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Peer-to-Peer Recognition Is Good but Not Enough

Recognition programs that encourage employees to show appreciation for one another’s efforts can improve working relationships and business results. But such programs are no substitute for manager feedback, experts say.

The “Just Say Thanks” program at Stantec, an engineering consulting firm with 150 offices throughout the United States and Canada, encourages employees to do just that, according to Diane M. Kelly, SPHR, human resources manager for the approximately 2,000 employees on the east coast of the United States.

The program is simple. An employee—at any level—sends a co-worker an e-mail thanking them for something specific they did that went “above and beyond” the expected, with a copy sent to the employee’s supervisor and a designated HR e-mail box.

Each month Stantec draws one winner for each regional territory from the submissions received by HR. The winner receives a gift certificate for Stantec merchandise, such as logo clothing, sporting goods or office supplies. A similar drawing is conducted quarterly. After each drawing the “winning” thank you note and a list of all other names submitted for the time period is distributed to all employees via e-mail.

About 10 percent of Stantec’s employees participate in the program each month.

Simple to Sophisticated

Cindy Ventrice, author of Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2003) says recognition can be spread as quickly and easily as a cold or computer virus. All it takes is for one person to spread the bug by taking the time to thank a colleague.

Unstructured, spontaneous recognition is one of three ways peer recognition occurs, according to Ventrice; employees simply acknowledge each other as they choose.

Peer recognition can be formal and structured, with nomination forms, review panels and awards managed by a central entity. Some organizations opt for a hybrid approach, she says, with loose criteria and awards available for employees to use as they see fit.

Ventrice says the three types of peer recognition produce the same kind of satisfaction in employees. The difference lies in the administration. Formal programs are more costly and require more management, she says.

“Organizations often establish peer-to-peer recognition programs as part of their comprehensive strategy to ensure employees are valued and appreciated in the workplace,” says Roy Saunderson, author of Giving the Real Recognition Way (Recognition Management Institute, 2008) and president and founder of the Recognition Management Institute, a consultancy based in Montreal and New York.

Peer-generated recognition makes sense, according to Saunderson, because employees tend to spend more time working with peers than with their managers, who are normally responsible for doling out spot bonuses and other forms of performance-based recognition.

Peer-to-peer recognition should involve a natural expression of appreciation, such as a face-to-face word of thanks, instant message, e-mail or praise in a staff meeting, Saunderson says.

Other programs invite employees to nominate their peers for an award. Still others enable employees to give each other points or incentive currency that can be accumulated and redeemed for a tangible gift item from an online catalog and store.

“Many times these incentive point systems have a certain limit to the amount that can be sent directly by a peer to a peer,” Saunderson told SHRM Online. “Anything over and above a certain dollar or point value is often vetted and approved by a supervisor or manager before the recipient receives it.”

The key outcome of peer-to-peer recognition, Saunderson says, should be an increase in the relationship connection between co-workers, not an automated and impersonal system of allocating points or gift cards.

Managers Play a Pivotal Role

Saunderson says regular positive communication between peers can improve trust and relationships in the workplace. But peer recognition is no substitute for supervisor recognition and feedback, he notes.

Ventrice says organizations sometimes become overly dependent on peer recognition, to the exclusion of manager involvement, which she says is “never a good idea.”

“Managers are so pushed that they are looking for any excuse they can to get out of being hands on,” she says. “They like peer programs because they desperately want to offload something.”

But Ventrice says employee recognition should follow a “50/30/20 rule”: Fifty percent should come from managers, 30 percent from peers and 20 percent from the organization.

Managers even have a role in peer-to-peer programs, she says: “Managers need to use the program, talk up the program and supplement it with their own comments about those who have received recognition.”

Another way managers can foster peer recognition, according to Ventrice, is to ask employees when they are being recognized for achieving a specific result who helped them to do so. The manager can then give the employee tokens of recognition to deliver to the others who participated in getting the job done.

A Formal Program at Work

Some peer-to-peer programs might fall prey to employees who nominate each other simply to gain access to tangible rewards. “Without specific criteria to evaluate nominations or supervisory approval, a peer-to-peer reward/recognition program can be a resource and money guzzler without a positive ROI,” Saunderson says.

The Award of Excellence, available to employees of The Field Museum in Chicago, must be reviewed and approved before it can be bestowed. Nominations for the award, which recognizes those who have “gone above and beyond the call of duty,” advanced the mission of the museum or added significant value to the visitor’s experience, must be submitted to a peer panel.

The peer-review panel is made up of previous Award of Excellence recipients and non-senior management staff personnel, who have been approved for the role by their department manager and area vice president, says Sam Burns, PHR, human resources director for the museum. “The panel represents every area of the museum and meets for close to 10 hours each year to select the award recipients,” he told SHRM Online. “Panel members serve on the committee for two years, with half of the panel rotating out each year.”

The museum receives over 30 nominations each year but has recognized just 81 people since the program began in 2001, which has led a few employees to question the review panel’s final decisions, Burns says. “We do limit the number of awards each year; the most we have given in one year is 13 and the least is eight.”

But the limits are there for a reason.

“The limits are in place to ensure that the recognition is given to those who truly go above and beyond,” Burns adds. “We want the awards to have a special significance not only for the recipient but for the museum-at-large.”

Purposeful Recognition

In some cases employees aren’t sure why they received an award, according to Ventrice, because the award criteria are vague or overly broad. An award targeted to recognize a specific desired behavior is therefore ideal, she says.

Such is the case for the Pillars of Service program at Harry Norman, Realtors in Atlanta. The program, starting its fourth year, allows employees to nominate individuals for an award based on behavior that embodies one of 10 specific customer service commitments, such as confidentiality, ethics and personal ownership. Five employees and five independent agents are recognized each quarter, and two are selected from the quarterly winners for an annual award.

The program document provides employees with guidance on how to answer phones, greet visitors and resolve problems. Nomination materials reinforce desired behaviors by listing the 10 service expectations.

Regular communication is a key part of the program.

“Our human resources department introduces the Pillars of Service program to employees during their orientation presentation,” says Alisa Bennett-Hart, assistant director of communications, who coordinated the creation of the program. “Because agents are independent contractors, they receive the information as part of their welcome materials as well as in the agent manual.”

Each Harry Norman, Realtors office has one or two Pillars of Services ambassadors to promote and administer the program locally in a manner that suits the individual office culture, Bennett-Hart told SHRM Online.

“The program has given me and others the opportunity to show our peers that we recognize and appreciate their efforts to go above and beyond the call of duty and display superb customer care,” says Gene Collier, a receptionist. “My own efforts have been recognized through this program, and this proved to me that others do care and are paying attention.”

Formal Program Do’s and Don’ts

Ventrice offers the following suggestions for organizations interested in setting up a formal peer-nomination system:

  • Develop clear nomination and selection criteria for each award.
  • Have a nomination process that includes a description of what the person did to deserve the nomination.
  • Allow for multiple recipients in order to acknowledge as many deserving people as possible.

A recognition committee can help ensure that peer recognition works properly, Ventrice says, particularly when committee members know what it’s like “down in the trenches.” HR involvement is important, she says, but HR shouldn’t dominate the process.

Ventrice does not recommend an “employee of the month” approach to peer recognition, however. “There are so many stories of those programs not working,” she says, because of unclear award criteria, favoritism and bias toward employees in visible roles, such as IT and service.

Feel-Good Programs Pack Business Punch

When layoffs are occurring, some say, employees should be content just to have a job.

Some employees crank their performance into high gear in such situations in hopes of proving their value and therefore avoiding layoff. But Ventrice says such employees might only appear to be working hard—like a spinning gear disconnected from other gears—and might not be producing the results the organization is seeking.

“Managers need to realize this isn’t fluff,” Ventrice says, especially when recognition recognizes behaviors that support key business goals such as increased sales, reduced costs and innovation.

And it can play a crucial role when an organization is going through a rocky stage.

“During times of crises and uncertainty, recognition, appreciation and support for friends and colleagues increases dramatically and unlocks something inside us that wants to give and be thankful for each other," said Eric Mosley, CEO of Globoforce, an employee recognition company headquartered in Southborough, Mass., and Dublin, Ireland.

In a Dec. 4, 2008, news release, Globoforce reported there were record levels of peer-to-peer employee awards issued in the Fortune 500 companies that use Globoforce recognition programs. “Caring and concerned people turned to their company's peer-to-peer recognition program as a way to make a connection and appreciate someone around them for their efforts,” Mosley added.

“It’s easy to see how a workplace where employees show each other appreciation would be a more pleasant place to work,” Ventrice says. “Employees who recognize each other show greater respect and tend to act more cooperatively. Respect and cooperation create a happier, more productive workplace—an obvious benefit for individuals and managers.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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