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“I should have won that, not her!” exclaimed a staff member upon hearing that a colleague with the same job description had won a college award.

“I am angry that you did not nominate me for a research award,” an assistant professor vented in an email.

“You have favorites,” another faculty member protested, “and I am not one of them!”

Deserved or not, I suffered those remarks early on in my administrative career before realizing the importance of a fair, equitable, shared employee award system.

Administrators often hear such complaints because typically so little attention is paid to award nomination and selection. If handled poorly -- or worse, authoritatively -- flawed award systems can damage morale, erode unit goals and even affect faculty and staff retention.

In an article titled “How to Demotivate Your Best Employees,” Forbes states that awards might seem like a nifty way to recognize employees, boost morale and inspire excellence. “It turns out that sometimes rewarding employees for good behavior can actually backfire, leading to a drop in motivation and productivity.”

The article cites a study titled “The Dirty Laundry of Employee Award Programs,” which notes that even “simple awards programs can have much broader and complex implications for employee behavior,” much of it negative.

In response to an article about “The Top Five Faculty Morale Killers,” which doesn’t mention flawed award programs, one reader responded, “The surest way to destroy cooperation and, therefore, organizational excellence, is to force people to compete for rewards or recognition or to rank them against each other. For each person who wins, there are many others who carry with them the feeling of having lost. And the more these awards are publicized through the use of memos, newsletters and awards banquets, the more detrimental their impact can be.”

That is what this article is about and aspires to overcome.

It is easy to relegate award complaints to ego or jealousy. But grievances might have merit if the award system is defective. That is why many administrators delegate the nomination process to a faculty committee, mostly to get it out of the main office.

However, those panels also can experience the same sad aftermath if the chair appoints members, typically senior professors. They have as much power as an administrator, and that can intimidate employees. In worst-case scenarios, award committees can be seen as cliques, sparking more contention.

Such scenarios often violate -- or are perceived to violate -- shared governance. That is the culture of academe, and it should be part of the award nomination system.

What, then, passes for a fair, equitable award system empowered by shared governance that also enhances morale? That’s a complicated issue. Let’s summarize each qualifier:

  • Fairness. To be fair, an employee’s performance record should be considered in any award nomination. But that information is usually confidential. So one criterion involves developing a reporting system that everyone has access to without violating human resources rules.
  • Equity. Some accomplishments -- such as national academy selection -- top a conference paper, or many. That also has to be communicated to the faculty and staff. Thus, an objective method of ranking accomplishments must be developed if colleagues are to be fully informed.
  • Shared governance. True sharing should involve everyone, including staff members and adjuncts. That point was made in an article titled “A Kinder Campus for Adjuncts,” which noted that opening up teaching awards to all faculty members can strengthen the entire institution. Thanks to adjuncts who teach four or more classes per semester, professors have time for research. Academic advisers who counsel students or schedule classes also help faculty members win teaching awards. Everyone should have a voice and a vote.

Typically, administrators compile and announce accomplishments at faculty meetings, wasting time with content best communicated in a memo or online. Favoritism (perceived or real) occurs when some achievements are touted and others overlooked.

A way to celebrate achievements in a fair, equitable manner is to delegate reporting thereof to faculty and staff members. In other words, they should notify administrators about accomplishments in research/scholarship, teaching/advising and professional/institutional service.

How, then, to get them to do that?

Those happen to be the traditional pillars of annual reviews. So reporting them serves a greater purpose associated with salary and advancement.

A Case in Point

At Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, faculty and staff members report achievements each month. Those are compiled with minor editing and included in a monthly email blast titled “Good News” whose 200 recipients include university administrators, benefactors, distinguished alumni, internship providers and other friends of the program.

Also on the list are media specialists in our news services department. They cherry-pick items for social media and news releases, which serves as a method to rank newsworthiness of individual achievements.

Recipients of “Good News” are encouraged to interact with professors, lecturers and staff, thereby forming additional relationships that advance the school. Alumni, in particular, like to be actively engaged in celebrating achievements, taking pride in their alma mater. That builds external relationships that further enhance a program’s brand or reputation.

Moreover, in scanning “Good News,” university recruiters send or text specific items to prospective students, encouraging them to contact the admissions office or schedule campus visits. That helps enrollment, and ours has grown by 38 percent since 2011.

Each month, “Good News” also goes online for additional access. Our current archive dates from 2007 to the current day.

The self-reporting system eliminates complaints about favoritism and lengthy announcements at faculty meetings. The data help generate award nominations. Moreover, contributions become part of the culture, enhancing reputation internally and externally. For instance, benefactor relations are improved because of “Good News,” helping enrich endowments that provide $3,000 research accounts for professors and $1,000 teaching accounts for lecturers.

Those spending accounts lead to more accomplishments, including paper presentation and grant acquisition.

There are other benefits to the award system. It provides a feedback loop not only for continual professional development but also for curricular assessment. For instance, if a campaigns class invites experts to evaluate projects -- an item in the teaching category of “Good News” -- that information provides “a direct measure,” or evidence of quality instruction, in our assessment reports. Same goes for diversity research or service on editorial boards.

We integrate everything. That practice represents our best efforts to ensure a fair, equitable system for award nomination. But how to make it truly shared?

That’s where technology comes in.

Iowa State offers about two dozen awards recognizing staff, lecturers, professors and administrators. Awards are associated with the aforementioned pillars of research/scholarship, teaching/advising and professional/institutional service. They range from early achievement in advising and introductory teaching to university and distinguished professorships.

In the Greenlee School system, no administrator decides who qualifies for each award. Simply, everyone who meets the selection criteria is included in the online survey. If a staff award requires five years’ institutional service, all those who meet that criterion are included. No distinction is made based on items in “Good News” or personnel records. Perhaps popularity is a variable in our system, but we defer to the faculty and staff members and don’t make that assumption.

The survey cites each award criteria and qualifications associated therewith. Instructions note:

  • Previous winners of each award are excluded from lists.
  • Only one name per award may be selected.
  • Employees can nominate themselves or abstain from nominating anyone.

Survey results are shared with directors of undergraduate and graduate education. Each validates and double-checks the data in the presence of the other.

Depending on how many colleagues completed the survey, each potential nominee must meet a threshold of support -- typically between one-third and one-half of respondents. Those employees are informed that they have been formally nominated for a particular honor. Nominees have the right not to pursue an award.

For those who do, a staff member meets with nominees and helps solicit letters of support and other information (current vita, convocation information, etc.) required for each honor. Award files are created and delivered before deadline. We publicize winners in “Good News,” completing the cycle.

Finally, we invite the faculty and staff to attend convocations where awards are bestowed. Attendance is usually good because everyone has participated in the selection.

All in all, I would recommend the approach we’ve taken to other institutions grappling with how to acknowledge employee contributions. Our system has been effective with more than 30 significant awards won in the past 14 years. The beauty of a fair, equitable, shared award nomination system is in the collegiality that it engenders -- and the pitfalls that it avoids.