Rewarding recognition (HR Leaders Talk)

Recognizing employees is a given at many organizations, but the how, why and when can differ considerably — along with the ROI
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/27/2016

Alana Free vice-president of people and culture at GoodLife Fitness Clubs in Toronto

The chain has 15,000 employees and more than 350 outlets

These days, employee recognition is not only important, it’s almost a necessity when it comes to your value proposition, according to Alana Free, vice-president of people and culture at GoodLife Fitness Clubs in Toronto.

“I find now people are looking at different employers and they’re looking at those extra things as well as compensation.”

It’s also important for engagement and retention, she says.

“We try to focus ours more around getting people to buy into our core values and believe in our vision and our purpose as a company, and then celebrate those things, and help to increase that engagement… The biggest objective is to get people to want to stay because they’re feeling valued and cared for, so it’s to celebrate successes that they have when they’re hitting… very specific goals and achievements.”

GoodLife has a monthly recognition program for its club locations around sales objectives and targets. Members can also receive free personal training, with their trainer earning rewards, if their fitness story is selected as part of a monthly recognition program.
“I like it when you incorporate something with the direct member and with the associate together,” says Free.

There are also length-of-service programs at the 15,000-employee company, starting at one year, then two years, five years and so on, and GoodLife recently incorporated fitness gifts as one of the reward options. 

“Before it was a mug, a more traditional thing like a necklace, a watch, that kind of stuff, and now we still have those as options but we also have some pieces for your home gym and different fitness equipment which is more in line with and in target with what our associates want,” she says. “It helps with that age piece too because not everyone wants a 10-year (anniversary) watch from their company anymore. Those days are still there but they’ve kind of passed at the same time.”

Top general managers and fitness managers are also rewarded annually with a trip to a resort in northern Quebec. And GoodLife hosts an annual awards gala along with a “Top 500” event in Toronto, complete with a hotel stay, to recognize the best of the best of the club associates.

But the chain has realized the biggest piece is manager to associate recognition, says Free.

“It’s the thank you’s, it’s the sincere look-them-in-the-eye, say thank you properly, saying exactly what you’re grateful for and what you saw them do that was great. It’s catching them doing things right in the moment. All these things and events and stuff can feel empty if you don’t have that manager connection.”

For example, when an employee gets an invitation to the Top 500 event, the manager finds out the day before the mass email so he can have a conversation with the person and give his congratulations.

“That’s the piece that we’ve learned over the years was missing in the past, and that we’re really focusing on now. We haven’t nailed it yet... we still have some situations where the five-year length-of-service gift gets put on someone’s desk instead of ‘Hey, let’s make a big deal about this’… (and) it almost backfires on the manager.”

As for the impact of technology, Free says she has gone back and forth on it. While there are some great online platforms that give people points, they don’t always make sense, she says. It was suggested, for example, that a program involving birthday cards for general managers be moved to e-cards. But GoodLife decided to hold off on the move because the personal touch of the cards — which were each signed with a message by the executives — was so popular.

“It’s one of our best recognition programs — we get so many emails and messages from people, they can’t believe we took the time to sign our names, and they can see it’s all different colour ink and real handwriting, so it means a lot to them,” she says. “Sometimes, we rely too much on technology and we can get ourselves into trouble.”

When it comes to the return on investment, that’s hard to tease out as to which particular program is having an impact. But GoodLife does an employee engagement survey twice a year to see what changes might be having an effect. There’s also a place on the company intranet called Speak Out where people can leave comments or suggestions.

“And we track our attrition, so our retention of our associates, and what’s happening there, and we track it monthly and we celebrate that with our leaders as well and recognize people, but we also can see how this program or change has helped or hurt recognition, and tie it back to that loosely,” says Free.

And even if a company is faced with budget cuts, effective recognition is still possible, she says.

“It’s that supervisor talking to an associate and appreciating and valuing what that person does, connecting with them, understanding their family issues, giving them that leeway when they need to go home early to look after something or go to a sports game. Even though those things don’t technically really fall under recognition, I think they do,” says Free.

“And if that piece is there and they can make a hero out of someone in front of their team without making everyone feel bad so that the rest of team also wants to aspire to be a hero as well, that to me is the key of recognition. You don’t need all the other things, the glitz and glam isn’t necessary — and the glitz and glam is what costs money.”

Kristina Svab director of total rewards at Coast Capital Savings
The Vancouver-based credit union has about 1,700 employees

When Coast Capital Savings did a survey to find out how employees felt about the credit union’s recognition program, a mere four per cent said they still appreciated the branded gold pins with diamonds. And they all said no thank you when it came to other branded items such as umbrellas or barbecues, says Kristina Svab, director of total rewards at Coast Capital in Vancouver.

Instead, employees wanted choice — and they now have it, after the 1,700-employee credit union switched to an online, cloud-based solution in 2011.

“Prior to that, it was just an annual awards program, an ad hoc recognition, and managers all kind of did what they did. It wasn’t standardized and we had no sense of what was happening, you know: Were some managers recognizing all the time? Were they spending too much money, what format (were they using) and were some not doing it at all?” she says.

And when it came to convincing the C-suite of the need for change, it wasn’t hard.

“What we did show them was the current state of the administration that we were going through, and the future state of what it could look like if we were able to go to this program online, cloud-based so that it is continuously improved, as the company has upgrades, which has no administrative impact on us,” says Svab.

The new program is branded the High Five Hub and includes an online feed showing recognition activity. It’s also important the system is performance-linked, she says.

“We can give high fives anytime to anyone and we’ve described what it is that we’re thanking them for, so it’s always about meaningful recognition… so that we can all learn from that and hope to emulate the same thing.”

It’s about reinforcing positive individual and team contributions.

“We really wanted to emphasize that what we do daily matters. We also wanted it to be addictive through this easy-to-use technology which would thus increase the adoption and frequency,” says Svab.

Managers are given an allocation of Hub dollars they can give out to people as recognition, and employees can save these or redeem them for a reward of their choice, she says.

“It’s not your traditional ‘Here’s your five-year pen,’ ‘Here’s your framed picture in a gold frame’ that the 25-year-old will not appreciate. In fact, I’m in my late 40s, I won’t appreciate it. So if we’re going to spend some money and really make it meaningful to employees, then it better be something they want... So we went from a very limited program with pre-selected gifts, which many companies still do, to then a modest choice of gifts, and now since 2011, we have a huge diversity of gifts.”

The choices range from physical gifts such as luggage, jewelry or technology to gift cards and experiences, such as travel vouchers or charitable donations.

Along with retirement gifts, the recognition program gives out annual awards to people who are nominated and selected by a committee. A top winner is picked in each category, and given the award in-person at an annual “coast-to-coast celebration,” along with Hub dollars, says Svab.

“We did not increase our budget to launch this program, all we did was re-allocate the money to be more performance-based and attractive to all generations.”

And service rewards are still important, she says. Managers are alerted to upcoming anniversaries so they can print off a certificate and present it to the employee, who also receives Hub dollars.

“You want to recognize and honour that commitment, that loyalty, that dedication to us, and so we still continue to recognize. In fact, we expanded that to recognize people at one year of service, at three years, and then five, 10, 15, 20 as most companies do,” she says.

When it comes to the return on investment, that’s hard to measure, says Svab. But when looking at the employee engagement survey, the numbers on recognition have gone up. 

And five years later, the recognition program at Coast Capital is as popular as when it was launched, she says. With 1,700 employees, the credit union is tracking to reach 22,000 high fives in 2015, meaning an average of 13 per employee.

“It is happening every day, people are getting high fives… and the stories that people share, the thank you’s, are heartwarming,” says Svab. “And now we know how many people are using it, now we can see that money’s being spent fairly, that everybody has equal access, equal opportunity. We can run all sorts of dashboards, data, and know exactly what’s going on; we have a very good pulse on what’s happening.”

Coast Capital is hoping to have a high five feed that will scroll across TV screens like ticker tape, displaying recent high fives, along with descriptions, she says.

“That’s exactly one of the intents, to provide meaningful recognition so you can see what it was that you did so you know what to repeat and that others can learn from that and emulate accordingly.”

Managers know nothing replaces shaking a person’s hand and saying thanks, says Svab, “but this is a great way to capture it in writing where it can be shared and learned from.”

Anne Bloom head of human resources at LG Electronics in Toronto
The company has about 200 employees in Canada

There are many reasons why employee recognition is still important, according to Anne Bloom, head of HR at LG Electronics in Toronto.

“A lot of organizations today are struggling with retention of employees, and employee recognition lets an employee know that they are being valued for the role that they are playing within the organization. And the way that organizations recognize employees is equally as important to that retention.”

LG Electronics has several recognition programs on the go, including a quarterly subsidiary reward given to two employees who have exceeded expectations. They are each given a $500 gift certificate along with having lunch with the CEO, business unit leader and Bloom.

There are also quarterly awards, in the form of plaques, that are given out to six or seven employees who have been nominated by their peers and selected by a leadership team.

 “There’s a form to fill out, a template to complete, and they have to give a really good explanation on why they are nominating this person,” says Bloom.

And on an annual basis, a president’s reward is given to three people who have “blown the socks off of the organization in that year,” she says, with each receiving a trip for two to the Bahamas for three days, four nights.

The company also gives a congratulatory gift certificate to employees who are getting married, along with a $50 Visa card to employees on their birthdays.

Gift certificates are more cost-effective than going out and buying a one-year ring or five-year watch, says Bloom.

“This gives an opportunity for the employee to use their recognition the way they want it to be used, not the way we dictated it should be used… it leaves it more open to positive interpretation that way, rather than an employee taking home a pen or a watch and saying, ‘Look at what my company gave to me’ and it goes in a drawer and it’s never seen again.”

And while the cards are considered taxable benefits, it’s hard to get around that, she says.

“The dollar values are small enough that the hit to the employee is not going to be that outrageous. I don’t think about the taxable benefit part of it, I just think about the recognition part of it and what that means.”

On a lesser note, LG holds 50-50 draws and hockey pools and gives out gift cards to employees in a baby picture contest.

“We have a lot of recognition and ways for employees to get involved and I think it’s really interesting. You can pick and choose the ones you want to get involved in. If you want to do everything, go for it, by all means, be recognized as many times as you can be recognized. And I think that that’s important as well — we don’t limit it,” says Bloom. “And they appreciate it, I haven’t heard any grumblings that we need to change the way we recognize people and so… I’m not going to do any investigation to change what isn’t broken.”

Bloom also encourages managers and leaders to have year-end dinners or lunches with employees as a way to thank them. 
“We encourage that team-building atmosphere where the team just gets together outside of the office in a more social, easy environment to interact.”

As for the return on investment, LG has increased its productivity quite significantly this past year, she says, “and a lot of that is attributable to what we’re doing in the office and employees being better skilled and better engaged and (having a) better understanding of where the business is going. The one thing that we all believe in is transparency and open communication and just making sure that when we recognize an employee, we’re doing it for all the right reasons,” says Bloom.

“There has to be real substance, there has to be an ROI to the business that is visible. If somebody says to me ‘Well, they worked beyond their expectations’ for the quarter or for the month, I want to know what that means, give me the detail — don’t just tell me that this person is a keeper, give me the details because we cannot decide on the nominations until we know that we’re deciding on everybody for the right reasons.”

Colleen McCarville vice-president of human resources at Killam Properties 
The Halifax-based real estate company has about 600 employees

It’s important to have employee recognition programs — formal or informal — at every organization, according to Colleen McCarville, vice-president of human resources at Killam Properties in Halifax. 

“Recognition of an employee’s efforts on behalf of the organization have a direct impact on their on-the-job performance and, in turn, the success of the organization.”

The real estate company has had various recognition programs over the years. Its most recent program, “Core Value Champions,” is based on the organization’s core values and recognizes employees who live those values through their daily work. Employees must be nominated by other employees in the organization.

The program is meant to draw attention to, and celebrate those who live, the core values of: strong customer relationships, “do the right thing,” creative solutions, “build community” and “curb appeal,” says McCarville.

“It is also a way to communicate the values in practice and to strengthen the workplace culture that is built on these values.”

As a reward, the core value champions receive recognition in the employee newsletter, a personalized card and a cash gift card. 

Another program is the “I like my RM” program designed for front-line staff, which is fuelled by the feedback of Killam’s customers on resident managers. 

“Our residents use Facebook to post photos and explain why their on-site manager is great. Our marketing team tallies online votes (‘likes’) and we highlight our top employees through social media,” she says.

 The contest showcases employees in a public way and also creates social media buzz about Killam and its people.  

“Using Facebook allows the individual employees to share their success very publicly with family and friends should they choose to. The campaign is a successful marketing tool for prospective tenants, in addition to a recognition tool,” says McCarville.

 Employees are recognized online through social media and at employee events. The winning employees receive cash gift cards while the residents who nominate the employees also are awarded.

 When it comes to the preferences of different generations or lifestyles, that’s not much of a challenge, says McCarville. Some demographics are less likely to use social media, so the company communicates with them offline, through paper copies, for example. Otherwise, it’s no problem to make accommodations, she says.

“We even had one instance where an onsite manager set up a Facebook account with an elderly tenant because he wanted to participate in the program.”

 And if a recognition program is facing budget cuts, the employer should focus on personalizing the recognition and making it public, says McCarville.

“Make it clear why the employee is being recognized. None of this needs to be costly, and has great impact on engagement.”

When it comes to the return on investment, Killam’s recognition programs are one piece of an array of employee programs that drive morale, engagement and performance, she says.

“Recognition programs, combined with incentive programs, strong benefits and perks programs, interesting work and safe environments, can be measured through turnover rates and employee satisfaction rates.”

Change can be good for recognition, as technology has made it easier to communicate with employees, disseminate information and share photos, she says. However, the desire to be recognized and appreciated, often in a public forum, doesn’t seem to have changed much over time, says McCarville. 

“We keep it simple.”

Brenda Schacht vice-president of human resources at Horizon Utilities in Hamilton
The company has about 425 employees

At Horizon Utilities, recognition is not just about business, it’s about the person, according to Brenda Schacht, vice-president of human resources. To that end, the company recently revamped its thank you card program.

“People really respond to those small, more frequent gestures of recognition than necessarily if there is a big bang and then you don’t do anything for a year,” she says. “It’s more simple than extravagant.”

While recognition has always been important at the municipally owned electricity distribution company, in the last few years, Horizon has focused on broadening the program and looking at different ways to recognize people, says Schacht.

“I don’t think our recognition is really driven so much by budget issues as by ‘We just think it’s the right thing to do because we need to support a positive culture and a performance-based culture and to try to move our employee engagement to higher levels all the time,’ so budget really isn’t the driving factor for us.”

The 425-employee company also has a corporate intranet with different templates available to recognize both business-related and personal accomplishments, such as a person running a marathon. There are also TVs in the various buildings that showcase both corporate and individual accomplishments such as birthdays or an employee getting married.

And there are service awards and team awards, such as a bowling event after a project is completed.

The recognition is about people feeling valued, supported and engaged, says Schacht.

“You want people to really feel like what they do and the efforts they put forward every day are valuable to the organization, are valued by the organization and it really supports a strong, positive performance-based culture.”

Factors in success
Making sure the recognition is successful involves leaders, she says.

“In fact, we just provided our leaders recently with a job aid around reminding them about recognition and to make sure they keep it top of mind with little cards that can prompt them.”
It’s also important to keep the program simple and straightforward, says Schacht, “and also to make sure that the way we’re recognizing people has meaning to them, meaning and value to them individually because, as we know, we talk a lot about (how) there’s many types of people in organizations, different generations, so you have to make sure that you are recognizing people in a way that makes them feel good.”

Technology has its positive and negative sides. On the one hand, it allows for more immediate recognition and the ability to broadcast accomplishments more effectively.

“It really becomes more of a just-in-time opportunity to recognize and to broadcast that out across the organization,” says Schacht.

On the other hand, people really appreciate the personal touch, such as the thank you cards, says Peg Zahtila, director of learning and organizational development at Horizon.

“We’re finding people might be more inclined to send a quick text or quick email but it doesn’t quite have the same impact as a handwritten note or card or face-to-face ‘Thank you for that work you did, I know I asked for it on short notice’ — whatever the situation. So (technology) detracts from those simple things.”

And when it comes to determining the impact of the recognition, Horizon tracks its productivity measures, which are reported up to the senior levels, as well as the board. More indirectly, success is tracked through employee engagement levels and customer satisfaction, says Schacht.

“There needs to be some business case for it, especially if you’re going to spend significant dollars. I think you need to find some ways to try to measure the impact of what it is you’re doing and whether or not in fact it’s being valued by your staff. So there’s this gut anecdotal ‘Yes, it’s the right thing to do,’ but I think, in this day and age, you’ve got to have the business case for spending the money.”

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