No Good Deed Goes Unrewarded

Automating submission and approval of awards creates immediacy—and increases the number of nominations companywide.

By Scott Himelstein Jan 1, 2010
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January CoverChances are, you don’t need to be told the virtues of recognition. What HR executive wouldn’t laud employees’ accomplishments?

This article is about transformation: the transformation of a well-intentioned but less-effective program into a strategic recognition tool aligned with business strategy and high-performance culture.

You may know Discovery Communications by networks such as The Discovery Channel, TLC and Animal Planet. Discovery’s networks have more than 1.5 billion subscribers in more than 170 countries and communicate in 35 languages. Approximately 4,300 employees operate 100-plus worldwide networks or provide consumer and education products and services and a diversified portfolio of digital media services, including All this effort brought in 2008 revenue of $3.4 billion.

The company’s culture is best exemplified by John Hendricks, founder and chairman, who says, "Discovery is more than the name of our company; it is our very calling." Leaders take pride in fostering creativity, innovation and great ideas. The culture embraces new ways, techniques and technology in the desire to be the best at nonfiction storytelling. Each employee has the potential to come up with the next great idea.

Discovery’s Corporate values
  • Integrity
  • Quality
  • Creativity
  • Respect
  • Profitability
  • Green
Discovery’s Growth Traits
  • Innovation
  • Customer focus
  • Expertise
  • Accountability
  • Project development

Employee performance, when aligned with corporate values and growth traits, lays the foundation of the culture. These values and traits also define how employees work together. Awarded behaviors generally have to be outside an individual’s daily job description, yet by making values and growth traits part of goal setting and performance management processes, they become meaningful. Recognizing and awarding them strengthens that relevance.

Discovery’s former employee recognition program, introduced in 2006, was designed to motivate employees to produce results that delivered significant value for the company and its subscribers. There were three levels of cash awards. Nominating managers were responsible for acquiring approvals on paperwork circulated within the management hierarchy, going up as many as five more levels. "Very few awards were granted each year," reflects HR Director Leah Coyne, SPHR.

Each nomination was then sent to a recognition program administrator responsible for reviewing the nominations and ensuring that the award sizes were consistent with the achievements. Expected turnaround time was 30 days.

How Much Does It Cost?

Neither Discovery Communications nor its vendor Globoforce would disclose the cost of this recognition program. In a December 2007 WorldatWork survey, however, 544 respondents reported total recognition budgets equaling 2.7 percent of payroll.

To be effective, recognition must be timely, yet the overly manual process resulted in delays and, worse, a lack of interest. At times, it was challenging just to know the status of each nomination—and whose desk it was on.

And, this process made the administrator responsible for determining the worthiness of nominations. Disagreements between the administrator and others often resulted in further delays.

The Transformation

Senior managers and HR leaders had already committed to provide recognition. The challenge for HR professionals was to find a robust tool that would allow recognition to happen effectively and quickly. We needed to move to an automated process. Our program needed to be:​

  • Strategic, reinforcing values and growth traits, and flexible enough to award various kinds of performance as the business changes.
  • Efficient, yielding smaller awards spread across a larger percentage of employees.
  • Global, so a worldwide employee population can participate.
  • Memorable. Introducing merchandise makes employee recognition more personal.
  • Inclusive, by ensuring that recognition can occur in all directions, top down and peer to peer.
  • User-friendly, encouraging rather than deterring use.
  • Robust, with reporting capabilities.
  • Faster. Fewer levels of approval ensure faster turnaround time.

Today, any manager may nominate employees to receive gift cards or cash. In addition, any employee may send an "e-thank you" through the recognition application.

HR representatives vet the applications. If approved, sign-offs by two additional managers result in gift card awards. Cash awards require approval by the division head. The program administrator is only responsible for conducting activities such as reporting, publicity and encouraging global utilization.

After interviewing multiple vendors, we selected Globoforce, an awards and incentives provider with offices in Southborough, Mass., and Dublin, Ireland, because its software platform addresses most of the above objectives.

A cross-functional team—with members from the payroll, information technology, communications and HR departments—launched Discovery’s Stellar recognition program in March 2008.

Getting employees to use this technology requires targeted communications. Members of the HR department partner with the corporate communications group to develop an internal strategy that brands the program and promotes global use throughout the year. This strategy includes:

  • A dedicated area on the intranet site.
  • An executive message on Discovery’s intranet site.
  • Recurring announcements and promotional banners on the intranet home page celebrating and recognizing recipients.
  • Fliers and posters in high-traffic areas of regional offices.
  • Template e-mail congratulating project heads and their division heads on successful initiatives.

This communication strategy produces results. The percentage of employees recognized increased from 2 percent to 20 percent of the workforce. Managers like the new application and find it easy to navigate. Automated approval improves turnaround time from weeks to days. An employee receiving a merchandise award can go online and select a merchant and have the gift card in hand within three to five business days.

Strategic Intent

David Zaslav, Discovery’s president and chief executive officer, is fervent about growing a company that encourages a global exchange of ideas in an innovative, open and high-energy setting. With this in mind, the recognition program is now at the ready to provide managers with a tool to reward behaviors and results.

Adria Alpert Romm, senior executive vice president of HR, adds, "Aligned with our corporate values and growth traits, the system rewards employees who take risks, innovate and realize results."

While most recognition occurs after an event, HR professionals sometimes partner with business units to promote behaviors or results before they occur. For example, in honor of Earth Month last April, Planet Green, a network offering green programming, used the recognition program to promote a competition among all Discovery employees to see who best demonstrated a green lifestyle. This competition tied together a contest, recognition and a corporate value.

Discovery Communications - statistics

Making a Difference

An automated solution reaching a larger percentage of employees, reducing the number of approvals and delivering recognition in a timely fashion makes this program a success. While use remains an important measure, the relationship between recognition and employee engagement is noteworthy. In a February 2009 survey of award recipients and managers, recipients reported having more connection to the company, being more engaged in their work, and feeling more satisfied and appreciated as a result of receiving awards.

Stellar’s first year, 2008, was about the launch, putting energy and a communication strategy behind the program, increasing the number of nominations, and reinforcing the strategic link between values and growth traits and employee recognition. Subsequent results in 2009 clearly demonstrate the relation between the way Discovery Communications produces great content and the way it provides meaningful recognition.


The author, a compensation specialist at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., as of October 2009, was formerly director of compensation at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Md.

Web Extras​​

​SHRM article: How Companies Use Non-Cash Awards (SHRM Online Compensation Discipline)

SHRM article: Slight Pay Increases Shift Focus to Non-monetary Awards (SHRM Online Compensation Discipline)

Web site: Discovery Communications

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