Poorly designed incentive and recognition programs can have a powerful negative impact on employees and customers, as United Airlines has learned. Because the topic of engagement is rarely taught in schools, mistakes like this happen all the time under the radar of the media. It’s time for corporations and solution providers to recognize the need for already available professional training and certification.
By Bruce Bolger
How many companies would have their accounting handled by non-certified accountants, or their legal affairs handled by someone who never passed the bar? Who would entrust their advertising and brand to people with no experience or serious training? As many know by now, United Airlines learned why organizations need professionally educated and certified individuals to help design their recognition process.
The social and general media firestorm around this latest botched recognition effort is just the tip of the iceberg—organizations around the world make similar unpublicized mistakes every day simply because no one has any training in engagement process design. This demonstrates why it’s time for corporations and solution providers to insist upon using professionals who have taken the time to undergo the learning and certification programs already available that include common sense principles that would have prevented this fiasco.
The New York Times feature, Lotto Tickets Are Nice, Boss, But Can I Have My Bonus?, on March 12, 2018, demonstrates the extent to which the business world is uninformed on an issue as fundamental as engagement. Obviously, the reporter didn’t do any research to identify learning and certification in the fields of recognition and incentive design. While engaging in an intelligent discussion with various experts, including Charlotte Blank, Chief Behavioral Officer at Maritz, the article provided little actual guidance. The article demonstrated once again how little most businesses know about the impact of people on performance, even when multiple organizations offer education that includes basic principles that would have precluded the mistake at United Airlines.
There exist a number of education and certification programs with information that United Airlines management could have used. The Culture Works All in Culture program, the Incentive Marketing Association, Recognition Professionals International, the Society of Incentive Travel Executives, the International Center for Enterprise Engagement and ISO 9001 and ISO 10018 Quality People Management principles, the Loyalty Academy, soon the Incentive Research Foundation, in conjunction with with the University of South Carolina, provide corporations and professionals with multiple options, and these don’t include other key areas of engagement.
United’s Mistake is Engagement 101
Anyone with basic training in the field sees three basic problems:
1. The ad hoc nature of the decision demonstrated that the organization has no engagement strategy in place. It’s a classic case of grasping for bright shiny objects rather than having a systematic engagement process built into the culture, as is the case at United’s rivals Southwest, JetBlue and others.
2. It placed too much focus on the “game” rather than on the culture, values, leadership, communications, learning, innovation, community and diversity, etc. that equally affect engagement.
3. In technical parlance, the campaign violated two basic rules: it relied on a closed-ended formula that limited winners to chance, rather than an open-ended approach that provided an opportunity for all to gain. Anyone who has seriously undertaken the Incentive Marketing Association and Recognition Professionals International learning and certification programs would have advised adding the game to the current program, not making it a replacement, but also would have challenged management to identify precisely what they were trying to achieve.
The simple truth is that not only do corporate practitioners fail to take engagement process design seriously due to lack of training (and because the consequences rarely have the public impact experienced by United and are therefore difficult to measure), but management and solution providers that serve them also often fail to take training seriously. Based on an informal review of industry certifications and the websites of solution providers, it’s clear that many belong to the associations, but it’s less clear how many have updated their certifications and participated in training. If there were other sources for training in this field, organizations could be forgiven. In a world in which the impact of disengaged employees, customers and others can be more readily measured, common sense calls for elevating the standards of the professionals in the field.
For the first time, a world-wide respected standard, ISO 9001:2015, calls for a strategic focus on engagement across the enterprise that connects all the levers of engagement in a systematic way Whether or not organizations choose to get certificated, these standards place a premium on experts who understand basic principles supported by extensive research and common sense.
For every United, whose mistake became public, there are thousands of similar mistakes taking place under the radar every day.
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