Incentive Travel Report: The Real Award Winners

Most incentive recipients are not wealthy people. They're regular working-class folks participating in company-wide programs.

For four weeks last year, every evening, Yordanos Emahazion would prepare traditional Ethiopian meals in her home and bring them to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital where she works in the catering services department. The meals weren't for her—they were for a young girl from Ethiopia who was in the United States for an operation and was having trouble digesting western food prepared by catering services operated by Sodexo, a global food and facilities management firm. For her efforts, Emahazion earned an incentive award from Sodexo that included a trip to Nashville to attend the annual company meeting.

A common mischaracterization of incentive programs presents them as extravagant luxuries, primarily for the top executives of a company. At Sodexo, the employee award programs, and inspiring stories of its top winners, show how inaccurate such representations can be.

Based in Gaithersburg, MD, Sodexo has put in place a network of recognition programs that rewards employees at virtually every level and division of the company—not just the top salespeople or executives.

"As at any service company, our talent is our product," says Jaya Bohlmann, vice president of public relations at Sodexo. "So these recognition programs have evolved as there have been great stories about our employees. It's a very employee-centric company."

Company-Wide Spirit

Sodexo's broad-based approach to incentives is reflected in its company-wide recognition program, Spirit of Sodexo. The program was designed to recognize employees at all levels who exemplify the organization's values. These values break down into the award categories of Service Spirit, Team Spirit, and Spirit of Progress (for creative or innovative accomplishments).

At the local level, everyone who is nominated for a Spirit of Sodexo award gets a lapel pin and letter from the company's CEO, as well as recognition on the company intranet and in the newsletter. At the next level, winners from the approximately 30 regions are selected from all the nominees and are recognized at a region-wide meeting, and, above that, a handful of winners are selected for division-wide honors.

Reflecting the high level of importance these awards have for the company, the winners at the highest, company-wide level are reviewed and selected by top executives, who report to the CEO.

"Last year we had the CFO help review the awards, the chief legal counsel has helped review the awards, as well as the chief diversity officer," says Jennifer Williamson, senior director of human resources at Sodexo. "This program is a big, big deal."

Top winners are invited to the annual Sodexo Management Conference, where the company's senior leadership gathers to discuss business strategy and how to approach the challenges and opportunities facing the company. Award winners attend the conference just like members of the company's leadership, and take what they learn back to share with their fellow employees. The winners who attend the conference are not only being recognized in front of a thousand or so of their fellow employees, they are also treated to the pomp and celebration of a formal dinner event and winners' reception.

Employees As "Legends"

Sodexo's largest division is healthcare, with 40,000 workers at hospitals, clinics, and labs across North America (the company also services the education, government, and corporate sectors). Partly because of its size, the healthcare division has instituted its own incentive program, CARES, which incorporates recognition, travel, merchandise, and gift card awards.

The company has had CARES (Compassion, Accountability, Respect, Enthusiasm, and Service) in place since 2005. According to Lynne Adame, senior director of communications for Sodexo's health care market, it serves as a way to elevate the stories of employees demonstrating great service into "corporate legends," who other employees can learn from.

Yordanos Emahazion has become a corporate legend for her work at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Last year, thanks to a charitable group, a young girl from Ethiopia had been flown in for heart surgery. An orphan, unable to speak English, and in a foreign world, the girl found western food inedible. After days of challenges trying to get her to eat, the doctors asked Emahazion, also native to Ethiopia, if she knew some Ethiopian recipes that she might pass along, or suggest where they could pick up special ingredients. She said she'd be happy to help the girl, but that she would do the cooking.

"My boss offered me money and said they could take me to the store, but I said, 'Don't worry about it, I can do it on my own,' " says Emahazion.

Every day for the month the girl was in Cincinnati, Emahazion would go home and cook a meal for her own family with chicken, vegetables, and spices sent to her from Ethiopia, making extra for the young patient. She packed up the girl's portion each morning, ensuring there would be enough for lunch and dinner, and spent her half-hour lunch break feeding the child.
"When [the girl] first came, she was not talking or smiling," says Emahazion's supervisor Gina Fries, the catering and events manager at the hospital. "But by the time she left she was talking and laughing."

Emahazion's service led her supervisors to nominate her for her division's CARES award. Her story was told at the weekly "huddle meeting," where she was initially honored. At the end of the year, division leadership selected Emahazion as one of eight national winners of the highest CARES award. As part of her prize, she and her husband, as well as Fries, were flown to Sodexo's national healthcare meeting. There, she sat up front with the executive team and other winners, while short videos that told each of their stories were shown.

"It was very touching—there was not a dry eye in the place, because each of the stories just tugs at you in a different way," says Fries. The ceremony was followed by a reception and a formal dinner, where the guests could mingle with each other and share their experiences.

"My husband [and I] had a good time with my bosses," says Emahazion. "They treated me like a queen."

Originally published Sept. 1, 2009

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