Why Social Recognition Matters

Research reveals noncash awards are still most effective

By Dave Zielinski Feb 20, 2015
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When The Hershey Comp​​any conducted a global employee survey, it discovered people were looking for new, technology-friendly ways to recognize colleagues for their good works. So Hershey’s human resources team created a social recognition program called SMILEs to celebrate the company’s values and identify those who go “above and beyond” to accomplish objectives.

Hershey’s employees can now use recognition-specific apps on mobile devices or access tools on computers to catch peers in the act of doing something commendable, whether those teammates are working down the hall or on sales and manufacturing teams around the world. Some 14,000 recognition moments occurred in the first three months of the program, with 40 percent of employees participating in the first 90 days.

The Power of Thanks

Hershey’s experience is among those detailed in a new book, The Power of Thanks: How Social Recognition Empowers Employees and Creates a Best Place to Work (McGraw-Hill, 2015), from co-authors Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine, senior executives at Globoforce, a recognition solutions provider in Southborough, Mass.

With the workforce becoming more global, social, mobile and multigenerational, a new strategy for employee recognition is needed, the authors argue. Social recognition capitalizes on employees’ behavioral habits and new social technologies to give more people a voice in saying “thanks,” adding an important tool to an organization's rewards strategy.

Co-author Irvine, Globoforce’s vice president of client strategy and consulting, said the best social recognition programs “are inclusive of both peer-to-peer and manager-to-employee recognition and driven by good work rather than constrained by reward practices like monthly point allocations.”

Human resource leaders are seeing results from using such recognition to boost employee engagement, experts say. In her report Social Employee Recognition Systems Reward the Business with Results, Yvette Cameron, a research directorat Gartner, writes, “HR and business leaders utilizing social recognition and reward systems report significant improvement in employee engagement and business outcomes.”

Laura Sejen, global practice leader of rewards at Towers Watson, a New York City consulting firm, said the number of companies implementing social recognition programs continues to grow.

“That’s due in part to what organizations are trying to achieve in their work environments today,” Sejen said. “They’re encouraging more collaboration and better teamwork, and they realize social recognition has a role in that and isn't something that can be driven solely by senior management.”

Technology Drives Recognition

Irvine said effective social recognition requires systems that make it easy for busy employees to acknowledge colleagues through the mobile and social media channels where they spend much time. Even the best managers can’t see all the good happening around them, he said, and peer-to-peer recognition through these technologies helps fill the gaps.

Owing to the consumerization of business technology, more employee recognition programs are delivered via social networks, mobile channels and gamification, with many programs delivered via software-as-a-service (SAAS) applications, according to the Gartner report.

HR wants employees to be able to access social recognition programs anytime, anywhere, so the trend is to move to web platforms and native mobile apps, Irvine said. Many also are adding video features, capitalizing on the ease of creating and editing video with today’s mobile devices. Video allows award nominators to incorporate a more personal component directly within the nomination process, Irvine said.

Globoforce’s Service Timelines program, for example, honors employees’ years of company service with personal stories and videos from an employee’s closest work colleagues, tapping relationships that have mattered most to them over the years.

Many of these programs run on SAAS applications from companies like Globoforce and Kudos Inc. of Calgary, Alberta. Kudos' platform enables users to send recognition messages that are only visible to a recipient or that can be posted publicly to a Facebook-like “Team Wall.”

Tom Short, CEO of Kudos, said the user experience is becoming more critical in social recognition systems. “Employees expect the same type of experience they would have within iTunes or when using Apple devices when they’re using a recognition-based corporate social network,” he said. “It needs to be user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.”

Awards with Biggest Impact

Irvine said the best social recognition programs follow a two-pronged award strategy. They encourage employees to recognize their peers when they demonstrate a company value or achieve a corporate objective, and they make rewards more meaningful by giving recognized employees a choice in the awards they receive.

“Industry research suggests noncash awards are still most effective, giving employees guilt-free pleasure in choosing aspiration awards as a treat for themselves or their families,” Irvine said. Those awards can include a prime parking space, time off, gift certificates, dinner for two, a plaque, catalog merchandise, etc.

Frequent awards encouraged in social recognition programs also can be budget-friendly when managed across a range of monetary values, Irvine said. Many of Globoforce’s customers use a mix of noncash awards in social recognition programs that are redeemable for an economic value of $25, $50, $100, $500 and $1,000, which allows for frequent small awards and less common large ones.

To ensure award values are properly aligned with employee efforts or accomplishments, Irvine suggests offering a range of award levels, typically four to six that are calibrated to level of effort, contribution, time investment or result achieved.

“Use of a program-based award adviser can provide guidance on the level of recognition warranted,” Irvine said. “This way nominators can better ascertain value of the contribution made. Manager approvals can further ensure the recognition is properly valued and placed.”

Pitfalls to Avoid

While social recognition can be a boon for employee engagement, there are some practices to avoid, Irvine said. They include use of restrictive reward tactics like pre-allocated points, a gamification concept where employees are given points for recognizing the work of others. That practice can result in people rushing to send out halfhearted “Nice work” messages by a program deadline.

Other pitfalls include infrequent and predetermined award timing and use of manager-to-employee-only awards.

“Senior managers and supervisors also need to communicate their support of the program, both through their own participation and the messaging they send out,” Irvine said. “Without all these elements, adoption will be siloed, slow and will too often fall short” of an organization’s employee engagement goals, he said.

Sejen said that it’s important social recognition be nonbureaucratic, that the process to nominate co-workers is easy and that the program is well-publicized throughout the organization.

“Sometimes employees aren’t even aware these programs exist, so it’s important to communicate about them and give them a higher profile,” she said.

Dave Zielinski a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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