The Graveyard Whistlers

Maritz Inc., the St. Louis giant nobody knows, the company that created the gold retirement watch and other corporate incentives, faces the future with a frozen smile

But last year, Bill succumbed to prostate cancer, and Steve took over as paterfamilias. He has yet to build up his own legends, but employees already dwell on his warmth, his optimism, his remarkable memory for their names. Every month, Maritz's peak performers grin in front of a mottled gray-blue backdrop so their portrait can be hung in the cafeteria, then troop off to a luncheon hosted by Steve.

At Maritz, the fastest way to become a hero -- short of befriending a Maritz -- is to have a crisis on your project and then resolve it, positively and cheerfully. Heroes quite literally win points. And if they earn enough, they get a 60-second "run through the Maritz warehouse," complete with cheerleaders and banquet and permission to keep all they can grab. But employees can also earn a few award points by walking back and forth across the pedestrian bridge to keep their arteries clear. They get discounts on their SUVs, and debit cards they can use at the mall ...

Beneath all the perks runs a dark stream of irony: When you ask longtime Maritz employees and managers what keeps them motivated, they never once mention incentives. They're the self-motivated type, themselves, they say. Pressed, they'll concede that the trips and catalogs are swell -- but what they've always found exciting is the cool work Maritz does and the camaraderie of being part of it.

Rick Sealock
Rick Sealock

"We picked people who had good work values," says Mary Smith, a former Maritz recruiter and manager who was laid off from the travel company this July but still raves about its extraordinary climate. "People would go to amazing lengths, and no one really thought to be rewarded for it. You just wanted to."

In other words, the company that burns midnight oil supplying motivation to corporations that can no longer rely on the work ethic, camaraderie or the inherent interest of the work -- succeeds by relying on the work ethic, camaraderie and inherent interest of its work.

A manager who quit reluctantly after eight years says she "just fell over in a heap, completely burned out. But that was my own fault. It's a wonderful company."

She still remembers her first sight of campus: "Bill had planted, like, a million tulip bulbs, and everyone was so friendly. I remember going, 'God, I'll do anything, put me in the mailroom!' "

Maritz's most recent annual report hypes "rewards and recognition elements that drive and reinforce new levels of performance by answering the question 'What's in it for me?'"

Maritz's Web site herds more than 1,000 branded awards "carefully selected for their ability to unfailingly deliver ... trophy value." Maritz is even working with the eIncentives company to develop electronic scratch-and-win games that might draw Web-surfers' attention to performance-improvement products.

Trophies do get people's attention. But they also encourage cheating: Incentive journals are rife with horror stories about cars bought twice, life insurance sold to relatives who later cancel, reports filed late or early to meet the quota.

Studies show that people making collages or writing poems for an external reward work less creatively than people doing the same project for fun or internal satisfaction. Purveyors of external rewards run into "fatigue" unless the circus barkers continually change their spiel. To generate real excitement, rewards have to be luxuries or status indicators.

Maritz counts on the majority in the middle, whose basic needs are already met but who crave reassurance, thanks and esteem. But in today's economy, the middle is sliding down to more basic needs, such as job security. And though the Maritz trophies are meant to fulfill higher psychological needs, they sometimes supplant them. Incentive plans make it easy for a lazy manager to bypass all that mawkish praise and simply say: "You met your quota; you're going to Acapulco."

Measured right, incentive programs still work in many situations, convincing sales distributors to push a certain product or shoppers to stick with a particular brand. Best of all, they're cheaper than cash. Maritz says its original hunch has been backed up by independent studies showing that noncash incentives get the same bang for one-third the buck.

But the more sophisticated the worker and the more complex the job, the less the trophies gleam.

Maritz keeps its clients confidential, letting them take the credit for the incentives and improvements, but recently it worked with a health-care system. Fitzpatrick pronounces the program a resounding success, but another Maritz insider recalls that "doctors and nurses were very resistant to responding to an activity that had incentives. From their vantage point, their work was much bigger than that. They're not going to do something for a patient because it'll get them a toaster."

But Maritz has suckled for decades on what many now call an outworn creed.

"Incentives are radical behaviorist; they're B.F. Skinner on the simplest level: Do this, get that," says one former employee. "Today, many, many organizations are moving toward a more systemic, participative, whole-person way of engaging and motivating employees. But Maritz doesn't tend to listen to employees in that way. Historically, Maritz is a jewelry company. It's stuck on stuff."

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