You Asked: About the best ways to increase staff morale

MORALE BOOST red Rubber Stamp over a white background.

The Question: “What are the best ways to increase morale? We do a lot to encourage corporate culture, but right now we are having an issue with negativity. We offer Christmas bonuses, hams and turkeys for holidays, lunches for everyone on their birthday, company outings, etc., but none seems to be enough to keep the company’s culture positive. What can we do?”

The Answer: What you describe could be labelled as “perks,” which you provide to your staff and which obviously are not having the hoped-for impact on staff morale. I won’t tell you to stop doing what you’re doing, but if you had asked my advice earlier, I would have counselled against implementing most of these measures. Perks are introduced with the best of intentions, but the unfortunate reality is that they are an ineffective means of building and maintaining morale. They may be welcome when they first appear, but perks quickly become stale.

There is nothing special about them. Just like paycheques, everyone is entitled to receive them: a turkey at Christmas, a ham at Easter and the opportunity to eat cake will the rest of the team on his or her birthday. There is nothing in these gestures that relates to the what the team achieves or how individuals contribute.

It’s easy to understand why people believe that perks such as turkeys, hams and outings, are the key to creating workplaces where people want to be. There is a proliferation of magazine and newspaper articles, such as Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 100 best companies to work for, that typically describe such perks which these companies provide. The implication is that’s why they are great places to work.

Perks alone do not boost staff morale

That’s not necessarily so. In The Great Workplace, co-authors Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin wrote that, “While the Fortune list tends to showcase the perks and benefits that employees in those companies enjoy, those perks are not the reason the companies made the list in the first place. They made the list because of their leaders’ ability to create strong relationships.”

Providing meaningful staff recognition is a way to create those relationships, which boost morale, and increase employee engagement and improve staff retention at the same time. Recognize staff members for what they achieve and how they contribute. Rather than scheduling an event just because you always do, celebrate the team’s achievements as they occur: the successful completion of a project, meeting the quarter’s sales target, or having come through a period when everyone had to pitch in and do extra work. Don’t allow the calendar to dictate when events occur (e.g. We always have an outing in mid-June), by becoming spontaneous about celebrations. Try this: “Don’t bring your lunch on Friday, because we will be providing lunch to celebrate the successful completion of our office reorganization. Everyone worked hard and contributed to this project being completed on time.”

Both team and individual recognition required

As important as team recognition may be, it’s also important to recognize individuals for what they do. Employees want to be seen as individuals, and to know they are valued as such and appreciated for their unique contributions to the team’s success. Everyone contributes in different ways, with different levels of effectiveness. This should be reflected in how and why they are recognized. There’s no best way to recognize staff members. Each person wants to be recognized in different ways. Providing recognition that is Appropriate is one of the ingredients of GREAT staff recognition that will be valued by recipients.

Some perks you described may not even be appropriate for all staff. What is the value of a 25-pound turkey for an employee with no family with whom to share Christmas dinner? A ham for Easter won’t thrill Jewish or Muslim staff members who don’t celebrate this holiday and never eat pork. Then there are those vegetarians who eat neither.

Get to know staff members as individuals: What are their interests and hobbies? What is their favourite treat? How do they drink their coffee or tea? Where do they prefer to be recognized—in private or publicly?

Having committed to recognizing staff, begin with small gestures. A few words spoken to an employee in private. A brief message written on a sticky note. A thank-you card. To be valued by recipients, recognition doesn’t have to be expensive. In Make Their Day, Cindy Ventrice wrote, “In an international survey in 2007, I found that 57 per cent of the most meaningful recognition doesn’t even cost a dollar . . . employees are looking for meaning, not things.”

Shifting to more staff recognition may be difficult at first. There will be challenges and setbacks. But keep pushing forward and eventually recognizing staff members for how they contribute and what they achieve will become a habit, which will make a difference—boosting morale, improving retention and increasing engagement.

Do you have a question? It could be about staff recognition. Or maybe you have an inquiry about some aspect of the hiring process. Submit your question at and I will answer it in a future issue of Briefly Noted.


You asked: How do I discover if the candidate is a fast learner?

Man using scissors to remove the word can't to read I can do it

First, congratulations for beginning the hiring process with clear expectations in mind. The better you understand what you want your new employee to do, the better you’re able to examine evidence of past performance to predict if the candidate’s future performance will meet your expectations.

While the obvious answer to your question is to ask about learning a new skill when you interview the candidate, the interview is only one of four tools available to identify candidates who are “fast learners.” Let’s look at how each of these tools can help you make the right hiring decision.

Recruitment Advertising ­– When listing required (or desirable) competencies, include reference to the ability to learn new skills quickly. Publishing this requirement allows jobseekers to self-select. Are they committed to learning new skills (even better if they enjoy doing so)? If they aren’t, they may not apply, which is a good thing. They likely wouldn’t have fit your organization’s learning culture, and you have just saved yourself time that you would have spent reviewing their resumes.

Resumes – When reviewing the information the candidate supplies in support of his application (cover letters, application forms, resumes), search for evidence of the candidate having learned new skills in previous jobs, and ideally, quickly. If this information isn’t there, that doesn’t mean he/she doesn’t have the ability or desire new skills, but it is cause to wonder how carefully the candidate read your advertising before applying.

Interview – Don’t ask questions to which the desired answer is obvious (“Are you able to learn new skills quickly?”). Because you asked, most candidates would conclude that what you want to hear is, “Yes.” Unfortunately, they provide no evidence to support what they are saying.

Here’s a better question: “Provide us with an example of a new skill or procedure you had to learn in your current or a previous job.”

The word “quickly” was purposefully omitted from this question. Including it might convey a message about what you are looking for. Use probes to uncover this information:

  • What was the skill or procedure you needed to learn?
  • Why did you need to learn this skill/procedure?
  • How was the need to learn this skill/procedure identified?
  • How long did it take you to learn this skill?
  • What challenges/setbacks did you encounter in learning this skill/procedure?
  • Who, if anyone, helped you learn this skill? [How was he/she involved?] (Comment: The person who the candidate names could be someone who can tell you more about how well and quickly the candidate learned a new skill/procedure during a reference check.)

Reference Check – Now, it’s time to ask you question directly: “Describe a time when [candidate] was required to learn a new skill or procedure quickly.”

Followup probes:

  • What was the skill or procedure?
  • Why was it important for [candidate] to learn this skill/procedure?
  • What challenges/setbacks did he/she encounter while learning this skill/procedure?
  • How long did it take [candidate] to master this skill/procedure?
  • How does this compare to how long other employees typically took to learn this skill/procedure?

Based on what you learn from the application documents, the interview and reference checks, you will have evidence on which to decide if this is the quick learner you are looking for.


Do you have a question? It could be any aspect of the hiring process. Or maybe you have an inquiry about staff recognition. Submit your question at and I will answer it in a future issue of Briefly Noted.


Should I thank someone who sends me a thank-you card?

Hand write with green marker Thank you


The Question: I just received your thank-you card, which was very much appreciated. But it got me thinking, should we thank someone for thanking us?

The Answer: Knowing how to respond to recognition is a dilemma for many people. Previously, I have written about how some recipients seem to dismiss recognition as undeserved or unnecessary when they receive it. “Just doing my job.” “No big deal.” “Anyone would have done the same.”

I suggested that instead of arguing with the person providing recognition, the appropriate response to any recognition delivered in person is a simple, “Thank you.” No more needs to be said.

Thank-you notes are different, in that the writer and the recipient are often separated by time and distance, especially when the note is delivered by the post office (a method which can add to the impact of your words of appreciation).

When you receive a thank-you card, just absorb the writer’s words of gratitude. No other action is required. That said, you still might wish to acknowledge receipt of the thank-you note with a short email or by saying, “thank you for your card” the next time you encounter the writer, particularly if this is someone you see regularly.

Most thank-you note writers will appreciate the simple acknowledgement. This demonstrates that you value the gesture. It’s also a way of recognizing a behaviour that you appreciate and want to see repeated, when deserved by you and others with whom the writer is in contact.

Tip: Consider posting the thank-you note in your work area. This shows the supervisor or co-worker who wrote the card that you appreciated his/her thoughtfulness and reminds you that your contributions are appreciated.


Do you have a question? It could be any aspect of the staff recognition. Or maybe you have an inquiry about hiring staff. Submit your question at and I will answer it in a future issue of Briefly Noted.

9 Interview Dos and 9 Don’ts

Portrait of woman sitting in front of manager and senior leader


For decades, and likely for decades to come, interviews have been the go-to tool used by managers when they have a vacancy to fill, with varying degrees of success. Here are some Dos and Don’ts to help you achieve greater success when hiring (more of the right people hired and fewer hiring mistakes):

Don’t base your recruiting efforts and hiring decision on old, out-of-date job descriptions. Things change. Organizations evolve. Customers have different needs. New technology appears in the workplace. What’s expected of today’s employees is different than what was expected five or 10 years ago. Take advantage of the vacancy to review and update the job description before beginning the process of hiring a replacement.

Do consider what top performers—people who you would like to clone—do that makes them successful. Make it your goal to hire more people who have demonstrated similar competencies and attitudes.

Don’t put too much emphasis on “five years of related experience.” Having done similar work does not mean the candidate did the job well or will do a good job for you. Look for evidence of having done the job the right way—the way your top performers would do it.

Don’t eliminate applicants just because they don’t possess the exact education, experience and expertise you are looking for. This may make it easier to short list, but you may be overlooking strong candidates who could easily be trained in the skills they are missing.

Do ask yourself, what skills are necessary to succeed in this job? Which must new employees have on the first day on the job? Which can they learn on the job or can they be trained to perform?

Don’t ask, “What-would-you-do-if . . .” questions. These are hypothetical questions, which lead to hypothetical answers. The candidate can tell you what the theory says he should do, what he thinks he would do, or what he thinks you would want him to do. You need to learn more about what he did. “What did you do when a customer came to you with a difficult problem?”

Do ask questions that require candidates to describe previous, on-the-job performance. What was the situation? What action did they take? What was the outcome?

Don’t ask questions about the candidate’s education and work experience. This information is on the candidate’s resume, which you should have read before the interview.

Do ask the candidate to clarify information from the resume that is unclear. Ask about employment gaps. Request explanations of unfamiliar terms and acronyms.

Don’t ask about the candidate’s family, ethnic background, religious beliefs or age. These questions have nothing to do with the job, and asking them violates most human rights laws.

Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a single word (“Yes,” “No” or “12”). Ask candidates to describe what they did in a previous work situation.

Do probe for additional information to get beyond the candidate’s superficial, well-rehearsed answers, which are unlikely to reveal much about how the candidate performed in previous on-the-job situations. Dig deeper by asking precise followup questions.

Don’t be the interviewer who talks all the time. The purpose of the interview is for you to learn as much as possible about the candidate, which isn’t going to happen if you do most of the talking.

Do ask short questions. The longer your questions, the greater the chance you will inadvertently hint what you wish to hear from the candidate.

Do prepare to answer the candidate’s questions about the job: salary and benefits, information about the company and community (if the job would require the candidate to relocate), opportunities for promotion, information about the people with whom she would be working (age, gender, length of service, etc.) and the people for whom she would be working.

Do take notes. Notes create a record of what each candidate said in response to your questions, which you will be able to refer back to when making your decision.

Don’t ask for opinions when doing reference checks. Of course the references think the candidate is a great person, who does a great job, and who they hated to lose. And yes, they would hire him again. What else would you expect to hear? The candidate was careful about who he chose to provide references.

Do conduct reference checks. When speaking with references, ask for descriptions of how the candidate responded to situations similar to those he might encounter in your workplace.


During his Interview Right to Hire Right program, Nelson prepares participants to ask the right questions in the right way to hire more of the right people—those with the potential to make your organization more successful. Contact Nelson to learn more and schedule an Interview Right to Hire Right for your leadership team. Phone (780) 433-1443 or email


You asked: “How do I find teachers who are willing to give of their time to provide extracurricular activities for students?”

Coach Of Female High School Basketball Team Gives Team Talk

The best way to predict what a candidate will do if hired is to look at his/her past performance. As advocates of behaviour description interviewing say, “Past performance is the best predictor of future performance.” When there’s a vacancy to be filled, there are three tools that you can use to answer the question, “What has this person done in past situations that predicts how he/she will contribute to the extracurricular life of the school?”

The first of these is the candidate’s resume. What extracurricular involvement is listed? If a candidate says she coached the basketball team or was the sponsor for a student club, this doesn’t mean she did a good job, enjoyed the experience, or would do something in the future, but it is a starting point. There is some evidence of extracurricular involvement.

Plan to seek specific details when you interview this candidate and when checking references.

Interview: Discovering more about what the candidate has done

Your second opportunity to learn about the candidate’s previous extracurricular involvement is during the interview. You can seek more information about what was listed on the candidate’s resume:

  • What was your role? Were you the head coach or an assistant? What does having been a “sponsor” mean?
  • How much time did this role take? Were you at all the practices and games? How often did the club meet? Were you at all the club meetings? How many members did the club have?
  • How did you become involved? Did you volunteer or were you told to take on this task?

Plan also to ask the candidates to describe their extracurricular involvement:

“Please give us an example of how you contributed to the extracurricular life of your last school.”

As required, probe for additional information:

  • When? Where? (common questions to determine time, place, etc.)

(Comment: The best examples are recent and under similar circumstances)

  • How were you involved? What was your role?
  • How did you come to be involved in this activity? How did the principal persuade you to assume this task?

(Comment: Best if the candidate willingly undertook to become involved or took the initiative to propose how he/she could be involved in extracurricular activities. Be cautious about candidates who say they became involved because the principal said everyone had to do something or that the principal assigned the candidate to this role.)

  • In what way, if any, would you have preferred to be involved? Why didn’t that happen?

(Comment: Better if the candidate shows a preference, rather than just a willingness to do what was expected of him/her. Having a preference may also suggest how the candidate would like to contribute to your school.)

Reference: Confirming what the candidate said and learning more

The third tool is the reference check, which is a time both to confirm what the candidates said during the interviews and to learn more about the candidates. Ask questions that explore the same topics as the candidates were asked about during their interview. Keeping the principle of past performance in mind, always ask questions in the past tense and expect references to answer in the past tense, too. Often the person on the other end of the line won’t expect to be asked what the candidate has done, which may reduce the impact of any coaching they may have received from the candidate and will help you turn the candidates’ references into your hiring allies.

“Describe how Joe was involved in the extracurricular life of the school.”

If required, ask followup questions to learn more:

  • How did you persuade Joe to get involved in extracurricular activities?

(Comment: You may not be interested if the reference had to bribe or force Joe to become involved. It would be better if the reference describes how Joe proposed ways he could be involved.)

  • Describe a time when Joe found it difficult to fulfil his extracurricular duties or when these interfered with his teaching duties.

(Comment: Best if the reference describes Joe as someone who could balance his classroom and extracurricular responsibilities, rather than someone who had difficulty meeting the demands of both his teaching duties and his volunteer commitments.


Do you have a question? It could be any aspect of the hiring process. Or maybe you have an inquiry about staff recognition. Submit your question at and I will answer it in a future issue of Briefly Noted.

You asked: “How do I avoid getting false recommendations from previous employers?”

References - Note Pad With Text

There are several obstacles to obtaining accurate information from references, who are of course, usually people who you don’t know—the strangers your mother warned you about. You are wise to heed her advice about talking to strangers. You can’t avoid talking to these strangers, but be cautious about how you use the information they provide.

What you should seek are facts, not the references’ opinions about the candidate. When the time comes to make your hiring decision, it’s your interpretation of the facts—not theirs—that’s important.

This means not asking questions that have traditionally been part of reference checks:

“What do you see as Jill’s greatest strengths?”

“Is Susan effective in dealing with upset customers (parents, etc.)?”

“Would you hire Allan again?”

Ask questions that require the references to recall specifics of how the candidate has responded to situations. The questions should focus on the topics that were explored when you interviewed the candidate:

“Describe how Joe responded when he was approached by an unhappy customer.”

“Please provide an example of a time when Jill had a conflict with another staff member.”

“What did Charles do when he had to deal with conflicting demands on his time?”

Getting away from opinion questions and focusing on facts helps you turn the candidates’ references into your allies.

Another technique to employ when checking references is to confirm facts. Tell the reference what the candidate said in response to an interview question, then ask: “Is this how you recall events unfolding?”

As you were during the interview, be prepared to probe for additional information: “When and where did this happen? What happened next? What was the outcome?” [If appropriate] “What did she learn from this experience? How did this change how she approached similar situations another time?”

Be on the outlook for evasive answers that appear positive, but tell you nothing. “I’m not sure, but I imagine she did this.” Remind the person providing the reference that assumptions don’t help you know the candidate better. “I really need an example of how she responded to this situation.”


Do you have a question? It could be any aspect of the hiring process. Or maybe you have an inquiry about staff recognition. Submit your question at and I will answer it in a future issue of Briefly Noted.

Looking for more reasons to recognize staff? Ask customers and use their words

img_2157Throughout the Lambert-St. Louis airport there are posters inviting travellers to “Nominate an Airport Employee today” for providing “Great Customer Service.” To assist travellers to focus their comments, the posters suggest behaviours which they could acknowledge: Making Your Day, Joyful Attitude, Solving a Problem, Great Service, Pride in Performance, Respectful Attention, Exceptional Effort and Going Above and Beyond.

What’s happening at this airport illustrates a technique organizations can use: collect and then use the words of others to acknowledge staff for what they do.

What makes this approach stand out is that it’s proactive and encourages respondents to focus on the positive aspects of their interactions with employees during their visit to the airport.

More typically, organizations have asked customers, “How was our service today?” or simply gave them blank comment cards. Those approaches are fine, but they do encourage complaints. There’s nothing wrong with receiving complaints—it’s an excellent source of insight into how to improve service—but it doesn’t fit with our purpose, which is to gather positive feedback that can be shared with staff members as a component of a staff recognition strategy.

Of course, this only helps staff understand that what they do is appreciated if the person collecting the comments shares them with the employees identified by customers. This becomes even more powerful if the managers or supervisors add words that agree with what came from the public, and add a few positive comments of their own.

More ways to collect customer input

Besides the approach used by the Lambert-St. Louis airport, there are other ways to capture positive comments from customers which can be shared with staff as one aspect of your staff recognition strategy:

  • A former client, a school board, asked that a question be added at the end of surveys of parents and students in grades 4-12: “Think about a staff member who has meant the most to you during your school career. What made this person special to you?” Hundreds of individual comments were collected, sorted and shared with the staff members identified by the students and parents.
  • When you receive positive feedback from a customer, make a point of passing it along, with your congratulations for a job well done.
  • Costco subtly encourages positive feedback by posting notes received from customers where both staff and other customers will see them.
  • Whenever positive comments are posted at online business-rating sites, such as Yelp, and, be sure to bring these to the attention of staff.
  • If a positive story appears in the local media about one (or more) staff members or about your organization itself, ensure that everyone involved receives a copy of the article.
  • Remind staff of the satisfied customers they have served today by asking, “What feedback did you receive from customers today? With what aspects of their experiences were they most satisfied?” Sure, you will hear complaints, but you will also hear the positives, which staff heard and which you can reinforce.