Recognition Brings Out the Best in Employees

By Stephen Miller Jun 24, 2008

CHICAGO—“Expressing employee appreciation is an art, not a science,” and HR has a palette of possibilities that it should be sharing with managers, said Mindy Chapman, Esq., during her June 22 SHRM Annual Conference session “99 Ways to Recognize Employees to Increase Motivation, Retention and Revenues.”

The president of Chicago-based Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC, she is the co-author of the American Bar Association’s bestseller Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial.

Chapman is also an expert on employee motivation and how organizations can bring out the best in their workers. As she put it, “Two things are bad for the heart: running up hill and running down people.”

“Presenteeism,” or just showing up at work and doing the minimum, “is responsible for $150 billion in direct and indirect costs to American businesses [annually],” Chapman said, citing a study in the Harvard Business Review. A study by The Conference Board revealed that two out of three workers do not feel motivated to drive their employer’s business goals.

Chapman listed several alarming statistics based on business studies: 65 percent of Americans report receiving no recognition for work done in the past year; 50 percent of managers don’t reward their employees for performance; and 75 percent of managers fail to see any need for a companywide systemic approach to managing employee performance.

The problem is big, but the solution is fairly simple. “Say ‘thank you!’ ” said Chapman.

Or nearly that simple. A formal recognition program that’s tied to performance and behavior need not be complicated, but it should be institutionalized as part of the corporate culture. “Recognition creates motivation,” and that contributes to the bottom line by getting people to do their best work.

An effective program, Chapman said, should promote recognition (“thank you” or “nice job” routinely given for good efforts) and incentive rewards (such as small tokens or travel outings). “A $20 gift card—or these days, a gas card—is much cheaper than hiring a new employee” to replaced the disgruntled, underappreciated worker who call it quits, she pointed out.

Effective Recognition

To be effective, recognition must be linked to measurable performance and specific behavior, Chapman emphasized. That means determining what the corporation values, communicating those values to managers and those who report to them, encouraging expressions of appreciation, and awarding spot recognition to individuals (and to teams) that do something excellent.

Awards should follow achievement closely. “If you wait months to reward employees for a job well done, they may already be gone,” Chapman noted.

Another point to remember: Determining recognition awards should not be a top-down exercise. Survey employees to find out what they would want, in advance, Chapman advised. “Some would find an award given in front of their co-workers a memorable experience; others would be mortified.” And while some workers might value a plaque to hang near their desk, “others would see it as just another dust collector.” Recognition needn’t be expensive, but a bit of effort can make it meaningful and not something viewed as perfunctory—or worse, insincere.

Make sure there’s a personal note with the award. “An employee received a watch sent via UPS. When his co-workers asked who sent him the watch, he said ‘UPS,’ ” Chapman related.

Other unique ideas for rewarding workers? Again, based on employee preference, they can be much more than trophies and certificates. For example:

  • Work opportunities. The chance to work with people from other departments; a chance to be on an important committee; assignment to a high-profile project.
  • Recognition ceremonies. Employee-of-the-month awards (but don’t be stingy with praise by limiting these to just one employee per month); “light bulb awards” for new ideas; opening or closing staff meetings with praise.
  • Merchandise. “Thank you” T-shirts signed by management; a chef for a night; pay for a month’s transportation.
  • Special time off from work. A “perfect attendance” day off; employee-of-the-month days off; a two-hour sleep-in pass.
  • Notes of appreciation. Thank you notes sent to homes; e-mails with upper management cc’d; thank you messages in paycheck envelopes.

“Employees feel most appreciated when their manager recognizes them, even more so than if the big boss did,” Chapman said. And expressions of recognition don’t have to bust anyone’s limited budget.

But “If you have an ‘informal’ recognition program, you don’t have a recognition program,” she warned. Unless the program is spelled out and managers across the organization are using it, then “you don’t have an effective recognition program.”

Stephen Miller is an editor/manager for SHRM Online.

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