Desire for recognition is more or less a universal human trait. There may be rare exceptions, but people generally want to feel they’re appreciated when they do their job well or accomplish something new and different.
What isn’t universal is how people want to be recognized at a particular point in time. Depending on the person and the achievement, a simple “Attaboy” (or “Attagirl,” as the case may be) might suffice, but other situations might call for bringing out the proverbial brass band and 21-gun salute.
If you want to motivate and engage your employees, encourage specific behaviors, create a culture of purpose and fulfillment, and instill a sense of achievement and pride, then you should be familiar with the recognition landscape. Here’s what you need to know.
In the past, recognition was thought of mostly in tactical terms, if and when it was actually reflected on at all. Organizational leaders and managers probably viewed it as a succession of isolated events that took place whenever they deemed an action or accomplishment “worthy” of their praise.
But today, many companies view recognition as a pillar of people management, said Susan Adams, director of engagement for Dittman Incentive Marketing and current board member of the Incentive Marketing Association.
“Increasingly, leadership training and development delivers a message that engaging and recognizing employees is a required skill,” she said. “Managers are now expected to be effective at recognizing employees and providing timely feedback on the organization’s needs and interests.”
And plenty of data supports that approach. Adams pointed to recent research from Gallup that found “the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs: They don’t feel appreciated. Sixty-five percent of Americans received no recognition in the workplace last year.” She also cited a quote from an Aon Hewitt report that said, “According to employees worldwide, the engagement drivers needing immediate attention are career opportunities, recognition and organization reputation.”
“A recognition program provides a way to communicate what’s important to the company and is also critical to employee engagement and retention,” Adams explained. “Employees are looking for direction and feedback. They want meaningful work—to be appreciated for their efforts and to work for a company that makes them proud. A recognition program is important to developing a culture where expectations are clear and achievements are celebrated. It also makes explicit the relationship between contributing best efforts and personal aspirations for success and acknowledgment. Research shows that the engagement which is then generated has a significant impact on the health of the organization, both in terms of quality and profitability.”
A few years ago, the issue wasn’t so pressing. During the height of the Great Recession, jobs were so scarce that most U.S. workers didn’t think they could afford to grumble about the fact that they felt unappreciated. But recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show unemployment levels falling back down near the historical norm of 5 percent. Consequently, people feel they have more options in the job market, and their reservations about speaking up or taking action in these circumstances are largely gone. To illustrate this point, Adams pointed to recent research from Blessing White that found 87 percent of employees surveyed said it was more likely that they would quit than be fired.
“The growing talent deficit is emerging as one of the most important issues in the workplace today,” Adams said. “Employees are taking a hard look at what their company has to offer, including those three drivers identified by Aon Hewitt: career opportunities, recognition and organization reputation. If there is no clear direction and no recognition for a job well done, a talent exodus is likely. Best-in-class businesses now understand that employee engagement is part of a strategic plan to connect people with the organization and to inspire their best efforts. Recognition and rewards programs are important parts of the foundation on which the brand’s success is built.”
Pretty much every discussion of any aspect of the future of business operations these days includes mentioning how the rise of the millennials in the workforce will shake things up considerably. And recognition is no exception, said Paul Gordon, senior vice president of sales at Rymax.
”Millennials want to be recognized more frequently,” he explained. “They want to be reassured more often that they’re doing a good job.”
Specifically, they’re driving two major trends in this space: peer-to-peer and spot recognition.
“In both cases, it needs to be in real-time,” Gordon said. “You have to be nimble in terms of how you’re communicating that. They’re not waiting for their annual review to hear about it.”
Adams agreed. “Millennials have a reputation for requiring frequent feedback and appreciation for their efforts,” she said. “In fact, PricewaterhouseCoopers found that millennials “prefer to be rewarded or recognized for their work at least monthly, if not more frequently”—41 percent of millennials vs. 30 percent of all other generations. What’s more, they are less likely to stay in a job as long as their predecessors. Millennials average just three years at one job.
“Recognition programs are a perfect vehicle to win the loyalty of this group and to provide the positive feedback they need to take ownership of their jobs and outcomes,” she added. “A well-designed program ensures that this growing generation knows what is expected, how to succeed and that their work is appreciated. Developing the relationship between the employee and the organization will improve performance and retention.”
However, the stream of millennials flowing into the workforce isn’t the only generational factor at play. Historically, there are two, maybe three, generations broadly employed at any given time. But longer life expectancies and economic uncertainty suggest that in about a decade, we’ll see five concurrent generations in the workplace for the first time in history, said Kimberly Abel-Lanier, employee solutions leader for Maritz Motivation Solutions.
In this scenario, many of the boomers will hang around, Gen Xers will ascend to most of the top positions, millennials will mature into management and the oldest members of the next age group, which has been called everything from the “gamers” to the global generation, will start their careers.
“The static, simplistic discretionary recognition programs of the past will make way for more elegant programs that artfully weave learning, performance observation and feedback with recognition for accomplishments using fun, dynamic, entertaining-yet-educational technologies and tools,” Abel-Lanier said. “Empowering these two younger, inherently self-directed generation sets with the ability to ‘level up’ their skills while achieving nearly instant positive feedback and rewards for their great work and achievements will be key.”
Adding additional complexity to that will be the fact that the workforce will be even more international and virtual, said Abel-Lanier, who identified three important characteristics of effective recognition programs for personnel who are increasingly geographically and culturally distributed:
They will be highly personalized so that people can experience recognition based on their personal profile and preferences.
They will be highly diverse and culturally appropriate so that recognition is as relevant as possible for recipients.
They will be highly social so that there will be a tighter sense of virtual community and connectedness.
“As with all programs, it is important to keep demographics in mind,” Adams said. “An e-postcard or reward that will appeal to a baby boomer may not be appreciated by a millennial. A mobile app may be the key to program success for a smartphone-reliant audience, from road warrior salespeople to millennials. With a broad range of choices—often achieved through points programs—and a variety of communications, it is possible to effectively reach all of the generations in the workplace today.”
Taken together, these trends present another challenge: How can recognition programs become more communal and responsive as the workforce gets more diverse and dispersed? In a word, technology.
Within that is a panoply of solutions, ranging from gamification to social media, from QR codes to talent management dashboards, said Gordon. He added that choosing which ones to use is more about having a clear sense of your objectives than assessing specific functionality or picking whatever the kids might think is cool this year.
Take social media. Yes, many of your employees are on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter—and if they’re under 30, probably Instagram and Snapchat too—but that doesn’t mean your recognition program should leverage those tools. In fact, they may cause more problems than they solve.
“Across the board, organizations are extremely sensitive to their public-facing brand and to proprietary information being leaked online,” Adams said. “Social media, consequently, is not often where employee- or channel-recognition programs play out. These have been restricted instead to intranet sites and password-protected websites. Social streams tend to be entirely private to the organization, protecting the privacy of the individuals, and keeping the company’s practices and top performers confidential.”
At the strategic, program-management level, organizations are developing or purchasing sophisticated technology suites to administer everything from communications to performance tracking.
“Simple peer-to-peer programs and managers ‘giving’ recognition are yielding to more strategic enterprise program operating [EPO] platforms,” Abel-Lanier said. “Employers look to embed appreciation, recognition and rewards into myriad program types on day-to-day, informal and formal bases to achieve multiple business objectives. More niche applications that range from enabling customers to give employees direct feedback to linking rewards to learning outcomes are emerging every day.”
Still, even these solutions have their limits.
“Our industry has seen tremendous growth in online employee recognition platforms and pulse survey tools,” Adams said. “It’s essential to be able to offer the tools to make recognition easy, including mobile apps for a busy, on-the-go workforce. It is important to remember, however, that recognition is not one-size-fits-all, and many software providers fail to bring a consultative understanding of workplace issues to the table.
“It’s not just about employees being happy at work,” she added. “It’s also about understanding who is succeeding, who is failing, what tools are needed, what can be done to inspire and engage top performers, and how to light the way for the crucial middle 60 percent. A well-communicated recognition program provides employees with a career roadmap and institutionalizes the appreciation the company has for its employees. A program that offers peer-to-peer recognition can also strengthen a culture of collaboration and respect. Full-service recognition providers are able to bring reporting and analysis to online platforms and provide the communications and support for the actual workplace experience. Although social streams and e-postcards are engaging and can keep a program humming on a day-to-day basis, nothing beats a heartfelt ‘thank you’ and recognition in person, before peers.”
Rewards and recognition are closely related, and the former is regularly used to support the latter. Still, it’s worth pointing out that they’re not synonymous, nor can they be effectively combined without some consideration.
A good rule of thumb here is that the more personalized the reward, the more suitable it is for recognition. Monetary bonuses, then, aren’t all that valuable when it comes to singling out an employee or team for a job well done.
“We know that program managers prefer non-cash awards [for recognition],” said Susan Adams, director of engagement for Dittman Incentive Marketing. “This is because they are more efficient at connecting recognition and rewards. They offer a higher perceived value, can be more easily shared and discussed, and are more memorable than cash awards.”
“Non-cash awards” covers a lot of ground, though. It can include everything from shiny crystal trophies and plaques to “points” that can be applied to prizes like tickets to sporting events and high-end electronics.
“In all cases, the moment of recognition is an important milestone in the work life of the employee and creates a positive memory long associated with the brand,” Adams said. “Recognition and rewards should not be confused with the more transactional ‘do this, get that’ approach to incentive programs. Incentive programs target specific—usually sales or financial—goals, tend to be shorter term (one year or less), and only include those employees who are directly influencing the revenue results of the program. Recognition programs take a longer-term view and should be enterprise-wide. The goals associated with recognition are about the overall culture and processes of the business, and the rewards are usually of lower value, but more accessible to the whole community.”
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As Vice President of Travel & Engagement at Next Level Performance, Susan serves on the board of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), and chairs the IRF Research Committee. She has also served on the board of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) and is a past president of the Recognition Council, and a past member of the Performance Improvement Council and the Incentive and Engagement Solution Providers (IESP). She is interested in the strategies and benefits of employee engagement, incentive, and recognition programs. An avid traveler, she is also passionate about the art and science of incentive travel.