be designed for the entire company or for particular groups of workers, and the value of the reward may vary based on the work being performed. 

A two-part attendance program might include a reward for perfect attendance at the end of the season. And while the larger end-of-season incentive is available to all that meet the program’s defined criteria (e.g., no missed events, reporting on time, turning in paperwork, returning company property at the end of the season, etc.), a short-term game can help keep the focus on the importance of being timely for every event. One way to do this would be to award a raffle ticket to each crew member for each storm event they report to on time. Raffle tickets are distributed each pay period and one or more tickets are drawn either each pay period or once a month with the winner(s) receiving a gift card or something from the Box of Valuable Prizes (see section below). If getting crews back in for the post-storm cleanup after a long or difficult event is expected, hold a gift raffle for the crew members that arrive on time.     

Documentation. A paperwork contest might reward crew members with the most accurate and complete paperwork. Or a fun photo contest for companies using photo verification for clock in on smart devices keeps things light while reinforcing the value of the photo clock in.

Anatomy of a reward
Your reward should encourage a certain outcome. All rewards programs, whether using objective metrics or arbitrary opinion, should be designed so that all team members know what’s involved and expected and how they can participate. 
  • Who is eligible for the reward?
  • What is the reward (gift card, additional compensation, time off, etc.)? 
  • How will the results be measured and recipients determined? 
  • When will the reward be given?
  • Why is the reward being offered?
Examples of common programs or incentives include:
  • Attendance
  • Employee referral
  • Safety
  • Equipment and property damage
  • Peer training and buddying
  • Continuing education and/or training
  • Quality audit
  • Documentation/record keeping
Examples of common rewards:
  • Gift cards
  • Paid time off
  • Cash (nominal – keep it to $50 or less)
  • Additional compensation (added to payroll)
  • Company gear/uniform
  • Box of Valuable Prizes
  • Vacation or “experience” trip
  • Continuing education and training (e.g., attend the SIMA Symposium)
Be cautious
Start simple and build your programs over time, tweaking and adjusting as experience dictates. The more involved and complicated the programs, the more management it will take to administer, which increases costs and the potential for mistakes.

Bonuses based on performance require metrics, and many companies may not have adequate systems to collect the data to support a structured bonus program. Building a system to support the bonus program adds complexity and cost. A poorly run or executed program can become a disincentive, particularly if the measurements can’t be trusted and employees feel their bonus is being taken away for arbitrary or unfair reasons. 

Bonuses based on group performance allow individuals to hide in the herd and possibly avoid individual responsibility hoping that someone else will pick up the slack. The best programs are based on individual performance tied to their personal contributions toward company objectives and goals. 

Discontinuing long-term incentive or bonus programs that have become expected has the potential to create friction between the recipients and management. Employees waiting for the monetary “Christmas bonus” may find themselves in trouble when they discover they got a membership to the Jelly of the Month Club or no bonus at all. Communicate clearly with your team members about your goals and why you have the program; then evaluate if the program is working. If the desired results aren’t being achieved then the reward is just a handout and the program should be adjusted or terminated.

To create an environment of impartiality or to gather the input from different areas of the company, it may be advantageous to create a committee that includes a cross-section of team members to provide input into the reward process.

There are pros, cons, tax ramifications and administrative/management time that go into creating, maintaining and successfully executing a bonus and/or incentive program. Take the time to set it up properly for ultimate success. 
The box of valuable prizes
One way to reward positive behavior and outcomes is to give someone a chance to select something from the Box of Valuable Prizes (BoVP). This box might contain items ranging from the very practical to silly and unnecessary. The BoVP might be used during company meetings to acknowledge a team member’s recent efforts or for positive participation during a training session. 

BBOP (300x229)
No one turns down the chance to dig into the BoVP. With 25 or 30 items from which to choose, something is sure to catch their eye that they can use personally or that may serve as a gift for a friend, family member or significant other. With new items arriving regularly, the inventory is ever-changing and always fun. 
The BoVP need not be filled with expensive items, and in fact may be stocked from closeouts and the clearance shelves of favorite retailers. The point is to break up the mundane, have fun and reward desired outcomes. 

Example items
  • T-shirts
  • Vendor hats/T-shirts
  • Company uniform items
  • Soccer ball
  • Fake mustache kit
  • Work gloves of various types
  • Watch
  • Personal sized cooler
  • Squirt gun
  • Multi-tool
  • Tools for the job
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Thermos
  • Football
  • Card games
  • Dinosaur math flash cards
  • Gift cards
  • OSHA-approved ear buds
  • Rain gear
  • Cell phone car charger
  • Electric fly swatter
  • Car wash gift cards
  • Ping-pong paddle and/or balls

gear_icon (97x100)Company gear
Several companies use uniform and company gear as an incentive for employee retention and improved experience. Provide each employee with a company safety vest and winter hat with company logo. Returning employees receive a company sweatshirt or jacket. Sidewalk crew foremen receive head-to-toe Gortex cold weather gear. Returning employees receive a company jacket, for each year worked they have a snowflake embroidered on the sleeve denoting their company time/seniority
Depending on the size of the company, it may not be feasible to outfit the entire crew in head-to-toe company gear. Depending on the position and turnover, it may be difficult to justify investing hundreds of dollars in cold weather gear, but the better equipped your staff is for the elements the happier and more productive they will be. 

questionicon (97x100)Snow squares
Have some fun in the shop and office by asking your team members at the start of the season to place a “bet” on the upcoming season. The team member who gets the right answer or comes closest wins a gift card or something special from the Box of Valuable Prizes. How many inches of snow for the season? Date of first snow event requiring any amount of service? Date of first full service event requiring all crews? How many snow events for the season? How many tons of salt or bags of deicer will be used? How many vehicle miles will be driven during a particular month?   

bonus_icon (97x100)Employee referral bonus
Several companies offered strategies on how they compensate their team members for referrals. The dollar amounts varied based on company preference on the type of position that was being filled. For example, a sidewalk crew member may carry a $200 reward while a foreman referral nets $600 and a management position nets $1,000. 

Payouts were generally structured to ensure the new employee made it past a probationary period before the entire bonus was paid. The payout could be paid in increments such as days (30, 60, 120 or end of the season) or by working a defined number of events. Another option is to pay the referee an additional amount for each hour the new employee works. For example, a crew member may be “worth” $1 per hour, and if they refer five sidewalk crew members, they would receive an additional $5 per hour to their pay. 

Bonus pool & points
A company may create a bonus pool based on certain behaviors or outcomes and then distribute it with a point system. Employees could earn points for returning or for each season worked, total hours worked for the season, attendance and timeliness, safety, quality audit, training or education received, and employee referrals. The choice about how much money is eligible for the pool can be based on an objective formula such as operating profit or be arbitrary based on management’s perceptions about the season. Whether the bonus pool is $5,000 or $100,000 will depend on the company budget and the type of season the company experienced.   

Distribution is awarded to eligible employees based on accumulated points. The bonus pool is divided by the total number of points awarded companywide to determine a per-point value, which is then applied to each employee’s point total to determine the value of their bonus. 

Be careful about how you value each point. For example, each hour worked during the season may be worth one point while each season worked may be worth 10 to 25 points. Returning employees will have an advantage over new employees or those who work fewer hours. Do your loader operators work as many hours as your sidewalk crews or salt truck drivers? You may need to adjust point values based on the work being performed to make sure distribution seems equitable and achieves your goal of rewarding the people deserving of the bonus.
  • Mix it up, don’t let it get stale, avoid creating expectations
  • Start simple, add and adjust the programs as time goes on
  • A poorly run program can be a disincentive for good performance
  • Avoid creating a program that can be gamed
  • Make the game too complicated and people won’t want to play
  • Make sure your team knows a gift is just that…a gift
  • Not everyone contributes equally. Reward those who have the biggest impact on your business
  • Non-monetary rewards and recognition also work well at boosting morale and retention
  • Employees talk and share information – what you do for one will be known by the others
  • If you can’t measure results, then it might be best to give everyone the same gift
Douglas Freer, CSP, owns Blue Moose Snow in Cleveland. Contact him at
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