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Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Google had a very cool system for allowing employees to pat each other on the back. It was called a peer bonus, and basically netted out about $100. The idea was that if you saw someone doing something above and beyond the call of duty, you would send them a peer bonus by e-mailing HR and then that person would receive a virtual certificate detailing what they had done for their peers to deserve the bonus. There were a few rules to prevent blatant gaming of the system, but by and large it was an honor system.

This was a great system, and I made it a personal goal to hand out one of these every quarter. What I loved about it was that it did two things: first of all, it gave someone a pat on the back for hard work. The average engineer made about $100/hour, so if anyone did something for me that saved me an hour of time or more, that peer bonus was well worth it. But as I handed them out, what I noticed was that people were so starved of recognition that the value of handing out these awards far exceeded any monetary gain they represented. Once I had given someone a peer bonus, the next time I asked for a favor, people would bend over backwards to get me something I needed. So handing out frequent peer bonuses made me more effective as well. I also got into the habit of writing someone an unsolicited positive peer review whenever I thought something they did was worth while. I don't know if I ever made a difference to someone's promotion, but clearly, others thought it mattered. The problem with Google was that people performed so far above their levels that folks working there took extra-ordinary performance for granted, and rarely stopped to recognize the amazing things that were getting done every day.

At one point I handed out a peer bonus to Mirit Cohen (currently at gastronauts serving the lucky folks working for twitter). Her manager got very very excited and told me, "Did you know that in the history of Google you are only the second person to hand out a peer bonus to a chef?" That blew my mind. These people worked their hearts out producing amazing food for Googlers, and yet in Google history only 2 people had ever thought to say thank you in this extremely lightweight fashion. Whenever I visit the Google campus now as a retiree, occasionally people will ask me how it was that I came to know so many chefs. My response was, "Try being one of two people who'd ever given a chef any kind of recognition for their hard work."

A year before I left, the peer bonus system got switched out. It had gone from an e-mail system to one in which you filled out a web form. The web form had all sorts of warnings on top saying, "Please do not abuse the system, make sure the bonus is really going to someone deserving!" What I saw, however, wasn't that people were abusing the system, but that people were starved for recognition, and I thought the warning should have said, "Not enough of you are thanking your peers for a job well done. You should come back here more often."


ChiaLea said...

Many of us have tried to give peer bonuses to the chefs. We're just not allowed to give bonuses to contractors, and many of them are contractors.

Unknown said...

the way to deal with that is to tell the chef or to give the chef the peer bonus and let the chef know via email or in-person who the peer bonus is really for.

speaking as someone who works with a lot of contractors, that's pretty much how i work the system. most of the bosses of the contractors are more than happy to do something special for the employee, be it straight cash, or just purchasing something for them

Piaw Na said...

Sy has it right. If you care enough about something, find a way to make it happen. If someone's working their heart out feeding you, that little bit of recognition, even an e-mail to their manager means a lot!

Tom Galloway said...

I didn't give a peer bonus, but in my farewell statement at TGIF I made a point of giving a shoutout to the chefs (as well as the Tech Writers, who'd never gotten any sort of public appreciation from the powers that be).

Piaw Na said...

Yes, I remember that. It's clear that in the engineering-centered hierarchy there's very little room for others to get the giant bonuses. Having been in the other shoe in companies that were sales, marketing, or product driven, I can entirely sympathize.