Getting peer recognition to take off – and stay aloft

Ensuring a program launched today doesn’t flounder tomorrow
By Johane Desjardins
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/07/2012

Most peer recognition programs start with a bang. Posters are tacked to the walls, special mugs and novelty items are placed on every desk overnight and the CEO makes an uplifting speech, inviting everyone to join him in recognizing the contribution of colleagues through the new platform.

In the early days, the positive energy is palpable. Employees respond to the launch with gusto and there’s a flurry of activity as they unleash pent-up feelings of appreciation. All the hard work of setting up the program pays off and it looks like a resounding success.

But, within a couple of weeks, the activity levels drop considerably. The excitement of the launch wanes and busy schedules get in the way. Some managers, unconvinced of the benefits of peer recognition, see the program as yet another fluffy HR initiative and don’t bother to participate.

Often, the apparent frivolity of a lot of the recognition trivializes the program and supports the skepticism. How much value can anyone really derive from one-line kudos such as “Thanks — you rock!” or “Great job on the project!”?

Is this all-too-common fate inevitable or could a different approach ignite year-round, sustainable engagement?

Reframe the conversation, inspire a movement

When designing a peer recognition program, start with a hard look at the corporate culture. Is it conducive to fairness, inclusiveness and open communication? Are generosity, empathy and collaboration part of the core values? Do employees clearly understand what the organization values in terms of individual contribution?

Corporate culture is a competitive asset as critical to success as an organizational strategy and operating model. Culture defines what an organization is all about and guides behaviours.

An organization’s reputation, brand and relationships with suppliers, customers and employees are strongly affected by corporate values. Values and culture are intrinsically intertwined. So, how can employers ensure staff really understand how these core values break down to the individual level?

Consider giving the recognition program a higher purpose by transforming it into a grassroots movement. Instead of making it about kudos and applause, make it about elevating employees who live the values and strengthen the culture.

A program has a beginning and an end but a movement gains momentum and builds over time. A movement is something people can really get behind.

Through a social employee recognition platform, an entire company can bring its values to life. Encourage employees to recognize peers with messages that connect the dots between core values and everyday operations.

Colleagues are often the first — and sometimes the only — witnesses to awesome behaviour, efforts and heroics that save the day and keep customers coming back. Everyone is inspired by stories of people they can relate to, peers who embody the critical behaviours that fuel performance. They think, “I, too, can do this. That person being recognized right now is just like me.”

People want to be part of something bigger than themselves, to get up in the morning and make their world a better place. So, build a community, have people learn from each other and be inspired. They want to be involved in co-creating something of which they can have ownership and help evolve over time.

To kick-start the program, recruit the help of deeply dedicated people, quiet leaders who have the potential to influence others and ignite a movement. These fully engaged employees may not always be the most visible, as they often prefer to elevate others rather than themselves, but this is precisely what makes them such great ambassadors of goodwill.

Their passion for recognizing the contribution of others will spur colleagues to look beyond their own cubicles to uncover daily heroics. The more employees are encouraged to write success stories in their own words, the more they will believe the program belongs to them.

Even with thousands of employees, a company can feel like a close-knit community working towards a common goal and achieving success as a team. When employees develop a powerful sense of ownership and shared identity, the organization’s success becomes their success.

Where the head goes, the body follows

Beware: Nothing will douse the fires of the movement faster than lack of support from the executive team. If leadership doesn’t believe that taking a few minutes to recognize employees who make a significant difference is a key responsibility, they will not be taken seriously when claiming employees are their greatest assets. Employees will, unsurprisingly, draw their own disillusioned conclusions.

The simple truth is if it doesn’t matter to the boss, it doesn’t matter. Conversely, whatever the CEO is passionate about will inevitably become important to the entire company. As the old adage says: “Where the head goes, the body follows.”

Take a cue from marketing

If the program isn’t communicated on a regular basis to keep it top-of-mind, employee recognition initiatives will languish, just like sales decline without any marketing support.

So, take a page out of marketing’s playbook. With a month-by-month internal marketing plan and the sharing of interesting and useful information, an organization can expect sustained enthusiasm at every level.

Consider crafting different messages based on the particular interests of each segment. The executive team may be more interested in high-level, overall results with lots of statistics. Managers will appreciate quick tips, best practices and their own team’s results. Finally, individual participants will benefit most from positive reinforcement, culture stories and spotlights on people.

Above all, remember to publicly celebrate employees who take the time to recognize others and share stories that reveal everyday heroes — positive influencers who inspire above-and-beyond magic but who might otherwise remain undetected or, even worse, ignored. Without their engagement, the program would flounder.

Regular, engaging communication that informs and invigorates people will keep them engaged in the program for the long term. Messages should draw people back to the social recognition website so they can be inspired by the pride-building activities happening moment-by-moment, cubicle-by-cubicle, in every corner of the organization.

A strong culture helps create a place of belonging and shared sense of purpose that lift people up, create stronger ties with the organization and validate their values. Recognition stories shared on a social recognition platform show how core values break down to the personal level and provide valuable anecdotal evidence of individual engagement at work.

When setting the program goals (which is a must), ask everyone involved: “What does success look like?”

All this recognition is admirable, but it won’t matter if the movement doesn’t ignite employee passion and, ultimately, move the needle for the company.

Johane Desjardins is president and CEO of Rewards Nation, a Toronto-based provider of recognition and incentive technology. For more information, visit or phone (866) 706-8423.

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