Got a cunning plan? Here's a tenner

Kate Hilpern
Sunday 17 September 2000 00:00
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Longing to feel more involved in the way your employer runs the company? Desperate to have your views on change not only recognised but rewarded? If so, joining an organisation with a new-style staff suggestions scheme could be the answer.

Longing to feel more involved in the way your employer runs the company? Desperate to have your views on change not only recognised but rewarded? If so, joining an organisation with a new-style staff suggestions scheme could be the answer.

"Old-style awards which, sadly, are still used in some companies, were nothing more than windfalls for the lucky few at the top who were allowed to put in for them," says Julian Richer, chairman of the hi-fi retailer Richer Sounds and guru of reward schemes. "New-style awards, however, serve as much to involve employees as to enrich the company with ideas."

It goes like this. Instead of rare, mammoth and exclusive prizes, staff get smaller, frequent and broader- based ones. "The aim is to get everyone interested in constantly improving the organisation, even in the seemingly tiniest ways. Staff win because they have added motivation, ways of relieving their frustrations at work, and financial bonuses. And I win because my weekly hour spent looking at staff suggestions is about the most productive one I spend. About 85 per cent of our ideas come from our own people."

Because Mr Richer's practices have been so influential in the development of suggestions schemes, the basic features are found in many firms. The smallest award, £5, is given to almost anyone who bothers to send in an idea.

"The theory is, you create a culture in which everyone feels encouraged to think up ideas," says Mr Richer. "If it's not feasible but a good try, they get £10. If it's worth serious consideration, they get £15, and so on." The top award can be £20,000.

"We have two types of award - those where the cost saving or improvement in efficiency is quantifiable, and those where it is not," says Rob Woolley, suggestions scheme manager for the Inland Revenue. "The first category's awards are based on 10 per cent of the first year's benefits. And the other awards are decided by our suggestions committee, which has four members of the management and also four trade union representatives." One staff member was recently awarded £100 for suggesting that on every training course employees should share a car with a colleague wherever possible. Another was rewarded for suggesting that a phone number should be moved to a more obvious spot on a tax form. "It's not only the idea itself that benefits employers. There are tax concessions on most awards," says Mr Woolley.

At Asda, where 1,000 suggestions are submitted each month, it seems the quirkier the idea, the better. "A colleague from Carcroft in Sheffield suggested that for the store's 25th anniversary we cut prices to what they were 25 years ago, as a one-off celebration," says Zaria Pinchbeck, spokesperson for the firm. One employee, Melanie Crosbie from Livingston, suggested that greeters in stores could sing to customers. "I felt it would cheer people up, and make their Asda trip fun," says Ms Crosbie, who won a weekend in New York.

Asda is among an increasing number of companies starting to offer employees non-cash rewards for suggestions. "Money is in danger of being used for bills whereas points, which can be saved up and swapped for goods and trips, are a treat," says Ms Pinchbeck.

Rita Wilson, head of personnel services at Lichfield district council, agrees, claiming the local authority's rewards of shopping vouchers are "highly effective".

SmithKline Beecham goes further still. Although the company does not have an official suggestions scheme, it recognises team-based ideas and rewards staff with the chance to travel to compare notes with peers at other SKB sites worldwide. "This acts as a strong staff motivator," says Louise Sibley, SKB's corporate communications director.

But Mr Richer claims that anything other than cash rewards can be patronising. "For some, shopping vouchers would be no motivation whatsoever."

A further area of contention is whether or not suggestions schemes should be "focused". Ralph Pitman, head of internal communications at Halifax, says: "We used to encourage ideas about anything and everything. Indeed, we had 80,000 suggestions in five years. But recently we felt the scheme was getting tired and we've run one-off schemes such as 'Why don't we stop ...' or 'Sales routines are more effective if...'"

Anita Kerrigan, staff awards manager at Abbey National, says that, above all, for the employees it's essential that any suggestions scheme emphasises the listening element. "If nothing else, the scheme must be saying ,'We care about what you think. We want to hear about it. And if we like it, we'll prove it'. That's the bottom line," she says.

And for the employer, says Mr Richer, the crucial aspect is that the ideas are actually used. "A healthy organisation feeds on ideas, suggestions, comments and criticisms."

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