Confusion, envy and other tales from the dark side of recognition

Done poorly, rewards programs can cause more problems than they solve
By Adrian Gostick
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2004

There’s a lot to say for the upside of employee recognition. Increased productivity. Higher motivation. Greater retention.

But employee recognition can have a dark side, too.

It happens when key recognition principles are overlooked. Suddenly, rather than awakening employees’ full potential, recognition rouses co-worker envy. The resulting backbiting, sabotage and selfishness can eat a business alive.

Fortunately, there is an antidote. The following principles help build an employee recognition program that provides the benefits expected — with none of the unwanted petty jealousies.

No ‘pets’ allowed

Remember how much people hated the teacher’s pet in grade school? Not much has changed since then.

In every organization a few individuals stand head and shoulders above the rest. They are the “A” employees. And while they certainly deserve recognition, a problem arises when they are the only ones ever recognized.

Why? Because it is decidedly demotivating to everyone else in the organization — including the steady, dependable workhorses often called “B” workers.

“B players are crucial,” says Larry Bossidy, retired CEO of technology giant Honeywell. “They may get directions from others, but they’re the ones who execute.”

For that reason, it’s important that an awards program allow all employees to be recognized. One approach is to integrate different types of awards (service, safety, sales, performance) into the overall program. These awards acknowledge different employee strengths — and reach a wider audience.

Other companies give team awards when a group advances the organization’s goals. Group awards allow a company to honour A and B employees at the same time, creating unity rather than division.

Car rental company Avis approached the challenge in a different way. The Lead the Drive to Pre-eminence program recognizes achievement at four levels, each offering its own awards.

The Starting with Thanks Award is a spontaneous “thank you” to a colleague for going above and beyond. The Horizon Award recognizes employees whose actions consistently reflect the Avis Values and improve the Avis Experience. Employees who receive the Destination Excellence Award make a significant, quantifiable impact on Avis’ business.

Shawn Smith and Robert Djulus, Avis bus drivers in Toronto, received the Horizon Award after coming to the aid of stranded travellers after Sept. 11, 2001. Realizing that a couple couldn’t get a flight and were prepared to sleep in the airport, Smith and Djulus offered their homes to the customers. Employees like Smith and Djulus are important to companies, but rarely receive much praise. So when they do, it goes a long way.

Just ask Sam Giles, a programmer for First Choice Solutions in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I like to see people getting awards because I know my turn is coming soon.”

He knows his turn is coming when he delivers on company goals or does something that is valued by the organization. And when an employee knows that, it makes all the difference in the world.

So, what’s the award for again?

“Can you be more specific?” It’s a great question for managers to ask themselves when dealing with employee recognition.

Co-worker envy occurs when people aren’t exactly sure why recognition is being given. The boss sure seems to like Steve. Is it because he helped win that new account? Does he answer the phone on the first ring? Are his teeth whiter and brighter? Ambiguity creates the problem. Being very specific in setting standards solves it.

And clearly communicating those standards during award presentations cements it. Instead of the generic, “Cheryl has really helped our company to succeed this year,” it’s better to say, “Cheryl handles customer complaints with patience, understanding and fairness. As you know, we value problem resolution as one of our core strategies here on the call-centre floor.”

What about recognizing someone in private?

Many managers want to keep recognition private to avoid the politics. But recognition done right not only impacts the individual being recognized, but all in attendance. It helps everyone understand what matters most to the organization. Other employees should walk away asking themselves, “What am I going to do to get similar praise?”

Compensation is handled in a confidential manner. But recognition is public by definition. After all, is Lord Stanley’s cup presented in private? Do Olympic officials slip a gold medal into an athlete’s carry-on luggage, hoping no one sees? Of course not.

If everyone understands what recognition levels can be achieved for what actions, if recognition is frequent, meaningful and available to everyone, and if recognition awards are presented properly it’s amazing how little jealousy arises.

Even the petty temporary feelings of jealousy are quelled by the truth of the matter in a great public ceremony. If a manager does it right, others leave saying, “Yeah, she really deserved that. She led that project and saved us.”

Take it out of management’s hands

Any manager who has dealt with co-worker envy over an award has undoubtedly wished she could wash her hands of the whole thing. It may come as a surprise, but that may just be what’s needed.

Instead of supervisors shouldering the burden of employee recognition, why not let employees have a role in choosing award recipients?

Intranet systems that allow employees to easily nominate colleagues for awards are becoming increasingly common. Some organizations have gone even further, allowing employees to help select the award recipients. By involving different employees in the selection committee each time, organizations boost buy-in and eliminate claims of favouritism.

After all, it’s hard to accuse supervisors of playing favorites when they’re not playing at all.

Of course, none of this will work if an organization’s leadership has a flawed view of recognition. The traditional way of looking at awards is like a ribbon stretched across the finish line. Managers in this group tend to delay recognition until a major goal is reached.

Leaders should view recognition more like a trail of breadcrumbs leading employees in the right direction. Frequent rewards give employees constant direction. They know they are on the right track, and that keeps them motivated. Not only that, it keeps them succeeding.

Adrian Gostick is author of the best-selling book “A Carrot A Day.” He is director of communication at the O.C. Tanner Recognition Company, headquartered in Burlington, Ont. He may be reached at


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