How Rewards and Recognition Can Help Retain Staff in a Competitive Market

Nerz_how_rewards_and_recognition_can_help_retain_staff_in_a_competitive_market December 1, 2021 By: Dave Nerz

In today’s market, a job with benefits is not enough. That’s why adding rewards and recognition—many of which are low-cost—can help associations retain their staff.

We have all heard the manager that questions rewards and incentives as being more than employees need or deserve. “Our staff members are well-paid, we offer good benefits, and we provide vacation and sick time,” the leader says. “They should be happy they have a job!”

However, leaders should be more progressive with their association’s most important asset: staff. After all, the pandemic has led people to reassess what is necessary and important in their lives and careers. Here’s a look at how simple, low-cost recognition, rewards and incentives, and bonuses are effective ways to retain association staff in a competitive labor market.


A kind word of appreciation for being punctual, available, helpful to a teammate, or delivering a successful outcome goes a long way. Handwritten notes are great too: For example, I use, which allows me to get a card in the post out to anyone in the world.

  • For some of us, verbal recognition comes easier than to others. Here are some guidelines to consider:
  • Be specific. Say exactly what was done that you are recognizing. Don’t generalize like “You always do good work.” It is better to go with, “I liked how you handled that tough phone call and kept our member engaged in creating a solution together.”
  • Give the recognition as close to the event as possible. Telling someone in the moment reinforces the behavior best.
  • Do not “balance” recognition with corrective comments.
  • If appropriate and customary in your association’s culture, do the recognition publicly. Some employees really dislike this, so do what is right for your culture.

Rewards and Incentives

While recognition can be rather unscripted, I see rewards and incentives as a “you do this, and we will do that” proposition. Consider rewards that are small but meaningful. I like to do team rewards. Incentives, while similar to rewards, drive behaviors that are somewhat beyond what is required. Some considerations for rewards and incentives:

  • Can rewards be team activities? For example, long lunches, team dinners, a movie, bowling, or a picnic at the park.
  • Can you engage your staff’s family, friends, and partners? Know your team, though, since some of them will not be motivated by this.
  • Can you use branded gifts? I like to use logo shirts, hats, etc., but sometimes a less size-restricted item like an association branded cheese board, set of glasses, or coffee mug is better.
  • If you need extra work done around an event or conference, maybe an incentive for the early riser or last one standing at your event.
  • Offer an incentive for the most hours of professional development.
  • Can you reward a different behavior each month? Examples may include above and beyond, best customer service story, best turnaround situation, greatest surprise, or longest day.


Associations who have extra room in the budget may consider bonuses. They are typically provided for project outcomes or other longer-term results. Here are some ideas for handling them:

  • Make bonuses easily measurable and specific for employee and management.
  • Instead of a single year-end payout, break down annual bonuses into quarterly milestones (perhaps with the final payment bigger).
  • Avoid all-or-nothing bonuses. Maybe pay out something smaller if they reach 75 percent to 99 percent of the goal.
  • Bonuses should rarely be more than 10 to 20 percent of the base salary. Bonuses that are too high will drive behaviors that are about the reward, rather than doing the right thing. Employees may also begin to work like independents rather than teammates.

There is rarely one right way. So, dip a toe in before you take the plunge. See if you can reimagine the way you reward and recognize your most valuable asset: your people.