All it takes is one unhappy customer to badmouth your business to dozens of others. It's the same with that one employee who is put off by a poorly designed motivation or incentive effort.

It can be the simplest, most unintentional slip. Like the time you wrote a congratulatory e-mail to the team about an accomplishment — and forgot to include one person. But by missing that person — who was forwarded your group e-mail — you negated the value of your message, both to him and to his co-workers (they noticed he was missing, too).

Or take the manager who wanted to reward her team for meeting its goal to switch to a new system. She purchased a special gift for each employee (in itself, a nice gesture). But when she presented the gifts at a staff meeting, it was clear that some had cost much more than others. That was all people noticed. The lesson: Always give teams awards of equal value.

“Another one to look out for is public recognition,” said Jill Harrington, former executive director of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, from her new base in Ontario. “A lot of incentives are geared toward recognizing people up on stage in front of their peers.” She recalls the story of a manager who was approached by a petrified employee, who asked that he not have to take part in the awards ceremony. He didn't want to go on the trip if he had to. “Why not just ask your employees what matters to them?” she said.

At Premier Incentives in Marblehead, Mass., president Dick Gaeta told me about a client, a beverage company, that is trying to include as many of its distributors as it can in its incentive trip. So the company is asking the winners, who travel without a spouse, to double up in their rooms. “That's like camp,” he says. “You have to make sure the reward is suitable for the amount of effort you've asked them to put out.”

If you're planning a program to motivate employees, remember that it's anything but a simple matter. Take a step back before you put it into action and give it a fresh look. Log on to (The National Association for Employee Recognition) and the SITE Web site ( to see what other companies are doing. And talk to professionals like Gaeta to make sure there aren't any holes in your plan.