RBC’s recognition department oversees rewarding culture

To be effective, rewards and recognition programs can't be taken for granted, says Steve Richardson, manager of recognition programs with RBC Financial Group. "We all expect to get paid every week or expect that our benefits are there, but recognition shouldn't be an expected event."
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/15/2005

There probably aren’t many people in Canada doing what Steve Richardson does. His full-time job at the RBC Financial Group is to manage recognition; make sure the various and sundry elements that comprise the RBC recognition strategy are running smoothly and effectively, rewarding RBC’s more than 60,000 employees when they go above and beyond for the good of the bank.

There is a very different rewards and recognition philosophy at RBC, says Richardson. Since the late ’80s, the bank has endeavoured to make recognition and rewards an integral part of everything the organization does — to embed it in the culture of the company. As a former president made it very clear many years ago, recognition would not be something that comes and goes with the economic tides.

“He said that the programs are so important, that we will do them even in tough times because it is more important to thank employees when times are tough and they are in there slugging it out.” Since then, the company has stayed true to that commitment, keeping the recognition budget almost unchanged for more than 15 years.

But meaningful “R and R” programs, as Richardson calls them, have little correlation to the size or value of the actual reward, he says.

The important element is the recognition done by the manager. Everyone has heard “horror stories” of employees doing extraordinary work and getting nothing more than an e-mail from the manager to go along with the gift or reward, he says. In those cases the intended advantage of a recognition program is lost and employees are left wondering what they have to do to receive the manager’s appreciation.

And while recognition is an essential plank in the bank’s human resources management strategy, it is not an HR responsibility, says Richardson. It is important for employees to make that distinction.

When recognition is thought of as something HR does it becomes associated with compensation and employees start to form expectations. “We all expect to get paid every week or expect that our benefits are there, but recognition shouldn’t be an expected event. Recognition is really something that should be done when it is warranted, not like salary,” he says.

To emphasize the point, Richardson and his recognition department report to sales, not HR. In fact, Richardson has no HR experience at all, having moved into the position after starting with the bank in one of its branches.

At that time, when the program was still new, recognition was centrally controlled. “We set criteria saying, ‘You do these things and you will get recognized.’” But in the early ’90s the bank made a 180-degree turn in its recognition philosophy, decentralizing everything. The managers and leaders know best what behaviours deserve special attention so decisions about recognition are made out in the field, not at head office.

“The other thing we realized very early on is that frequency is important,” he says. “We started out giving away few rewards and few recognitions. We switched our program around by decentralizing it and by making sure we had many rewards and many recognitions.”

A recognition program for 100 employees, where one employee gets recognized at the end of the year, isn’t going to have much effect, he says.

Today, Richardson’s group of five, including himself, acts as an oversight and help centre for recognition. It manages the recognition infrastructure — handling the administrative details of setting up a new program for example — and acts as a clearinghouse for best practices, and the source for recognition promotion and education.

Two staff work the phones full time taking upwards of 100 calls and sometimes as many as 200 calls about recognition a day. Some companies would be inclined to outsource that, but handling the phone calls in-house is a great way to take the temperature of the program and identify very quickly if problems arise, either from an operational or strategic perspective, he says.

Most calls are from employees with logistical questions: How many points do I have in my account? How do I nominate someone?

Occasionally, they receive complaints, he says. The response from the department depends upon the seriousness of the claim. “If it is a decentralized program, that means you can’t stick your nose in every time someone says, ‘I didn’t get recognized this week.’”

Most of those calls just go back to the appropriate manager in that area. However, if an employee calls and says, ‘Nobody in the group has received any recognition in the last six months,’ then it might be time to get involved, he says. A call will go out to the manager in question just to ask if there is some problem in the group or some uncertainty about how recognition practices should be applied.

But a truly effective recognition program doesn’t need many rules or much interference from head office, says Richardson.

As an executive member of the National Association for Employee Recognition, Richardson attends all conferences and talks with many other people about the RBC program.

“People look at me and say, ‘You have no rules?’ And I say, ‘No, not really.’ We have a history of recognition and most people know what is right and what is wrong. If they have X dollars to spend they try to spread it over the year.” They know there is a mixture of team and individual reward options available, but they decide on what behaviours to reward and in what measure, he says.

Aside from his recognition staff, there are upwards of 30 “recognition counterparts” throughout the organization, says Richardson. They come from all functions and departments and act as the recognition point person for that part of the organization. They get the first call if someone has a question about recognition, and it’s through them recognition budgets are funnelled for that area.

The bank runs a points program to give employees maximum choice in what rewards they receive and there is a nomination system in place which is one of the strongest elements of the recognition program, says Richardson.

Employees go online to nominate a co-worker. From there, the nomination is reviewed by the person’s manager. The manager decides if the employee’s actions simply fall within the parameters of the job, or if he deserves some small recognition on the spot. If the manager believes the employee’s actions may deserve something more, a recommendation for consideration is made to the recognition committee. “We have gotten away from the managers being the sole decider of who gets what,” he says. It helps dispel any claims of favouritism if a committee reviews the matter and actually awards the points.

Without question one of the most difficult things about recognition is measuring the effectiveness of the program, he says.

“Now and then we do have to defend ourselves,” he says. They do some analysis of program effectiveness through employee surveys, usually twice a year, which include questions about recognition. Recent surveys led to a recommendation for managers to increase the amount of team-based recognition, says Richardson.

And visitors to the recognition intranet page are often surveyed about the program. There is also a growing body of research that shows the connection between recognition programs and better productivity and morale, he says.

“We do believe we have a role in morale. And we do believe we have a role in turnover,” he says. “We get feedback from our line managers and regional vice-presidents. And we do have questions on our employee survey, but to come out with a black and white answer about the effectiveness of the program is very difficult.”

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