Evolution of the Sixthman Awards

Company awards.

They’re always presented with the best intentions, yet they can make people feel left out and unappreciated at the same time. It’s fun to publicly recognize people when they’re awesome. But what does that mean for the people that don’t get recognized that are equally as awesome?

At Sixthman, we’ve gone through a few evolutions of “Values Awards” and have really struggled with ensuring our whole staff feels included, and making sure those who embody our core values are still called out and celebrated. We’re lucky – we have an incredibly driven team of about 45 employees. So how can you single people out when everyone is so great?

Another tough part of the equation is this:  In a company like ours, certain roles are more front & center while others are more behind-the-scenes. It’s tough to develop a peer-voting system where the “front & center” people aren’t the first ones that come to everyone’s mind, even though the work done by the behind-the-scenes crew is just as important – sometimes more.

We needed a balance between two extremes. We didn’t like the idea of settling on an “everybody wins” scenario – it defeated the purpose of meaningful awards altogether. But on the other hand, we didn’t want to host an annual popularity contest either.

That’s when we recognized we needed to make sure the things we awarded people for were qualities that were important to the whole company. It turned out that our old-school company values – the things all of our awards were based on - were pretty outdated, and a lot of newer people in the company didn’t even really understand them. (They're listed in the blue boxes below, if you were wondering.) Our company has grown and changed so much over the past few years – should our values change too? 



So we did it. We decided to change.

First, we realized that recognition didn’t need to be limited to once a year. We now have an entire section of our staff meeting each week, where anyone – not just leaders – can give kudos to their fellow teammates if there’s a reason to publicly celebrate them.

Second, we re-defined our company values. (You can read the full story on that here.) The old ones just didn’t fit us anymore (ironically, using them as our award categories is what tipped us off on that). Instead, we wanted to develop a values statement that accurately described us, but left room for growth and promoted a sense of accountability. 

Then we detached our annual awards from the values completely. In reality, if someone works at a small company like ours where culture fit is a huge part of the hiring process, they probably already embody most of the values to some extent; otherwise they wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. This is probably why it was always a bit awkward to pick one person that was the "best" at one particular value when everyone tended to fit into all of the categories in some way. 

Finally, we introduced new award categories. This time, they’re based on skills that are important in our day-to-day office life, on land and at sea:


MacGyver Award:

In a pinch? This person can help solve your problem! They’re known for being resourceful and succeeding in situations when they’re forced to improvise. They can create a solution even when it seems impossible.

Unsung Hero:

This person makes Sixthman look good! They may not be guest-facing 100% of the time, but without them the process would crumble and the ship would not sail. They’re the wind in Sixthman’s sails – you can’t see ‘em, but they’re always pushing us forward.


Eye of the Storm:

When everything goes wrong, you’d better hope to have this person at your side. They’ve got nerves of steel and stay calm even if we hit some rough seas (literally or figuratively). They seem to do their best work under pressure.



Most Left Brained:

Known for problem solving by thinking logically and sequentially, this person is extremely focused, analytical and concise. They lead and make decisions based on facts.



Most Right Brained:

Outside the box thinker. This innovative problem solver is a dreamer and likes to visualize the results they’re working towards. They lead and make decisions based on intuition.


Rookie of the Year:

This staff member has worked at Sixthman for less than one year, but they’re already an expert! You almost forgot they’re new…


Mentor Award:

This salty sailor has at least 50 days at sea, which means they’ve got lots of experience under their belt! They’ll go out of their way to make sure they share what they’ve learned and help others excel. They are happy to show people the ropes!



Which person stands out as the expert at making our guests or staff feel Invited, Informed, Excited, Welcomed, Looked After, Amazed and Appreciated? (Read more about Sixthman SPECIAL.)



This person truly knows what it means to LIVE LOUD. They make the most of every moment and live life to the fullest.


Jack (or Jill) of all Trades:
This category cannot be voted on, but that’s what makes it so cool. This person is so well-rounded, they showed up in the most categories throughout the rest of the award voting.



We vote on these each year just before our summer company retreat (which we happen to call an "Advance" - because we don't retreat, we advance). We use a private online survey, and in the survey we’re also reminded of the person who received the award the year before. This prevents the same people from being chosen for the same categories year after year (which was a rut we’d been in before with earlier incarnations of our awards). We also give each staff member the opportunity to give examples and reasons as to why they’re making each of their choices. Once all votes are tallied, the awards are presented at The Advance, and the current award-holder announces the new recipient and passes off the award. It's more of a peer-to-peer “passing of the torch” rather than one of our leaders dominating the award ceremony. And I use the term "ceremony" very loosely - we try to make the whole thing informal and fun instead of stuffy and boring. 

One more small switch – the awards used to be trophies. Like legit fake-gold-with-marble-base trophies. What on earth do people do with trophies? We downsized to something more practical – a simple pin or button. By doing this, the recipient can wear their award all year on their lanyard while we sail. So if you see a Sixthman crew member roaming around the ship with a pin on their lanyard with any of the above award names on it, now you’ll know why! 

Is this system perfect? Probably not. But it already feels SO much better than it did. We’ll continue to tweak from year to year as we learn and get feedback, just as we do with our events. 

Does your company give awards? Do you like them, or wish you could change things? What are some of the best employee recognition programs or awards that you’ve been a part of, or have heard about?