ConAgra had an employee engagement problem. It found a rewarding solution.
By Debbie Bolla
A successful organization is only as strong as its weakest link. ConAgra Foods Canada addressed this reality squarely, by issuing a company-wide employee survey. This anonymous employee value proposition report delved deeply into the food producer’s advantages and shortcomings.
The Achilles’ heel of the 350-employee company was far and away its recognition platform. The analytic report had six questions surrounding recognition, and the responses were revealing. For instance, when asked if recognition was aligned to business goals, only 17 percent agreed. More telling, the response to “the company recognizes team and individuals” came in at just 10 percent. This was an obvious red flag for ConAgra—a real area for improvement. The vice president of human resources for ConAgra, Reid Lewis, didn’t want to just boost the organization’s lagging recognition program; he sought to imbed it in company culture.
“We’re a lean and mean organization, and we ask people to be innovative and strong entrepreneurs,” Lewis notes. “We wanted a recognition program that makes employees see there is a lot of value in working here.”
Lewis recalls the previous recognition program was very administrative and high-touch in nature. Plus, any rewards required about three-weeks’ production time, so reinforcing outstanding behavior became difficult with such a time lag. Lewis was looking for a program that operates in real-time, supports both formal and informal recognition, correlates to ConAgra’s values, and is transparent. He had briefly worked with employee rewards and recognition provider I Love Rewards at a previous organization, but it made enough of an impression that Lewis returned to the outsourcer (along with several others) for a request for proposal during the vetting process in 2009. After narrowing down to three companies, ConAgra awarded I Love Rewards the contract.
“ConAgra decided that rewards and recognition was going to be a strategic focus to drive employee engagement scores,” says Razor Suleman, founder and CEO of I Love Rewards. “They put a lot of energy and focus in this initiative, and I was impressed with how much executive buy-in they had.”
The Value in Values-based Recognition
To execute a strategic program, ConAgra selected values-based recognition, which is tied to company goals and strategy. I Love Rewards reports that 68 percent of organizations select values-based recognition to help better align employee behavior with core values. ConAgra’s recognition statement “Nourishing our People Through Recognition” is closely related to its three core operating principles: simplicity, accountability, and collaboration.
“We wanted to make sure we were driving the right types of behavior—the ‘how’ of how things were getting done, and making sure those were being recognized,” says Lewis. “You want to make sure you are highlighting and marketing that behavior to the broad organization because that’s leading the way on how people should behave. You are trying to reinforce and provide examples of how people can succeed.”
Suleman sees the worth in that philosophy. “ConAgra are leaders. Its program was heavily focused around values,” he explains. “Companies like ConAgra understand what drives customer engagement is employee engagement.”
ConAgra’s recognition program is threefold, based on informal recognition, formal recognition, and peer-to-peer recognition. Employees earn points that they can redeem for merchandise, gift cards, trips, and event tickets, based on their recognized actions and behaviors. “If you leave it to a single program, you won’t get the type of behavior you need, and it won’t be sustainable,” explains Lewis. Informal recognition can be a personalized thank you card from the ConAgra president (included in that card is an access code to points) or vocal, public recognition at monthly staff-wide townhall meetings. For formal recognition, employees are rewarded on five different “You Made a Difference” levels:
• Making a Difference (peer-to-peer);
• Making It Happen (manager recognition);
• Team Award (team recognition);
• On the Spot; and
• Taking the Lead.
Peer-to-peer recognition, which has found much success, allows colleagues to nominate each other on the web-based interface. Suleman says that it’s the most favored form of recognition by their clients who have it as part of their program. For ConAgra, there are no restrictions on the number of times you can recognize hard work. The system is also bilingual (since Canada has two official languages, French and English), and the company even instituted a kiosk so hourly and plant workers have easy access to the interface.
“With peer-to-peer recognition, you empower your employees to act as a leader,” says Suleman. “As a CEO, I understand that there are millions of things over the course of the year that happen that I won’t see. Recognition is a form of feedback, and you can capture what’s going on and report on it.”
I Love Rewards developed a Facebook-like interface on its SaaS platform outlining the recognition program with tabs to recognize, track points, and redeem rewards.. The website was designed with ease of use and fluid navigation in mind. The company is also big on communication. The program features a newsfeed so email alerts are sent to all employees announcing recognized behavior. And now the interface is linked with Facebook so professional community can be connected with social community.
ConAgra has a staff demographic comprising five generations, and the interface appeals to all. But Lewis is finding that Generation X and Y workers, plus millenials, who are all more suited to this type of technology, use the system more. Plus, recognition has a different meaning to the newer generations. “You can’t reward them [Gen X and Gen Y] for five years of service with gifts from a catalog,” notes Suleman. “They grew up getting feedback all the time. Recognition really speaks to Gen Y. Gen X and Gen Y are 57 percent of workforce in 2010 [U.S. Department of Labor]. In 2011, it will be north of 60 percent. This isn’t the future generation; this is the majority in the workplace.”
Leading By Example
Sean Cunningham, 26, is reaping the rewards of ConAgra’s new system. He’s earned everything from a range of gift cards to a golf driver. With the company since May 2010 (after the new recognition program was up and running), Cunningham is a shopper marketer for Chef Boyardee and Snack Pack; previously he was in brand marketing for Snack Pak pudding and Pam cooking spray. He analyzes what drives people to shop and select certain brands. He says he’s been “recognized every step of the way,” from being thanked for doing more than required to being saluted for team projects. He recalls going the extra mile while being on a lead committee for the company’s national commercial meeting of 200-plus executives in Toronto. “It was a lot of work, long days, and weekends too,” he explains. “But it was a special moment to be recognized by my peers, my director, the vice president, and the president. And it was more than someone saying ‘great job.’ I was given points for my work and that allowed me to redeem my golf driver.” Cunningham was also a quarterly award winner, which is based on a combination of being recognized the most by your peers and a high number of total recognition points.
While enjoying being on the receiving end, Cunningham also likes to commend others for a job well done. He says it encourages teamwork and communication.
ConAgra is focused on keeping track of its top earners among other metrics within its recognition program. “I have to prove value in everything I do, so we’re very keen on metrics,” says Lewis. “We can monitor the nominations and point distribution, and see it in real time. We can isolate down to individuals, departments. It gives us the teeth.
“Because of how we broke it out with the three operating principles, if you asked me how many collaboration awards are you giving, and how are they linked together, I could provide that to you. If you wanted to know how many were done in Calgary, I could provide that to you, too.”
Following the call of its clients, I Love Rewards built a highly robust analytics and reporting platform in its rewards program. Reporting features include the ability to download analytics on how the program is doing, how many people are engaged, who the top point earners are, and what kinds of rewards are being redeemed. Suleman says that every recognition is tracked and available for viewing on the real-time reporting panel.
Through the highly robust analytics platform, Lewis has easily drawn the connection between the recognition program and several service level agreements (SLAs). Numbers from this year’s employee survey surrounding recognition were soaring. Total nominations increased by four times. Pre-implementation of the I Love Rewards program, there were 225 nominations; this year there were 1,242. There has also been a rapid decrease in overall turnover. Engagement levels have also increased 68 percent in two years.
“It’s a progressive way to keep people engaged,” says Cunningham. “I am six years out of college, and I haven’t had too many jobs. It’s a great program and a factor that keeps me around and energized.”
Lewis is also looking to take the SLAs one step further, and including recognition statistics in the overall talent management solution. “I was thinking about how to link that to our talent management process,” he notes. “So your top performers in recognition should, through time, also be your top performers overall. And it should identify your top managers as well. Those who truly believe in the culture of recognition, you should see a higher frequency rate versus those who do not.”
Lewis is hoping that through this program in the coming years, recognition will truly be imbedded in the ConAgra culture. He thinks that there is a strong possibility that it will be a reality, based on the first-year numbers of adoption alone. Having an easy-to-use interface encourages employees to take part in the program. Strong executive buy-in has also been a factor.
Recalls Cunningham, “When I joined ConAgra, there was constant communication about the recognition program through townhall meetings or the HR director explaining it in individual groups. It was always described as an everyday tool and a part of the culture.”
The success of the program has encouraged other ConAgra branches to take a look at the impact recognition can have.
“Overall, recognition in the U.S. is just in its infancy,” Lewis says. “I Love Rewards will be one of three vendors that we will approach, and obviously Canada provides a really great pilot.”