Managers should take the time to recognize all employees on a regular basis, experts say—focusing on behaviors they want to reinforce—rather than singling out certain individuals or groups at scheduled times.
“Ideally, employees should be valued all year round, especially when they have performed well, but the first step is raising awareness about the importance of recognition on the part of every manager. … Employee Appreciation Day has helped serve that purpose,” explained Bob Nelson, Ph.D., president of Nelson Motivation Inc. and author of 1501 Ways to Reward Employees(Workman Publishing, 2012) and other best-selling titles.
Nelson, who created Employee Appreciation Day—celebrated the first Friday in March—with the first edition of his book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing, 1994), said the event remains popular. However, the real goal, he noted, “is to make recognition a part of ongoing practices at work, not to just generically thank everyone one day out of the year.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. The kind of recognition most employers extend occurs too infrequently and “does not speak to the needs, expectations and motivations of today’s workforce,” Nelson said.
When HR professionals were asked on the SHRM Connect site how—and how often—their organizations express appreciation for employees, they shared a variety of practices.
- A Texas-based company celebrates employee-appreciation day with a banner and balloons (so everyone recognizes the occasion) as well as raffle prizes and a barbecue. The same company has an employee-of-the-month program.
- An Illinois company has several programs, including spot bonuses, spontaneous staff lunches, random prizes at all staff meetings, and a “kudos corner,” where people can write public thanks on a white board, according to its HR director.
- “We do not celebrate employee-appreciation day but look for creative ways to recognize and reward employees throughout the year,” wrote a commenter from Pennsylvania.
Some said they single out certain groups of employees for recognition:
- “We recognize our administrative employees here on Admin Day with a full breakfast buffet,” wrote an HR manager from Boston. Administrative Professionals Day/Week is April 21-27.
- “We celebrate Customer Service Week in early October and ensure that we recognize employees for their stellar work with small gifts such as coffee gift cards and chocolates,” said a respondent from Seattle. “We also encourage employees to recognize each other with certificates we provide and hang on a community billboard that week for all to view,” she added. “We end the week with a lunch for all employees.”
- Another commenter said her small company celebrates Employee Appreciation Day on what is technically Administrative Professionals Day by watching movies, playing bingo or having the management team prepare a picnic lunch for employees. “We do something different every year,” she said.
Though there are legitimate reasons to recognize staff in certain roles—especially those sometimes taken for granted—the risk is that “those employees you aren’t celebrating may feel left out,” Nelson cautioned.
Sources consulted for this article were least likely to favor programs that singled out one employee for special recognition.
Employee of-the-week, -month or -year programs are bad for morale, according to Mary Kelly, Ph.D., CEO of Productive Leaders, a business consultancy. “If you are not nominated, your morale decreases. If you are nominated but not selected, you feel second best. If you are selected, you feel a little embarrassed. No one is happy,” she explained in an e-mail to SHRM Online.
Joe Laipple, Ph.D., senior vice president of strategic services for the consultancy Aubrey Daniels International, has a similar view. “These types of programs typically don’t contribute to creating positive cultures, don’t create repeatable performance and don’t identify specific behaviors that lead to positive business outcomes. By singling out these kinds of employees, they also may be sending a mixed message that what employees do and how they treat others is less important than delivering certain kinds of business results.”
“As an employee, I believe it’s better for morale when you celebrate successes as a team,” wrote Lori Freemire, who chose not to disclose her employer’s name, in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “By singling someone out, you are neglecting others who may be just as good an employee but missed the mark for that contest or selection process.”
Some suggest that subjectivity and favoritism are often associated with such programs.
“I’m not the biggest fan of employees voting for each other, because the results can be quite skewed at times,” said Danielle J. Bernhard, a marketing manager in Central Florida whose company has an employee-of-the-month program. “I prefer that our managers select the employee of the month, as they would really know who worked the hardest and who really deserves the title.” However, she said her favorite form of appreciation is a simple “Thank you.”
Issues for HR
“The big question is why employers essentially pit employees against each other when those same employers spend money and training dollars on team-building exercises,” Kelly added. “The people who should work together the most often should be united with common goals, not driven apart with employee competition for a frivolous plaque or a small bonus.”
Laipple added, “Organizations should focus instead on how employees are led and managed on a daily basis [and] should instead invest in programs that support employees for incremental improvement in specific behaviors and business results.”
“The real trick is to get all managers recognizing employees for desired behavior and performance as it occurs, whenever it occurs,” Nelson suggested. “If you can make that happen, you will create a culture of recognition whereby everyone feels valued … when that happens, no one feels left out when others are acknowledged; they know their turn will come when they deserve it.
“If you don’t care about your employees, and show it, they won't care about you—or your customers,” Nelson continued. “What gets noticed gets repeated. Recognizing desired behavior and performance leads to increased desired behavior and performance on the part of any employee.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.