Companies keep employees motivated in tough times

Jan Norman
Register writer


When Lorraine Ontiveros won employee of the month honors at Emplicity, an Irvine human resources outsourcing service, she received more than a plaque. President Vic Tanon handed her the keys to an E-class Mercedes Benz with "Employee of the Month" sign on the side for a month.

Tanon said he’s always trying to figure out how to reward and incentivize employees, which isn’t that easy in a recession.

"We have a lot of Gen Y employees who want recognition in different ways," he said. "We wanted to make a loud statement when recognizing our employees and felt that a nice ride would give people something they could proudly take home and show to mom and dad and to their friends."

Many companies like Emplicity are finding creative, unusual ways to keep employees motivated and productive despite tough economic times. Creativity may count more than the dollars involved and even carry a stronger message that the business values its workers, the owners say.

Emplicity has 35 employees and offices in Irvine, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Antonio and Los Angeles. Each office has an employee-of-the-month vehicle. Sacramento has a Prius.

The monthly honoree in Emplicity’s Driving to Success program isn’t just a management favorite. Employees vote for their peer who best exemplifies the chosen theme for the month. Each theme emphasizes core company values, Tanon said.

Ontiveros was the July winner for the theme "positive attitude."

"The first time I drove the car, people were waving, giving me a thumbs up and even taking pictures of the car and it was a bit distracting, in a good way," Ontiveros said. "It kinda felt like I had the paparazzi following me."

The August honoree was Jennifer Meehan, who fellow employees decided best exemplifies "excellent teamwork."

Although some wonder if employees resent driving a company ad on wheels, Meehan said, "That car was awesome to drive around, stickers and all! Heck, I’d take that fully loaded Benz with stickers on it (over) my old (Honda) Civic with no stickers on it any day!"

Mitch Goldstone and Carl Berman, co-owners of Irvine-based, continually look for unusual ways to thank employees.

During the summer they took the entire staff by limousine to a surprise dinner at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Soon they will close the business for three days and take the staff for a luxury visit to Las Vegas. They’ll stay in a luxury suite and go to top shows. is a Web-based service that converts pictures to digital format.

"It’s important to come up with special ways to let employees know that they are our most valued asset," Goldstone says. "Employees are family to us. They are so highly motivated to do great work. There’s no way we could do this business. I can’t afford not to reward them."

The result of such staff recognition is that the company has no turnover and sales have continued to climb despite the recession, he added.

Dave Worman, who calls himself Dr. Motivation, said, bigger paychecks aren’t the only tool companies need to attract and keep good employees. He said public recognition; one-on-one coaching, a good work environment and team spirit all contribute to motivating workers.

John Brown, founder and president of Primary Freight Services for importers and exporters in Rancho Dominguez, agrees especially with that last motivational tool. He has offices in three states and has often created incentive and team-building programs for his 60 employees.

Then in the past year Primary Freight had layoffs and furloughs for the first time. Doom and gloom pervaded the company, Brown says.

Searching for something that would bring a little laughter back into the workplace, Brown came up with a Wii bowling tournament.

The program included various competitions from the best team name – the Improv-A-Bowl and Wii Bowls Wobble – to the highest score (tournament winner was the Super Sonic Hedgehogs). Brown even bought the 10 teams bowling shirts. The total investment, including prizes, was less than $2,500.

To keep it interesting each week’s competition had a twist, such as the previous week’s top scorers had to bowl left handed.

"All of a sudden I heard something I hadn’t for a long time: laughter, the joy of coming to work," Brown says.

Primary Freight is now planning a Wii golf tournament in October and exploring a voluntary Wii fitness program.

"The results surpassed my wildest dreams," Brown says. The bowling tournament "bought back camaraderie, it took away the fear."

Contact the writer: 714-796-7927 or

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