3 Tips for Recognizing Employees

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Consistently, employees say that recognition and appreciation in the workplace matters - that when they feel valued, appreciated, recognized, and rewarded for their contributions, hard work, and results, they are more likely to stay and less likely to leave their organization.

Yet when we conduct employee engagement surveys, we find that rewards and recognition programs are usually some of the weakest initiatives in the workplace. In fact, most employers that we work with struggle with rewards and recognition. They have difficulties defining what to recognize or reward, who to recognize or reward, how to do it fairly, what rewards to offer, how to track results, and how to motivate their leaders and supervisors to recognize their people.

Based on what we know about rewards and recognition programs that work, are effective, and increase employee engagement, here are 3 steps to improve rewards and recognition programs at your organization.

Step 1: Set criteria for rewards and recognition.

Particularly for larger rewards programs, establish clear and objective criteria for rewards and recognition. Setting specific criteria helps create transparency, ensure fairness, and select the most deserving individuals for recognition. Without clear criteria, rewards and recognition programs often fail...supervisors and managers default to rewarding "their favorites" or more visible contributors, rely on subjective biases, or don't reward anyone. Employees become disenchanted with the process and solid performers go unrecognized.

Criteria for rewards and recognition should be based on performance-related behaviors or results that are most important to your organization. Resist the urge to reward people for the basics, like attendance or safety, and focus on recognizing behaviors that drive high performance (i.e. creativity, teamwork, etc.). Good rules of thumb for establishing criteria include:

  • Avoid simply using "above and beyond" as criteria for recognition. Define this criterion, such as working extra hours, exceeding a goal or requirement, doing more than is asked, etc.
  • Use your core values and organizational strategy as a guide to developing criteria. These indicate your organization's priorities.
  • Identify revenue drivers. What behaviors drive revenue, reduce waste, improve efficiency, and add value?
  • Determine the criteria that are most relevant to and expected of all employees. Would all or most employees have an equal chance of getting rewarded for that behavior?
  • Communicate criteria to leaders, supervisors, managers, and employees. Make sure everyone is on-board and understands what will be recognized. Encourage their input on the criteria.

Step 2: Determine how you will recognize employees.

There are numerous types of rewards and recognition that you can provide to employees, but most of the ones that employers give tend to fall into these buckets:

  • Annual awards. These prestigious awards are given to one employee or a few employees for their performance or achievement in a certain area such as innovation, customer service, productivity, community service, etc. They are typically presented by a senior leader and at an organizational event, such as a year-end event or banquet. These awards tend to be large and meaningful, such as a cash gift, trip, or piece of technology.
  • Weekly, monthly, or quarterly awards. These rewards, provided to employees who display certain behaviors, results, characteristics, or company values, are typically given by a peer, supervisor, or leader on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. Such rewards tend to be smaller-scale, such as a gift card, cash, or time off.
  • On-the-spot awards. These rewards are given unexpectedly to employees for spontaneous reasons, such as work well-done and exceptional service, and are typically distributed by a supervisor or leader, but not according to any set timeframe. They also tend to be smaller-scale and recognize performance and completion of extraordinary projects.
  • Public recognition. Some organizations provide public recognition to employees, such as mentions and articles in company and client newsletters, local or national media, or in other public content when an accomplishment is very meaningful to the organization or the public. Organizations also commonly make announcements at staff and department meetings.
  • Appreciation events. Many organizations hold employee appreciation events, such as parties, celebrations, breakfasts, luncheons, and banquets. These events can include all employees or just some employees and are held to show appreciation to employees as a group for their accomplishments.
  • Informal recognition. Last, but certainly not least, informal recognition like handwritten notes, emails, personal calls, taking an employee out to lunch, and simply in-person acknowledgement given on a regular basis is very meaningful and effective recognition. It doesn't cost anything to give and can make employees feel valued and appreciated.

Whatever rewards you choose, make sure they fit what you are recognizing. For example, extraordinary performance should result in an extraordinary reward. A small token of appreciation for an unusually big accomplishment is not likely to result in feeling appreciated. Additionally, focus on providing rewards that employees will value.

Additionally, make sure that recipients of recognition also include employees outside of more visible departments. A very common complaint employees have with recognition programs is that rewards tend to go to more visible teams or individuals and that key contributors are overlooked. This is important to enhancing perceptions of fairness.

Step 3: Identify and motivate the distributors of rewards and recognition.

By and large, senior leaders and supervisors should primarily be the distributors of recognition and rewards. It makes more of a difference to employees when their immediate manager or supervisor recognizes them, and even more so when a senior leader does, especially the CEO. But while you may want your senior leaders and supervisors to take the lead in recognizing employees, the challenge is motivating them to actually do it. Here are some best practices:

  • Consider making rewards and recognition an expectation or performance requirement of supervisors.
  • Make rewards and recognition easy. Don't overburden supervisors and managers with a lot of paperwork, meetings, and inefficient processes that waste their time.
  • Give supervisors tools and a small budget for recognition to use at their discretion.
  • Measure results. Track recognition given by supervisors and managers to each employee.
  • Follow-up with supervisors and managers that aren't making recognition a priority.
  • Request frequent interaction and observation by your managers and leaders. When they are involved with employees, they tend to notice the ways they add value and contribute.
  • Provide reminders and education about the importance of recognizing employees and appreciating them. Recognition gets "lost in the shuffle" of other management priorities.
  • Encourage senior leaders to set the example, creating a culture of appreciation and thanks by regularly using informal recognition.

Recognition is universal in that everyone needs it and wants it. If rewards and recognition are done right in the workplace, they can be highly effective in motivating, engaging, and retaining your employees.

Additional Resources

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