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Promotional Products That Boost Morale

By Gerald B. Speen, MAS

It's hard to define and perhaps even more difficult to isolate. But when a business launches a program to help boost employee morale, the results can be very visible indeed.

Morale is an intangible. Period. We all have a good idea of what it is and why it's preferable to have it high rather than low, but it's a complex issue. It takes real insight and understanding to appreciate its value. Even Webster's uses a whole paragraph to explain it:

Mo-rale n. Prevailing mood and spirit conductive to willing and dependable performance, steady self-control, and courageous, determined conduct despite danger and privations, based upon a conviction of being in the right and on the way to success and upon faith in the cause or program and in the leadership, usually connoting, esp. when qualified by the adjective high, a confident, aggressive, resolute, often buoyant, spirit of wholehearted cooperation in a common effort, often attended particularly by zeal, self-sacrifice, or indomitableness.

Wow! That's a mouthful. Maybe it's just as well if we use our intuitive feeling of the meaning of "high morale." Most of us know what it is. Or at least we think we do.

Morale in the Workplace: A Case History
Back when I sold promotional products, I had finally after many attempts succeeded in getting an appointment with the CEO of a medium-sized manufacturing company. He had a reputation as a strong manager and the firm had a fine product line dedicated to the commercial side of the aerospace industry. From the talk in the local business community, there were problems at the company, and I thought I might be able to help.

As we sat in his office, I felt the aura of strength and confidence that comes from a person dedicated to his work and his mission. I tried to engage in some small talk to get things started, but that lasted about 10 seconds. So I launched into my interview.

I asked how his business was going. He responded frankly that there were plenty of orders, but the firm was having trouble keeping up with them. When I asked about the reason for this problem, he blamed his "weak" middle-management group and employees who weren't performing at a satisfactory level.

His analysis of the problem was on the money. But I felt he wasn't focused on the correct cause. That became even more evident when I asked him what he did to motivate his workers- "Do you provide any incentives to drive your employees to higher levels of performance?" His answer: "You bet I do. They get to keep their jobs!"

I'll never forget that statement, because it epitomized his management style - management by fear. It's probably the single most ineffective way to motivate people and the most effective way to produce low morale.

I eventually had to abandon any thoughts of trying to help the company solve its morale problems - it simply wasn't possible without the backing and commitment of top management. But I was still curious about the company, because it was such a perfect case study on the effects of a poor work environment. A little more digging revealed the following conditions:
  • It had one of the highest turnover rates in the area.
  • Productivity was well below normal.
  • The quality of its products was spotty, requiring significant rework.
  • There was a lot of internal politics; people trying to undermine each other to gain a better position.
  • The level of cooperation between employees was poor.
  • Large percentage of workers were looking for new jobs and wanted to leave the company.
The only thing sustaining the firm was a good product line, market demand, and some special manufacturing capabilities. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to make it prosper. In less than 10 years, the company was out of business.

Despite all this, I still believe the firm was a winner - with good leadership and strong morale it would be thriving today. When you have a great product line and a strong demand for those products in the marketplace, there's absolutely no excuse for failure.

Morale and Company Performance
The message from this story is simple: Morale can effectively determine whether a company lives or dies.

Morale is a feeling you get when you interact with other people. Its the conclusion of observations made on people and their activities. Morale is a people characteristic. It radiates from relationships, attitudes, environments created by management, emotional atmosphere, how people feel, dedication, how they're treated, how they're appreciated. The problem is being able to tell if morale is high or low. How do you know if it changed? In which direction was the change? There's no way to get a precise, quantitative measure. It's often just a feeling in the pit of your stomach. But it has a tremendous impact and influence on a business. That's the dilemma: something that's so crucial is also so elusive.

The importance of morale is well accepted by just about all firms. Exactly how important was recently spelled out in a survey of industrial relations professionals at the Personnel and Industrial Relations Association (PIRA) tradeshow and convention.

The majority of attendees were high-ranking managers or officers of their respective organizations, many from Fortune 500 firms. The survey listed 14 programs that would be of interest to personnel executives and asked them to choose the three that were most important to their company:
  • Safety
  • Suggestions
  • Recruiting program
  • Service awards
  • Outstanding employee program
  • Company picnic
  • Morale building
  • Open house
  • Retirement program
  • Birthday program
  • Credit union
  • Company store
  • Quality circles
  • Holiday gifts
The results were startling. "Morale building," buried inconspicuously in the middle of the list, was among the three programs selected by 100 percent of respondents. In other words, morale was either the first, second or third most important area of concern to every single executive.

Building A Solid Foundation
There are many things that can be done to raise the level of morale. It's up to the company's management to create the appropriate atmosphere and take the actions necessary to enhance it.

Once management is on board, you then need to analyze and understand employee profiles in order to determine what's meaningful to each group. What will make office workers happy? How about scientists and engineers? Production workers? Sales personnel? Each may require their own type of consideration.

But regardless of what's done to address any specific group, the key to achieving optimum morale lies in the overall attitude and policies of the management team.

Programs to Raise Morale
Once the foundation is in place, the next step is to enhance and optimize the level of morale. That's where employee programs of the type listed in the PIRA questionnaire come in. They can heighten morale drastically. Here are a few examples:

Safety Program
One of the major costs to most firms results from accidents and injuries to employees. Worker's compensation, insurance premiums, medical expenses, lost time, recruiting, training, and related expenses are very expensive and have a significant impact on profits. Figures have been quoted by corporations and insurance companies that the cost of the average accident can run from $10,000 to over $100,000. That can have a huge bearing on the bottom line, and it's why most insurance companies require firms to have some kind of safety program.

Morale is rarely a consideration when planning a safety program, but one that's well designed and implemented can have a strong impact on it. With proper structuring and communication, employees can be made to realize that the safety program hasn't been installed just to save the company money, but is there to protect their health and well-being. The company must show that a primary objective of the program is the health of their employees. In a positive environment, this is easy. In a negative environment, the cynics will prevail. That's why it's important to create an agreeable atmosphere first.

Service Awards
Over the years, these programs have changed dramatically. Many firms had programs in which they present the employee with a lapel pin after five years of service, another one after 10, 15, 20 years and so on. The pins might vary in color or value (precious metals, gems), but they weren't too inspiring. How many pins can a person wear? The fact is, they didn't produce the desired response, and many companies didn't care.

Pins remain popular and still have their place, but many companies eventually realized the potential of a more desirable program. There was a transition to a wide variety of jewelry, then to upscale recognition items and finally to utilitarian products. As these changes took place, employee acceptance grew. Today's best-designed programs provide employees with enduring products they use continuously. They are constantly reminded that their company appreciates them. Many firms have also seen the wisdom of increasing their budget for such awards, considering it worth it to retain a skilled employee. And, of course, it's a great moral builder.

Outstanding Employee
These programs often do more harm than good because they're not properly designed or implemented. The most common is an "Employee of the Month" policy. Management is forced to make a selection, even if there is none. Little can destroy morale more than awarding an undeserving person. Everyone will know the award isn't merited, and it totally degrades the value of any awards given previously to people who really did earn it.

This being said, it's still important to recognize and reward people for outstanding performance, but the award must be meaningful. There's no assurance there will be a deserving worker every month, quarter, or whatever. At the same time, if there are two or more worthy employees, why should some be passed over? The key to a good outstanding employee program is to recognize all those who deserve it, and not give recognition to people who don t merit it. A well-run program will make a major contribution to improved morale. People are motivated when good performance is noticed and publicly acknowledged.

Company Picnic
Most firms have one. Some are better that others. Some contribute to improving morale, others do more harm than good. The company picnic should be part of a total, planned program of social activities outside the business environment. Many companies have an Employee Recreation Club (ERC) to plan and conduct activities that will involve the maximum number of employees and their families. This might include a bowling team, softball tournament, golf, tennis, skiing, picnic, holiday parties, beach outings, self-improvement classes, etc. The events are designed to build camaraderie, esprit de corps, cooperation and a feeling of being part of a desirable organization. That's morale. The trick is to make it happen in a way that's convincing.

Teledyne Systems chose July 4 to hold an event celebrating a special accomplishment. The decor was patriotic, and employees were given various promotional products reflecting the mood of the occasion. The highlight of the event was when the members of management appeared wearing aprons and chef's hats and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for the employees. This was a strong, symbolic way of demonstrating the firm's appreciation for the accomplishments made possible through the efforts of the employees. The message: When creative approaches are used for normal routine activities, it can make a major positive impact on morale.

Retirement Programs
We've all heard the story of the guy who spent 40 years at a company and is presented with a gold watch at retirement. A dinner honoring him might also be held. There may be some merit in this sort of approach to recognizing the loyalty and dedication of a long-term employee. At least the watch has some longevity and will serve to remind the retiree of where it came from. It may also evoke some anger or resentment Is this all my 40 years of effort is worth to the company? Retirement can be traumatic. Every employee should look forward to it with anticipation and comfort. If a company's retirement policy isn't a pleasurable prospect, it can have a huge negative effect on staff morale.

Management must ask itself the value of keeping employees until retirement. In general, the experience, knowledge of the firm, potential for mentoring others, and low turnover have a significant value; far more than a watch. It's unfortunate that so many companies with good employee relations fall short when it comes to retirement.

Birthday Programs
One of the most personal events in a person s life is his or her birthday. It's their special day, and one of the best possible opportunities to build morale. A program that involves little more than an announcement, a birthday card and gift and possibly a lunch can pay huge dividends in morale building.

The concept of a large, impersonal firm remembering an employee's birthday is beyond what most people might expect. The very fact that it is out of character for a company is what makes it so powerful. The same sort of program can be implemented for wedding or employment anniversaries as well. The point is that a company will benefit from every action it can take to show an individual interest in each employee.

Credit Union Programs
Having a credit union is an advantage and convenience for employees. The trick is to make everyone realize that the company has made a credit union available because it wants its employees to have preferential financial resources superior to what might be available through normal banking. Although credit unions are independent entities, the firm can benefit from its sponsorship and by conducting special programs to make everyone aware of its value.

Credit unions can gain visibility and a positive image in many ways. Some distribute wall and/or pocket calendars. Some provide record books for members to document important information. Promotions can be done to establish funds for education, vacations, new vehicles and so on. The idea is to convey the message that the company is concerned for the welfare of every employee and is taking steps to help in any way possible.

Company Store
One can contribute significantly to morale, because employees can purchase shirts, jackets, caps and many other products with the company logo at favorable prices. Employees that are proud of their firm like to display their affiliation by wearing or using items with the company logo. There's even an advantage to making products available imprinted with a department or division identity.

A great way to boost morale is to encourage employees to wear logoed merchandise. If a special milestone is reached, distribute an imprinted product to all employees to commemorate it. Rockwell International presented a key tag incorporating a custom medallion to all employees when a space shuttle engine had been fired 1,000 times. Suppliers and government officials also received commemorative items using the medallion. When the landing on the moon was achieved, all employees received a special drinking glass to honor the occasion. The company store then offered a set of nine other glasses, each commemorating a special milestone in the history of the company.

Company stores can take many forms. They can be done with nothing more than a closet or drawer in the personnel office or they can be a full walk-in store, printed catalog, or internet site. The important point is for the company to make proper use of the facilities to maximize morale.

Holiday Gifts
Another excellent way for a firm to show workers it cares is to use a holiday to give them a meaningful gift. It's also when many companies waste a lot of money on gifts with little or no impact. To demonstrate this, a company with about 150 employees was studied. The owner was totally convinced his employees depended on his Thanksgiving turkeys each year. To prove his point, he agreed to a survey in which employees were asked to select their choice of a Thanksgiving gift from four items a turkey, a set of cutlery, a serving tray and a clock, all about equal in cost. Only three people chose the turkey.

To be effective, a gift must appeal to the recipient. It's not easy to find a universal gift that appeals to everyone. That s why some firms have different gifts for different employee groups.

Gift certificates can be tricky, sometimes seen by employees as a cop-out; they re not important enough to put some thought or effort into a gift. The effect can be exactly the opposite of what is intended - resentment or scorn.

Once company switched to a department store gift certificate after several years of giving clever, creative gifts. Three months later, employees were asked how they liked the gifts. The most frequent response was, "The company didn't give Christmas gifts this year."

It s unfortunate that companies don't optimize the use of their holiday gift budgets by studying employees profiles and selecting really effective, universal gifts. Holiday gifts, if astutely selected, can have a profound effect on morale. And the occasions don't have to be confined to Thanksgiving or Christmas. There are many other occasions when a small token gift is appropriate such as Valentine's Day, July 4, Memorial Day, or possibly a safety-oriented item when someone leaves for vacation.

Why It's Important
In basic terms, morale has a profound effect on the performance and, therefore, the profitability of a company. Some of the areas impacted by employee morale include:
  • Level of productivity and efficiency
  • Quality of the products produced
  • Creativity, new products, manufacturing processes, office procedures, etc.
  • Cooperation with each other and with management
  • Attendance and tardiness
  • Turnover, longevity of employment, reduced training requirements
  • Concern for the welfare of the company
  • Accidents and general welfare
  • Dedication to the success of the company
  • Diversion from work assignments
  • Company image and reputation, outside and inside the company
  • Recruiting of qualified personnel
  • Breakage and abuse of property
The effects listed above are the results of an atmosphere of high or low morale, not actions that produce high morale.

It should be clear from the list that all of these can have a profound effect on company operations and profitability. The challenge is to instill the attitudes, feelings, and beliefs that cause employees to act in a manner that will result in higher profits.

COPYRIGHT © 1999 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Gerald B. Speen, MAS

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