Managers don’t dole out recognition as often as they should: survey

<i>Canadian HR Reporter</i> readers value recognition as way to motivate employees

Here’s a sentiment many HR practitioners could relate to: “Recognition is a small piece of my job but it’s the one that takes up the most time.”

That’s how Connie Cyr, manager of employee performance at Nanaimo, B.C.-based Coastal Community Credit Union, describes her work. When the current credit union was formed out of a merger of four credit unions in January 2005, she spent a considerable amount of time thinking about ways to harmonize the four distinct recognition programs. She read up on best practices, held focus groups among staff to seek out program ideas and talked to her peers to find out what’s standard at other credit unions. Ultimately, she had to leave certain programs for a later date, as the core ones she rolled out would keep her busy enough. Sometimes, she gets night sweats wondering if she’s missed someone’s anniversary.

Given the time it can take, the wonder isn’t that some employers can’t set up a formal program, it’s that most of them do. Last month, Canadian HR Reporter surveyed readers on their recognition programs. Of the 523 who responded, only 16 per cent didn’t have a formal program and, even then, one in three without a formal program recognized people informally. Those who said they found recognition had no value or was ineffective were in the clear minority.

At Coastal Community Credit Union, Cyr decided that four programs were must-haves: length of service, retirement, educational achievement and peer-to-peer. The first two were staples, the last was important in instilling a culture of recognition throughout the organization, and the third was crucial to promoting a culture of lifelong learning, Cyr said.

On top of these four core programs, Coastal Community has a program called “Mission Accomplished” that promotes behaviour that goes above and beyond the call of duty. If a customer ever compliments an employee for a job well done, the manager goes online and fills out a form on the company intranet. One copy of that form gets attached to a company-branded greeting card that everyone on the executive team signs to thank the individual. A second copy goes to the HR department where it ends up in the employee’s file. The sixth program, called “Synergy Success,” rewards behaviour that reflects the corporate value, whether at an individual, team, division or even corporate level.

With these programs, Cyr finds herself in good company. According to survey respondents, the most popular type of program was the length of service recognition (87.9 per cent), followed by recognition for performance or for behaviour that went above (56.8 per cent). Also relatively popular were recognition programs that were tied to sales targets (30 per cent), suggestions and ideas (23.3 per cent) and safety (21.5 per cent).

Recognition and unions

Only a handful of respondents cited union presence at their organizations as the reason for not having a recognition program in place. Generally, unions see recognition programs as a potential source of favouritism and envy. At the Oshawa, Ont.-based Auto Workers Credit Union, a similar union attitude means the recognition budget goes mostly into celebrations of group accomplishments, such as luncheons or dinners for those who’ve worked on particular sales campaigns, said Janet Letros, director of HR.

Individuals who are part of the bargaining unit who put in extraordinary effort still get praised, but it has to be behind closed doors.

“We’ll gush all over the individual (in a letter of recognition) but in terms of presenting that in a public way, it will create problems for that individual, I suspect,” said Letros.

To compensate for the fact the celebration of an individual’s accomplishment has to be private, the credit union makes sure the message comes from the very top. The CEO would pay the person a visit in her office or have the person come into his office to acknowledge what she did and how important that was to the credit union.

The fact the CEO would do that carries a lot of weight, said Letros.

“People who’ve been recipients of that kind of recognition really do value it. They just purr like kittens,” she said.

Misaligned programs

That said, individual unionized employees do receive recognition at the Auto Workers Credit Union, such as for length of service, which kicks in at 25 years. There’s one particular recognition program for unionized employees that Letros simply despises. As at many unionized environments, employees get a certain amount of sick leave credits — 20 days, in this case. Those who don’t use up all their credits are awarded with a cheque for an amount equivalent to 50 per cent of the unused sick days.

“Two weeks worth of pay is a nice thing, but the majority of our staff would just as soon use their sick days and so it’s not a good thing,” she said. “I think it almost contributes to excessive casual sick leave use. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it.”

As Letros heads into another round of contract negotiations, she’s hoping to change the bonus program so it’s reserved for those who “really, truly have excellent sick leave records” and not benefit “people who have terrible sick leave records.” Ideally, the bonus should be reserved for those who’ve used up no sick days at all or it should be limited to those who use only a small number of sick days.

As Letros found with the attendance recognition program, sometimes recognition programs end up rewarding the wrong behaviour. In the Canadian HR Reporter survey, however, only a small minority of respondents cited misalignment as a top recognition concern. The most common answer, at 31.4 per cent, is managers don’t dole out the praise and rewards as often as they should.

Other runner-up concerns include the program is no longer fresh and interesting (23.2 per cent), the program has bred a sense of entitlement (19.1 per cent) and the program is not used equally across the organization (17.5 per cent). With only one per cent of respondents saying managers reward people too liberally, clearly the culture of recognition is still far from running amok at readers’ work environments.

Outdated programs

Sometimes a recognition program just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. That’s what Doug Dickson, HR manager at the Calgary office of oil and gas company BP, found with the gift catalogue that was used until about a year ago. Products were discontinued or took too long to arrive, said Dickson, making the program out of step with the responsiveness the company asks of staff.

“As we’ve been growing our division, huge demands have been placed on employees — to deliver, to step out and do new things — and we needed a recognition program that would help us recognize people appropriately and quickly,” he said.

Dickson saw an ad in Canadian HR Reporter for a Visa card that can be customized with an employer’s logo.

“I thought here’s an opportunity to provide a branded product that reminds the employee they got this at BP, will often cause discussion at the till — people will very often ask, ‘How’d you get that?’ — and reinforces behaviour through someone they don’t even know,” he said. “It just adds to the experience.”

This card is handed out to any BP employee “who goes beyond,” said Dickson, playing off the company slogan “Beyond Petroleum.” Whether that employee helped a colleague on a project or worked one weekend on short notice, HR would go over the accomplishment with the line manager to decide on the appropriate amount. Once that’s done, the HR staff simply has to activate the card with the chosen dollar value.

The Visa card has gone over well with employees, said Dickson. However, its bigger impact is to help managers give out rewards with lower dollar amounts more often. In the past, the division wasn’t scoring high in employee surveys for recognition and that was because awards were reserved for bigger accomplishments such as major deals or acquisitions.

With this program, said Dickson, the company is able “to recognize more people for what they’re doing, and step up the frequency and with that, it should cause people to feel more valued.”

From the survey
In your own words

Below are a few comments readers offered in response to questions in Canadian HR Reporter’s recognition survey.

If your organization doesn’t have a formal recognition program, why not?

•Management doesn’t understand the value of recognition.

•Although we have always preferred the informal approach, we are recognizing that this doesn’t always offer equality or fairness. A huge recognition that the squeaky wheel syndrome is in effect has happened lately.

•Culture of organization is one where you’re fortunate to have a job.

What rewards or recognition items are most popular with employees?

•Time off with pay or cash.

•Outdoor picnic and paid time to attend.

•Print or original painting that the employee chooses.

•Wine and cheese.

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