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A story about how to celebrate employees who work

There I was, just out of college. I’d been hired at a brand-new hospital and now, I was managing my first department.

Gulp.

I knew that leading my new team (some of whom had 20+ years of experience) wouldn’t be easy, but I was up for the challenge. However, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for –

Oh, let’s call him “Tony.”

Tony’s main duty was to valet patient cars, with plenty of customer service thrown in for good measure. I’m happy to say he did great job with our patients.

It was just too bad that he couldn’t seem to get to work on time.

While the other employees would show up ten or fifteen minutes early, Tony was consistently late. Usually, he would arrive at least thirty minutes after his shift should have started, and sometimes even later.

But I knew exactly what to do. I just needed to sit down with Tony, one-on-one, and tell him to come to work on time. After all, he seemed like a reasonable person. He would understand that his consistent tardiness affected not only our patients, but also the rest of our team. Surely, a quick chat would be enough to solve this issue.

But it wasn’t.

And despite speaking with Tony multiple times, we soon found ourselves on the performance-improvement path. I shared the challenges with my supervisors and asked for their advice. What, I asked, could I do next?

“Well, why don’t you give him a wake-up call every morning so he doesn’t oversleep?” suggested the CEO.

“That would be nice, huh?” I chuckled, thinking he was kidding.

“And then maybe give him a latte from the café when he gets in. Motivate him to come in on time!” the COO added.

I realized they were serious and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Were they actually suggesting I “motivate” an employee to show up on time? I struggled to make sense of their logic.

So, I was supposed to reward an employee for showing up to work on time—something that, in my book, is just part of doing (and keeping) your job. Meanwhile, my other employees were performing just as well (or better) than Tony. Where was their reward?

“Emily,” said the CEO, “those other employees are doing fine. Don’t worry about them. Right now, you need to focus on fixing your problems.”

As faulty as their thinking was, it’s unfortunately not all that uncommon. Often, we grease the squeaky wheel by focusing our efforts on problem employees. But, with that comes an unfortunate side-effect: We take our high-performing employees for granted, simply assuming they’ll continue to live up to their reputation for being reliable, trustworthy and dependable.

But talk about an employee engagement nightmare! High-performing employees are engaged employees, but how can we expect high-performers to stay committed to your organization and its goals if poor-performers are the ones “earning” all the perks?

There’s nothing more demotivating than seeing a poor-performing coworker get rewarded for sub-par behavior. With Tony, I was encouraged to give him preferential treatment with wake-up calls and lattes. But poor-performers can be rewarded in other ways—for example, by getting easier assignments or less work overall, because of their inability to fulfill their duties. This undermines standards and sets up an organization to deteriorate over time.

And, more immediately, it leads high-performing employees to look for opportunities elsewhere.

When someone like Tony (who admitted to being late simply because he didn’t like getting up early) gets special treatment, it sends a strong, negative message to all of your employees.

Long story short, that position wasn’t a good fit for me for many reasons. But, frustrating as the experience was, it helped cement my management philosophy:

Celebrate your good employees and never, ever take them for granted.

Don’t let problem employees shift your priorities and standards. We shouldn’t give the Tonys of the world a latte for simply showing up on time. Instead, let’s reward our high performers for their incredible service–they’ve definitely earned that latte!

What are some things you’ve done to reward high-performing employees?

This blog originally appeared here.

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