Natural Foods Merchandiser

All your folks need strokes to keep the workplace productive

The Natural Employer

Positive reinforcement happens when people receive something of value for something they?ve done. If you want your employees to provide attentive customer service, stay productive with their time, come up with good ideas to improve operations or even just show up reliably every day for work, you have to give them something they value.

It doesn?t have to be cash. Although money sends a powerful message in our society, positive reinforcement doesn?t necessarily have to be a material gift, such as merit raises, bonuses or promotions to higher-paid jobs. It can come in less concrete forms, such as development opportunities, increased responsibility, increased autonomy, soliciting and using suggestions or even a simple word of thanks.

I use an acronym to remind managers about how to give positive reinforcement to their employees: SPISE, which stands for Specific, Personalized, Immediate, Sincere and Earned.

Here are some real-life examples from natural foods stores of tangible and intangible rewards that support a positive workplace culture and let hard-working employees know they?re appreciated.

If you want to reinforce a particular behavior, you have to let people know exactly what they did to earn a reward.

At Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Wash., any of the 124 employees can nominate another for a Savvy Service Star award by filling out a one-page form describing an example of that person?s outstanding customer service. ?Customers? can be external (shoppers) or internal (other departments). A staff council of five elected employees reviews nominations every month. They choose a Savvy Service Star based on a list of established criteria such as always wearing a nametag, putting the customer first, setting a good example for other employees and consistently being a team player.

The winner is photographed at the customer service desk, picks out a clothing item to be embroidered with her or his name and the co-op logo, gets featured in the employee newsletter and receives a $10 gift certificate. At the end of the year, the 12 Stars? names go into a drawing for a $100 prize.

Positive reinforcement doesn?t necessarily have to be a material gift.
By defining the criteria for winning the award, the Savvy Service Star avoids turning into a popularity contest among employees, one pitfall of conventional Employee of the Month programs. By letting the staff council choose the recipients, the award also avoids another pitfall: stigmatizing the winner as a brownnoser for management favor.

Community Food Co-op Assistant Human Resources Manager Renee Hover says that initially employees were distrustful. However, she and Customer Service Manager Reyna Ibarra, who conceived the program, put up posters, wrote notes in the log and urged others to submit nominations. Now the staff council receives five to 10 nominations each month. It?s worth the effort, Hover thinks. People are always surprised to win. ?At first they think it?s dorky, but when they see their picture posted, they?re prouder than they?re willing to admit.?

Matching the form of reinforcement to the personality of the one receiving it enhances the value of the reward to him or her.

Irene?s Myomassology Institute in Southfield, Mich., is a school for healing arts that includes a small retail store selling vitamins, essential oils, books and other products used in classes taught at the school. Of more than 30 staff members, five work in the store, while others handle administration and class instruction.

Executive Director Kathy Gauthier pays attention to who her employees are in their lives outside of work. She wants them to feel ?part of the team, not just an employee.? For example, to one staff member who really likes Ray Charles, she?ll give a new CD of his music. For the retail manager with more of a career focus, she?ll pay for a trip to Natural Products Expo.

?It?s my way of saying, ?Thank you for working so hard,?? she says.

At Lifesource Natural Foods in Salem, Ore., Nutrition Manager Michael Proctor considers the individual attributes of the six employees in his department when he assigns tasks. ?Some are more detail-oriented than others, some have a more aesthetic eye and some are better with difficult customers. I try to spread out the work in a way that allows people to focus on the areas that give them joy at work.?

The closer the reinforcement comes to the act that earned it, the more powerful the effect.

At Community Food Co-op, managers carry around coupons called Smiley Bucks in their pockets. When they see an employee give excellent customer service, they hand him or her a coupon. Each Smiley Buck is worth one dollar at the store, but because employees get a 20 percent discount on all purchases, the coupons go further than their face value.

The Smiley Bucks program is still in the experimental stage. Managers must write on the coupon who gave it and who received it. This will enable management to track patterns in usage and adjust the numbers given out each month.

Flattery is not the same as positive reinforcement. On some level, the recipient knows the words are empty. But actions speak louder than words.

Kathy Gauthier knew one of her people at the Myomassology Institute had recently lost her mother. An upcoming concert by popular entertainer Sting was sold out, and Gauthier was feeling lucky to have a ticket. But she let her employee go in her place, knowing that it would provide some small measure of consolation.

When employees do something that results in a positive outcome, they have earned the positive reinforcement they receive.

Birthday parties in the workplace are a wonderful thing and may build employee morale, but they aren?t earned. It doesn?t take any particular effort to get another year older. However, if a company makes a profit because employees worked to increase sales or keep down expenses, they certainly have earned a profit-sharing bonus.

Alex Beamer, owner of Lifesource, pays out a quarterly profit share to the 40 employees at his store in Salem, Ore., and the 10 employees in his store in Keaau, Hawaii. Beamer determines the profit share by taking each store?s net profit and adding back in the perks he takes for himself that he wouldn?t give a store manager, such as a car and family health insurance. He also factors out large capital expenditures. Then he assigns a certain percentage of the resulting figure to be paid to employees who have worked at the store for at least six months and are there at the end of the quarter being shared.

To calculate the payout for each individual, Beamer weighs years of employment at Lifesource, the percentage of full time worked and responsibility and performance levels. Performance levels are determined by a discussion with the employee?s supervisor. Those with warnings in their files get less than the average performer, while those who truly excel get more. Beamer multiplies these factors together to arrive at the individual?s share, with the heaviest weight given to level of responsibility.

The average full-time employee?s profit share amounts to as much as half a month?s wages every quarter. ?When I hire people,? explains Beamer, ?I tell them their pay is made up of several factors, so don?t just look at the dollars per hour. That?s not the whole picture.?

Obviously a bonus paid out a month after the end of the quarter won?t be perceived as immediate. But no one program should be expected to provide all the positive reinforcement your employees need and deserve. The ideas implemented by the natural retailers described here are not mutually exclusive. By using a combination of programs, you can ensure that your people get appreciation that is Specific, Personalized, Immediate, Sincere and Earned.

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. She can be reached at 206.723.4040 or [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 58-59

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