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Bob Nelson's best seller offers innovative ways for companies to keep their employees motivated.

Bob Nelson has written one of the best-selling business books of the year, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing, $9.95). It provides examples of how companies across the country are trying to keep employees motivated and productive with more than just a paycheck.

Nelson, vice president of Blanchard Training and Development, a San Diego management training company, recently discussed what he learned from writing the book.

Q. You say money isn't everything, but when most employees think of rewards at work, don't they want more money?

A. That's what prompted me to do the book. Most research with managers, you ask them what their people want and they say, "More money." But when you ask their people, it's seldom at the top. I've yet to see a study where it was the No. 1 thing. Money may be fifth or sixth or even farther down.

Usually on top of the list are things such as being thanked for doing a job. It's the thing that keeps people going on a day-to-day basis.

Q. Most employers don't know this?

A. It's a common-sense notion but not a common practice. Most companies, when they go to motivate their employees, think in terms of programs. And motivation is a very personal thing. It stems mainly from the interaction between employees and the people who manage them.

Q. So if I want to have happy, productive employees, the most important factor isn't raises and 401(k) plans and that sort of thing. I should be thinking about saying "Thank you"?

A. If you want them excited about working, and bringing their best ideas and initiatives to the workplace, you'll never get that just by saying, "Hey, you'll get an extra 2 percent (raise) eight months from now." Compensation is a right, an expectation. This needs to be done in addition to compensation.

Q. So what do you tell managers to do?

A. It's a combination of finding what works for them, not just for their people, but what they're comfortable doing. In doing research for the book I'd ask managers what they're doing to motivate their employees and they'd say, "I write a letter to their personnel file." And I'd say, "Oh, that's good. When was the last time you did it?" And they say, "Oh, 1989."

Q. Is it a matter of many managers just not being creative enough?

A. Most managers are busy. They're focused on doing what's urgent and they may not have any time left over to go over and thank someone. It didn't mean you didn't want to; it just means it wasn't a high enough priority for you.

So I try to hook people with things that any manager can do and don't require a budget. And ironically enough, those are some of the things that employees indicate are most meaningful to them. Then based on that it can grow and they can start doing more things.

Q. By that you must mean broader and more elaborate efforts to reward and praise workers. One example you cite in the book is the companywide Olympics held by Domino's Pizza Distribution Co. It says events range "from accounting to dough making, vegetable slicing, truck loading, dough catching and tray scraping" with winners in 16 categories receiving $4,000 awards.

A. It's the most amazing thing. These people are just so enthusiastic. The people who make pizzas there at the Olympics are so excited they're jumping on tables. And in the culture, after they go to that, they're referred to in the stores as Olympians. It may seem like mundane, silly stuff to us, but to them that's their cutting edge.

Q. That might sound silly to a lot of managers who would wonder how to put something more elaborate like that in practice in their business.

A. You've got to find what works for you, for the level of employee, for the type of culture that's there. For the history you've got. For the available budget. And I think that's why the book has done well. People read it and they say, "That's a good idea. I can put that one in practice."

Q. How much should these kinds of rewards be linked to performance?

A. There's a company in the book that each year gives all its employees a gift. And last year it gave them a VCR. They gave out 20,000 VCRs. Now I wouldn't recommend that to any company because whenever you give everyone the same reward you're not differentiating performance at all.

When you're giving someone who did the best job the same thing as someone who barely showed up for work, that's not going to be effective in helping to motivate. So when this works the best it's around the desired performance and it's things that come from one's individual manager. Motivation is a very personal thing.

Q. Out of the 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, what's your favorite?

A. My favorite's massage. Every Valentine's Day I bring in a masseuse to give everyone a neck and shoulder massage. The best ideas tend to come from asking the people you're trying to motivate what's truly important to them. And the next best thing is just asking yourself what you value and what you would appreciate. It's kind of the Golden Rule.