The Problem With Employee Contests

It’s amazing to me even after 4 decades of service how we desire teamwork and collaboration but every policy and formal behavior is about something other than either of them.

We don’t reward effort. We reward outcomes. Which is also why most employee training is broken due to its not having designed for “wins” at multiple steps along the employee’s growth path.

We have to do better.

Employee Contests are an anti-teamwork tool used by operators who can’t evolve their understanding of how to inspire better behavior from their employees. So they pit them against one-another in a transactional contest of winners and losers.

And it doesn’t matter how big the prize is for the winner, you are simply manipulating short-term interest to the detriment of real, long-term engagement.

In other words, today the winner may win $50 but tomorrow they will need to win a car or a house in order for you to receive as much engagement as you did previously due to the fact that such manipulation needs larger and larger ‘prizes’ in order to maintain interest and engagement over time.

Excuse #1: But it “create(s) a culture of learning.”

No. The only learning it creates is in teaching the employee to hold out for some sort of ‘prize’ in order to garner their support for a short-term gain.

If you want to create a culture of learning, then the employee has to have a meaningful self-interest in both the content and the learning outcome, as it relates to their growth. And as employees have told us for decades, they’re more interested in real, meaningful growth (personal and professional) than even money.

Excuse #2: “It forces managers to train every day and look at their business and see who the top performers are,” 

Your managers should be monitoring this as an ongoing responsibility as the leader of the business – period. If they are not then you have the wrong managers in place. This information should be gathered daily and used to engage the employee in a daily one-on-one for both support and growth. Failing to do so is an abrogation of a leader’s core responsibility – grow your people.

One of the least effective employee contests I’ve seen all too often, involves using random rewards that are not tied to long-term growth. For example, for upselling certain menu items, “Restaurant X” cashiers could win scratch-off cards worth a varying amount of points. They could then turn the cards in for “Restaurant X” branded gear. The lottery component of the incentive was thought to help generate buzz among the group.

Again, the problem is that employees aren’t motivated by random, one-off events that are nothing more than simple manipulations of short-term behavior.

Did we forget the “What’s-In-It-For-Me (WII-FM)” component? “So I sell more of your stuff and you get increased sales and margins and I get a cool t-shirt that says I sold more of your stuff?”

Yeah, I can see where that would motivate ‘millennials’.

‘But Jeffrey, what if we made it an app?’ “Millennials love apps, especially if we tell them, ‘This is a fun contest, this is not a performance ranking assessment…then (the employees will) see it as a challenge.’

How is treating the employee as if they were watching Saturday morning cartoons going to entice them into engaging in more mature work behaviors and attitudes?

Our work with employees of all ages over the past four decades has shown that the more you treat employees as equals in their own development, the more growth occurs for both them and the business. Also, the rewards for such growth need to closely equal the value of such growth or else it becomes a disincentive.

The “Unintended Negative Consequences”

A more core issue with  utilizing contests is the unintended consequences (mostly negative) that are not seen or predicted like:

  • employees “gaming” the contest in numerous ways that benefit them or their results only when the opportunities present themselves during their shift
  • focusing on behaviors so much that other behaviors become deficient due to a decreasing focus
  • pitting one employee against another can undermine the goals of collaboration and teamwork
  • creating unhealthy rivalries and resentments between employees

So What’s Better?

  1. Taking the time to discuss with each individual employee about the things they care about, both inside and outside of work, that gives them both meaning and growth and then
  2. Calibrating rewards that nurture both
  3. Remembering that the more impact you can design into those rewards, on what the employee values, the greater the impact they will have on their work inside the business.

This level of flexibility in creating highly personalized employee experiences is what employees desire and deserve. And what’s great for employees is great for the business.

For four decades, my Coaching, Consulting, & Learning Events have helped thousands of hospitality leaders worldwide, build successful businesses. Call or text me at +1-817-797-2929 or email me at