In Paris, Avoiding the ‘Spider-Man’ Reward

A political version of a classic leadership dilemma played out this week: When is a reward for heroic behavior too much?

Let’s say one of your employees does something great, something that goes above and beyond performance. Something that demonstrates a level of commitment and understanding of the company’s core values, far exceeding even your already high standards. Obviously, you reward that person; not acknowledging them could create anger and foster resentment, resulting in disengagement. But if you reward them too much, you could alienate colleagues or set a precedent for future rewards for similar behavior. So, how big of a reward is too big?

A political version of this classic leadership dilemma is playing out in France this week after President Emmanuel Macron granted citizenship to the so-called “Spider-Man” of Paris, an illegal immigrant who amazed the world by scaling an apartment building to save a 4-year-old boy who was hanging off a balcony. But Macron has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for the move. Political opponents claim he is flouting new immigration laws passed in Parliament, while his supporters are still upset over the tougher stance his government has taken on immigration generally.

“There are always going to be naysayers,” says Korn Ferry senior client partner Thomas McMullen. “It comes down to what people truly see in the recognition.” Or as Ben Frost, Korn Ferry’s general manager of Reward Products, puts it, “The biggest danger is in creating expectations that you may not want to live up to in every subsequent case.” 

The answer to that, as with most everything else, often depends on context and perspective. It isn’t hard to see how other illegal immigrants could feel aggrieved by being skipped over, for instance. Similarly, if the same employee keeps winning “Employee of the Month,” it ends up having no meaning—for both the winner and the other employees. “Any whiff of favoritism or gaming the system will destroy the credibility the reward is supposed to bestow,” says McMullen. 

Organizations, including Pepsi and McDonald’s, have long given out special awards for such things as exceptional representation of their values, business priorities, and talent development goals, among other reasons. A study by Korn Ferry Hay Group and Globoforce on the business impact of recognition programs found that 50% of organizations surveyed had awards programs that aligned with core company values. Conversely, and underscoring how new this trend really is, 19% of responding organizations didn’t have a recognition program at all, while 31% had one that wasn’t tied to any particular set of values or business goals. 

McMullen notes that there is usually a spike in organizations that offer recognition awards during hard economic times—there were spikes during the recessions of 2001-2002 and 2008-2009, for example. “These kinds of high-visibility awards that go beyond the paycheck are extremely important ways organizations can increase engagement,” McMullen says. “The incremental value and benefit far exceed the costs.” He cautions, however, that these kinds of extraordinary awards programs must have clear procedural guidelines, a credible body of people vetting candidates, and metrics for judging, among other elements. Otherwise, one person’s award could lead to the anger of many others.