Often, one of the responsibilities that falls to a small business HR professional is morale boosting. Some businesses lump this under a general category like employee engagement or organizational culture. What you choose to call it doesn’t matter much, but getting it right certainly does. The importance of that was reinforced for me when I encountered an example of how NOT to get morale-boosting right.

This week, a friend who works in a company with about 40 employees (and morale that, reportedly, is questionable at best) shared this experience. A few days ago, she received an all-company email from the (one and only) HR person in the firm. The message noted that the business owner thought it would be a great morale booster if everyone in the company chose professional sports teams they thought would win upcoming tournaments.

No money would be involved in this office “pool,” but the employee who chose the winning team would receive some sort of (unidentified) prize. “Get out and play,” the email ordered. Next day, another message came, urging workers to participate and advising them that there was “no excuse” not to. My friend called this morning to say that the final communiqué arrived today. It reported that only 8 of the 40 staffers had joined the pool. “That leaves 32 of you,” it noted, reminding readers there were “no fees, no pressure, no excuses. And there will be (still unidentified) prizes… in case you are wondering.” The HR practitioner concluded the terse message with “All I know is that this is fun!”

Really? Does it feel like fun? Apparently three-quarters of my friend’s colleagues were not left with effervescent morale in the wake of this obviously failed effort. In fact, it reads like a textbook case of how NOT to engage employees. Obviously, the HR professional responded to the owner’s notion of fun, but neither apparently had a clue what employees would find appealing.

Morale describes how your employees feel emotionally about your company and their work. Are they happy? Frustrated? Confident? Frightened? Enthusiastic?

Naturally, we hope for happy, confident and enthusiastic, but that isn’t the case in many workplaces these days. As HR professionals, we know that poor morale has toxic effects on performance, productivity, quality, retention, and many other aspects of work. So we’re motivated to do what we can to improve poor morale or maintain good morale in our organizations. But how to do that? Here are five suggestions for SMB HR professionals who want to have a positive impact on workplace morale:

1. Insist on respectful treatment for everyone. Treating employees with respect is perhaps the most fundamental building block of morale. HR is uniquely positioned to provide training in good communication and workplace behavior that demonstrates respect.

2. Clarify expectations. When employees don’t understand what their employer wants them to do or why, morale can suffer. Clear expectations about performance leave no room for doubt. HR can help company leaders communicate organizational objectives and help managers translate those into individual goals for employees.

3. Ensure fair compensation and benefits. If your company doesn’t pay employees competitive wages or fails to offer benefits similar to those of comparable organizations, morale can suffer. So can your organization’s ability to attract and keep the skilled talent it needs to succeed. HR’s familiarity with industry standards and knowledge of the local compensation and benefits market can help to ensure that morale isn’t negatively affected because of deficiencies in those areas.

4. Advocate flexibility. The reality of today’s busy world is that employees feel stressed when they aren’t able to effectively balance the demands of their personal lives with those of their employers. HR can help take off the pressure and positively affect employee morale by developing programs that offer greater flexibility: work schedule options, time-off policies, telework opportunities, and the like.

5. Recognize good performance. When employees perform well, they deserve to be rewarded. Companies that take the time to understand what their workers find rewarding and fun (unlike my friend’s employer) benefit by recognizing outstanding efforts. HR professionals understand the power of an effective recognition program, and they know that rewards don’t have to break the bank to be positive drivers of morale. If your company isn’t leveraging the power of rewards, start a modest program today.

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