Although employee recognition programs have become more common in financial services companies, travel incentives are usually reserved for top salespeople. Not so at Bank of America, where every one of the company's nearly 200,000 employees is eligible to qualify for recognition rewards that include incentive trips.

“Bank of America is totally focused on recognizing all of its associates,” says Kevin Cronin, senior vice president, recognition and rewards, when asked about BOA's five-part recognition and reward program. “Whether it is the frontline teller or a commercial lender, it's important to understand that as we take care of our shareholders, we also take care of our employees. It's a great way of rewarding associates who have demonstrated the core values so important to the company and the communities we serve.”

According to Cronin, employee recognition at BOA starts at the most basic level. For example, team leaders start their meetings by informally recognizing associates for their recent efforts, company executives often remind employees about the different award programs they are eligible for, and associates nominate their peers for recognition and rewards when they've seen a job done well.

Travel Incentives

Every Bank of America employee is eligible for each of the five recognition and reward programs: Spirit Celebration Cards, Spirit Rewards, Spirit Medallions, Anniversary Awards, and the Spirit Award of Excellence. While each is valued, the Spirit Award of Excellence — essentially an incentive travel reward — is the most prestigious, and “creates a tremendous amount of excitement among our associates,” says Cronin.

Only about 1 percent of the BOA work force wins this coveted award. Winners are selected yearly by the leadership teams from every line of business in the company, based on such factors as customer service excellence, productivity gains, and other criteria, depending on the associate's job responsibilities. They are flown to a number of different resorts throughout the U.S. for a four-day recognition event.

The highlight of every Spirit Award of Excellence program is a teambuilding project. In 2006, for example, award recipients attending a program at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., participated in a “Build-a-Bike” project where they assembled 200 bicycles and donated them to children living in a public housing development in Phoenix. As a company, Bank of America “is really focused on understanding how we impact the community,” says Cronin, both on an everyday basis and during incentive travel programs when groups visit different destinations. The use of a teambuilding event as a charitable endeavor, he adds, has a positive impact on both BOA employees and the local community.

Spirited Away to San Diego

Five of the most well-received Spirit of Excellence travel programs in 2007 were held in San Diego. Ranging in size from 550 to 1,100 attendees, the wave of programs began in early March and ran into May. Two were held at the Hotel Del Coronado on the island of Coronado, while the other three took place at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. A total of more than 4,000 associates participated in the five programs.

Access San Diego Destination Services — which received its own Spirit Award of Excellence from BOA — designed the program content. On the third day of each trip, attendees were broken up into teams of 15 to 20 people to participate in a “Big Red Wagon” community service/teambuilding project. The goal of each team was to work together to build a big red wagon from scratch. Participants were split into smaller subteams and given different tasks to help fulfill the mission. They modeled the wagons on the classic Radio Flyer and assembled a customized care package that fit into each one. The wagons and care packages were then donated to a number of local San Diego charities (such as the YMCA), pre-selected by Bank of America.

Building a wagon is not as hard as it looks, although it required construction decisions such as determining the correct tire pressure and the optimal placement of the wagon handle. Beyond the technical process, Access San Diego General Manager Jennifer Miller, DMCP, was particularly impressed with how the BOA attendees took teambuilding to another level. “During the events, participants in each of the groups performed random acts of kindness for each other,” she says. Another example: “One team started a “pay it forward” challenge where each member donated $10 to a particular charity and then challenged everyone else to contribute. With the bank matching each dollar contributed, the group raised more than $17,000 for charity within a half hour. According to Miller, bank execs were so pleased with the red wagon teambuilding activity that they went on to use it for recognition programs in Arizona and Miami.

As for the rest of the program, during the first day at the Hotel Del Coronado, BOA associates were treated to a beach party, while those in the Sheraton San Diego attended opening night receptions at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The following day was set aside for activities including golf, spa, land and sea tours, trips into San Diego's Gaslamp District, and sailing on San Diego Bay. The final day was highlighted by a gala dinner that included an awards component.

The result of the San Diego trips? Miller reports that on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the highest satisfaction rating, attendees scored each of the five programs in the high 90s. The popular teambuilding/community service events, Cronin notes, were also a great way for Bank of America to promote its core values.

An Award for Everyone

In addition to its ultimate Spirit of Excellence award, which recognizes employees with a four-day travel program, BOA has four other reward categories:

Spirit Celebration Cards are used to recognize individual associates or entire business teams for specific behaviors or actions “exemplifying the Bank of America spirit,” says Kevin Cronin, BOA senior vice president, recognition and rewards. They can be awarded to any employee at any time either by sending them electronically or presenting them in person. Individual recipients are often acknowledged at some kind of public forum, and employee teams can be recognized in the same way.

Spirit Rewards allow program managers, as well as associates, to recognize efforts and accomplishments of employees by rewarding them with Spirit Reward points. “It could be for anything from a teller providing excellent service to a customer, to someone doing a great job leading a project team,” says Cronin. “It's a way to hold an associate up as a great example of Bank of America spirit. ” Reward points can be redeemed through an online catalog of more than 3,000 items, including jewelry, housewares, golf clubs, Bank of American brand merchandise, and travel options.

Spirit Medallions are given by managers to recognize individual associates or entire teams for demonstrating a commitment to the bank's core values and “Bank of America spirit,” while achieving results that positively affect the customer, associate, or bank shareholder experience. “We really recommend that these are awarded either face-to-face, or in a large forum,” says Cronin. “Managers should spell out why recipients have been recognized so that they can reinforce those key core values and tie them back to positive results.”

Anniversary Rewards are designed to reward commitment and loyalty to the company. A one-year milestone is celebrated with a lapel pin, while five, 10, and every fifth-year anniversary after that is celebrated with additional awards and gifts. In 2007, BOA recognized 14 associates who had been with the company for 50 years, says Cronin.