Rewards and Incentives for Women at the Workplace

This piece, written by one of our close friends, seeks to understand what it is like being a woman attendee in events and programs, that are almost always designed, perhaps unconsciously, for men.

Rewards Only for Men

“I don’t want to outperform ever”

I am sure that’s not the response organizations expect from their top performers. But if a top performer happens to be a woman, it might not be that surprising.

“I was rewarded for my performance once with a trip to Thailand. I had a horrible time.”

She said in a tone of absolute disappointment and disgust. Even though the location was selected and the schedule was designed with a clear intent to ‘reward employees’, it didn’t feel like a reward to her. The trip included a series of events designed for high testosterone misogynistic men – strip clubs, massages with a happy ending and ‘special’ shows. She was the only woman in a group of almost 70 men, mainly sales and marketing teams including her seniors. Even they were uncomfortable with her presence. They would have been happier if she wasn’t invited.

Every single one of them came back happy from the trip, high on their holiday and motivated to fight again in the market and perform. One employee came back unhappy, angry and demotivated.

“It was a hypocritical reward”

It was not a reward for her. Even for men, it was an unacceptable reward.

It was an embarrassing series of 4 days with her colleagues with no escape.
Not one event or a tangible gift was designed for her. (I wonder if HR organizing team tried to include striptease by male dancers.)
She is expected to come back and work with these men somehow hoping that they would treat women better in their workplace.
“Why should I get that as a good performer? And what are you telling me with this? Are you expecting me to ask for men as rewards because I performed well?”

“Why should this be a reward? If you have done something nice, let’s go and get some women for you; let’s go to strip clubs for your pleasure. Women are the gifts for everyone who performed well. Why is the company HR paying to tell men to enjoy women? How can you objectify women as a prize?” She expressed her anger and frustration to everyone including HR. There were no answers and no resolutions.

At the core of it was a very simple question. ‘How do I expect them to come back and treat me and other women in office better after they have just been told that women are objects and gifts for good performance?’

“Why should this be a part of company event?”

It isn’t about sex. It isn’t about denying that men or women have sexual desires. It’s not about imposing her values on everyone else around her. We need to look beyond this obvious layer. She did not say at any point that sex is a problem or shameful.

There are two fundamental issues with the process of these rewards.

A Woman being treated as ‘rewards’ and ‘gifts’ is a problem. The very premise kills the foundations of civilized society. It encourages violent behavior towards women. It makes it acceptable to treat women as pleasure objects. Women are stripped away of their humanity with the encouragement of this practice. There are valid options for fulfilling sexual desires that include consent, willingness or equal desire by both members.
A company paying for events encouraging men to act on their pre-civilization primitive instincts with complete disregard for the humanity of women makes it ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’. It legitimizes the objectification of women. “My male colleagues could have done what they wanted in their own time with their money. Why should this be a part of company event?”

“Yes, I complained to HR. No, they didn’t do anything.”

She complained to HR when she came back. They did the same thing next year. It was then the turn of another female colleague to be the only woman amongst a set of 70 men high on free alcohol in a company party where scantily clad young girls performed for their pleasure. “I had nowhere to go. I had to deal with it”. She was in a foreign country for a company event. And why should she split and be on her own in the hotel room or in the city? It was supposed to be a holiday, not a punishment. Locations for these events changed but the schedule remained the same.

“We weren’t rewarded with something that feels like a reward.”

Are women simply ignored when rewards are planned? Is there an expectation of low or average performance from women? Did organizations not expect women to perform better or they just ignored the evolution of workforce dynamics over the years? Do organizations care enough about welcoming women to the workplace and investing in their growth similar to their male counterparts?

It appears that most versions of rewards and incentives are designed keeping men in mind. But even small gifts aimed to build teams and positive communities within a workplace seem to ignore female gender. Most employee gifts are commonly sourced. “All t-shirts at company events given to us and that we were forced to wear were men’s size, cut and designs. We had to deal with it. How difficult is it to get that right?”

How are we talking about creating inclusive workplaces even if small things connecting employees to their organizations are designed only for men?

The Other Story

I wondered if this is a common story across organizations or an isolated case of a lapse in judgment by one company or one organizing team. I had to question if there is another side to this story that I don’t have access to.

I spoke to a few acquaintances from the corporate world and the ones who exist on the fringes like events and advertising.

I heard a different language. They vehemently disagreed with this. “Most of our clients are very strict about it. It’s not even entertained as a topic of discussion.”

One employee of a large sales organization pointed out that Thailand has recently been banned as a destination for all internal employee events. As a recipient of a couple of reward holidays during his time in sales and marketing, he had a different story to share. While it’s true that most reward events have very few women employees, the official itinerary or events don’t include anything offensive to women. However, the sales incentive programs for business partners or distributors sometimes include events that could be objectionable.

Shouldn’t the same rules or standards apply to these events also?

Rewards and incentives for external partners and internal employees are intertwined in sales organizations. The incentive events or dealers’ meets also include employees from sales and marketing teams.

After listening to other stories, it appeared that many organizations have a strict code of conduct with respect to internal employee events but not necessarily for external partners. It was a grey area. In one discussion, a female sales employee mentioned, “the ‘shady’ dealers meet are a thing of past; it doesn’t happen anymore.” Most were ambiguous or doubtful about the sales events for external partners and even the sales process.

This raises a parallel debate on the process of sales, business development and partner incentives.

We cannot look at rewards in isolation. The sales process itself packages the ‘special benefits’ with commercial success. In case of B2B scenario, it’s an incentive to influence purchase decisions. In case of B2C products, it’s a part of the incentive program for dealers and other significant supply chain partners.

During a couple of conversations, objectionable sales practices were pointed out. In a few organizations, sales representatives are expected to entertain their clients with facilitating sexual favors or accompany them to strip clubs. A company is not only paying for this but also encouraging the practice by forcing employees to actively participate. It was unclear if it was coerced by just a handful of senior employees or it was a widespread sales practice across the organization or industry. During my conversations, I heard this story about two different organizations.

I had to ask if this was raised as an issue because of the cultural context of few individual’s life stories and perspectives. Could there be an exaggeration of events in the mind of these individuals? When I heard a couple of more stories about global organizations, I didn’t find anything different.

It’s a multi-layer widespread practice and seeped deep into the system. But at the heart of it remains the fundamental question of respect for women at workplace and hence the efforts made to welcome or include women. If the messaging is that women can be bought and sold as pleasure objects for men, then how do we expect men in these organizations to treat their women colleagues with respect and work with them as equals? If the external partner incentive program includes striptease and more, how do we expect them to respectfully work with women sales teams of the company? On a side note, it’s another layer of discouragement for women to aspire for a career in sales.

Where do we go from here?

I have no way of knowing if these stories are true to reality or if they are exaggerated versions triggered by heightened emotions. But the conversations with various members of the environment were layered with tones of anger or apology or resignation. The problem is real. Some organizations seem to have addressed it head on; some have taken initial tiny steps. While it’s encouraging to know that conversations have happened and relevant actions have been taken in some parts of the industry, it’s also important to acknowledge the comfort with which we accept and allow it go on everywhere else.

How do we begin to address the concern? There are some easy answers and some not-so-easy ones. Here are a few thoughts that can be considered.

  • Recruit more women: It’s a simple first step. A diverse workforce brings with it heightened sensitivity and empathy. A diverse team can also create better market solutions with more perspectives.
  • Get the t-shirts right: Small tokens shared with the teams to create a sense of belonging to a community cannot exclude a section of employees. Small gifts and incentives need to be fair and inclusive. It’s a small cost and small effort.
  • Redesign rewards: There are multiple ways a reward can be made more meaningful and relevant for all team members. To begin with, be more inclusive and sensitive to the program content to build an inclusive workplace and avoid larger repercussions to the society.
  • External partner programs: Organizations have the ability and power to influence the larger ecosystem and society. As pointed out by one sales manager, ‘the dealers are happy even with an international trip; the program content doesn’t make them more loyal or connected to the company.’ There is no reason for the company to spend money on objectionable programs or events.
  • Sensitize teams on values: It’s necessary to have an open dialogue with employees about organization culture and values. It’s crucial to consciously create a code of conduct.
  • Monitor sales process and practices closely: While revenue is the prime driving force, organizations need to be careful of the unethical and objectionable practices by the sales force and build strict standards.

‘Society hasn’t changed. So why should businesses?’ Someone pointed this out during the discussion and further added, ‘this is a reflection of society; you can’t change this.’ With this mindset, human society would never have evolved. We are far ahead in time from the primitive societies. We can define new rules that serve us better today. Businesses with organized workforce have the ability to influence the face of new society. Organizations are made up of people and therefore reflect society. But they are also structured institutions with their own identity and goals. Their workforce follows strict rules and code of conduct to work together for the company vision. They are mini-societies in themselves with their own defined set of behavior patterns. With organized workforce forming a bigger part of our society, they can influence thought patterns and make a larger impact to communities around them.


What has your experience, as a woman, been at events or partner programs? Talk to our editor, Sanskriti Nagar about it. 

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