Token gestures can sink recognition

Employers don’t have to break the bank, but programs must be carefully thought out
By Koula Vasilopoulos
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2013

When work gets busy, managers might be tempted to put recognition at the bottom of their to-do list. Others may feel that a quick “thank you” — or hastily emailed “thx” — is enough.

It’s not, when you consider that more than one-half (54 per cent) of Canadian office workers said they would be somewhat or very likely to leave their current position if they didn’t feel appreciated by their manager, according to a 2012 Robert Half survey of 229 workers.

But there’s a right way and wrong way to recognize a job well done. Recognition can run the gamut, from elaborate to simple and from costly to cost-free.

Some companies present plaques or certificates to mark special achievements; others give gift cards, vacation days or association memberships. Whatever form they take, rewards must offer real value and meaning to employees.

While employee recognition can certainly empower and motivate staff, it also benefits management. Employees recognized for exceptional performance tend to approach their jobs with more enthusiasm and creativity. If one employee excels, others will likely raise their personal performance in hopes of being similarly singled out.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true — a disgruntled or frustrated worker can also stand out.

Recognition gone wrong

It’s always noble to reward a job well done. But for an employee recognition program to add value to a business, it should avoid these common pitfalls:

Being vague: Telling staff members they did a “good job” is not enough. If you neglect to tie specific actions to acknowledgement, employees are less likely to repeat them (or outdo them) in the future.

Token gestures: The reward should fit the achievement. Giving someone a stapler for bringing on an important new client sends the message the milestone is insignificant. Establish guidelines that truly separate outstanding accomplishments from other activities. At the same time, recognition for similar accomplishments by different employees shouldn’t vary too greatly in value.

Going overboard: Recognition doesn’t need to be extravagant. Handing out over-the-top rewards may spark jealousy or animosity among staff, or create a feeling of entitlement. You don’t want pursuit of a tangible reward to entirely outshine an intangible one — the sense of accomplishment and pride in the job that recognition efforts are designed to bring about.

Overlooking contributors: By the nature of their roles and personalities, some employees naturally gravitate toward the limelight. Don’t forget to celebrate unsung heroes and behind-the-scenes workers.

Top-down recognition: While senior management should know about and support employee recognition, some companies find a top-down approach to doling out rewards is more effective when combined with a peer system, which allows staff members to nominate or refer each other for outstanding achievements.

Cookie-cutter rewards: Some employers reward all staff equally and simultaneously. While this approach seems fair, it won’t do much to boost performance or motivation.

Putting a program in place

Now that you know what not to do, it’s time to put in place an effective recognition program. The following steps can help:

Establish a budget: The recognition budget is a tempting spot to slash in tough times. However, employees may benefit most from a boost to their spirits during difficult times. So budget your recognition efforts at a reasonable level — but make sure they’re a part of operating costs that can’t be cut.

Align it with business strategy: If a key business goal is to cut expenses, reward people who suggest and implement money-saving ideas. Recognizing efforts that drive a company’s goals is an incredible tool for success — both for staff and the business.

Publicize it: Mention the recognition program in employee communications, such as a staff newsletter or company intranet, providing details on who receives which rewards and how. Handing out rewards at a public meeting or awards ceremony can also help maintain enthusiasm and participation.

Do it regularly: Make recognition a habit, not an exception. Also, be mindful of time. When employees go above and beyond the call of duty, don’t wait too long to reward them. The sooner you recognize their achievement, the better — quicker rewards have much more impact.

Make it mean something: Bonuses and raises are always welcome, but they’re not the only rewards that carry weight. Extra time off and other ways of saying “thanks” and “job well done” can mean just as much.

Appoint a capable administrator: It’s helpful to have one person charged with the administrative and technical duties of running the staff recognition program.

Solicit employee feedback: Ask staff if they value the recognition program. What changes do they want to see? What sorts of rewards really mean something? The greater the connection employees feel with the program, the more involved they’ll become.

Evaluate the program: Step back and ask yourself whether you’re getting value. Measure productivity, retention and other factors alongside the implementation of the program. If those numbers are up and can be correlated, the plan is paying off.

Rewards that won’t break the bank

Employee recognition programs don’t have to be expensive to be effective, as seen with low-cost, highly valued options:

• Offer private or public praise. A sincere “thank you” can go a long way in the minds of employees who have worked hard to achieve their goals.

• Communicate an individual’s achievements to upper management. This could result in a note or letter of appreciation from a senior manager to the employee.

• Highlight accomplishments on the company’s intranet. This can make recognized team members feel appreciated and other staff more inclined to work toward earning the same type of recognition.

• Offer time off. It’s often the best performers who postpone vacations or days off. And make it easier for them to leave the office by reassigning some of their duties to ensure they don’t come back to a mountain of work.

• Increase responsibility. When employees exceed expectations and are then given more authority, an employer shows it believes they have the talent and capabilities to make even more contributions.

• Share praise from clients and stakeholders. This demonstrates professionals’ bottom-line value to the company.

• Consider other budget-conscious alternatives, such as an employee-of-the-month parking spot, tickets to a movie or sporting event, flowers or a box of chocolates.

Koula Vasilopoulos is a Calgary-based senior regional vice-president at specialized staffing firm Robert Half, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, Robert Half Management Resources and OfficeTeam. Follow Robert Half Canada on Twitter at

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