Have you ever seen the episode of “The Office” in which Dwight Schrute tries to motivate the staff by creating and awarding “Schrute Bucks” (fake money with his picture on them) for good behavior and performance? It turned out that Schrute Bucks did not motivate the staff of Dunder Mifflin to perform better, but did just the opposite — no one cared about the fake money. Of course, Dwight is aghast that employees are not interested in his tokens.

It seems that companies often throw their own version of “Schrute Bucks” at their employees to try to entice them to work harder. And it doesn’t seem to be working any better for today’s employees than it did for the staff on “The Office.” So, what do we need to do to really reward our employees?

Here are a few suggestions for developing a reward system that has a better chance of working to motivate your employees.

Find out what rewards are attractive to your employees. We assume they want more money, mugs, certificates, etc. without ever finding out how they view those things. Don’t assume that what we (as managers) think are the best rewards would be seen as the best rewards to our employees. In one company I know, the managers were not interested in giving certificates for good performance, yet their staff really valued getting certificates and proudly hung them up in their offices.

Explain to people how rewards are determined. Clearly communicate this to employees because you can be sure they will have a lot of questions.

Distribute rewards in a fair way. You can bet that your employees will notice if this is not done.

Provide rewards in a timely manner. Don’t wait for a year to go by before thanking someone or rewarding them for exemplary performance. Try to find opportunities to reward them in a more frequent, timely fashion.

Use rewards to reinforce constructive behaviors. Remember the purpose for rewards is both informational (telling them what they did that was effective) and motivational (inspiring them to keep engaging in the behavior).

Consider flexibility. Some companies allow employees to pick their own rewards from several choices or catalogues. Before you follow that path, however, first find out if flexibility is important in your organization. While some employees like this approach, others feel weird picking out their own reward with no feedback from their managers. Even if you give them options to pick out a reward, their boss should still personally thank them for their performance.

Vary the awards. Provide appealing external rewards (e.g., bonuses, gifts, etc) as well as internal rewards (e.g., interesting work, autonomy). Keep in mind that your employees come from different backgrounds (age, gender, ethnicity and interests) and may have very different views on what they find rewarding. Don’t assume they all value the same things.

Periodically check employees’ perceptions regarding the fairness of how rewards are allocated and if the rewards still have meaning to them.

Some managers figure that if they can’t give money as a reward then there’s nothing they can give to employees. I hear this all the time. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Especially in these times when money is tight, it is important to let employees know you value and appreciate their contributions. Use time off, meals, parking spots, office or computer equipment, tickets, flextime, or the opportunity to dress casually as ways to provide rewards.

Remember that you as a manager have more control over rewards than you think, despite budget constraints. Sometimes the most powerful rewards for employees are those that are easily within your control, such as giving them recognition or appreciation for their hard work (i.e., saying ‘thank you’), asking for their opinion on things, providing a sympathetic ear when they need someone to talk to, and saying something positive to them when passing them in the hallway. Tough times don’t mean you have to abolish rewards; instead, you just have to become more creative with using them.

Need advice from the Career Coach? Submit questions for this week’s online chat with Joyce Russell.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.