Effective employee recognition

Going beyond that banquet you're planning
By Carl Tompkins
February 17, 2011

Employee recognition is a topic of major importance within corporate America, yet, it is a subject misunderstood by many. Proof of this misunderstanding lies in the low morale levels and apathetic attitudes too often found in today's companies.

In regards to employee recognition, what must be understood right up front is that fancy trophies, awards, bonuses and banquets mean nothing to employees when their basic needs are not being met. In fact, these gestures might even be construed as insulting.

Leading human resources expert Susan Heathfield, founder of Heathfield Consulting Associates and a "Human Resources Guide" for About.com, identifies employees' basic needs as:

1. Being treated with respect. This requires regular, open, two-way communication that proves employees' opinions are valued. This communication gives employees the opportunity to hear praise for what they do well and constructive instruction for how they can improve. Done properly, it earns employee respect.

2. Being members in the crowd. Simply put, people in today's workplace need to feel included and part of the business equation. They are looking to receive information at the same rate and frequency as everyone else. How many times have you thought: "I wish somebody would have told me that"?

3. Educational growth. Employees want to grow their knowledge and education base to improve their abilities, make greater contributions and be eligible for promotion.

4. Having an impact on decision making. For years, we've heard about the positive impact of employee empowerment, and it's never going to go away or diminish in value. Employees who have the means to impact decision making become engaged in the business and put their discretionary energy into it, according to Heathfield.

5. Leadership. The final need, and my personal favorite, is leadership. Employees need to feel they are on a well-defined and important path. Experts agree that people have an insatiable thirst to be part of something bigger than themselves. Employees must have a leader to follow who is trustworthy and sets a good example.

The daily thank you

Never overlook the most important form of recognition: the daily thank you. I participated in a two-year project in the early '90s that studied effective employee recognition programs. Our team of six traveled across the United States, meeting with companies such as Westinghouse, Cessna, Heinz, Ford Motor Co., Alcoa and more. Our intent: to learn about each organization's employee recognition program and identify what pitfalls to avoid when designing our own. While each organization offered its own advice, they shared one common thread: special forms of employee recognition will not work if they are not supported by a sincere, daily thank you to everyone involved.

Special recognition

There is a time and place for those trophies, awards, bonuses and banquets, but there are important factors to consider. First, money is not recognition; money is compensation. To effectively recognize someone for their accomplishment, money is fine, as long as it takes the form of a well-thought-out gift. As the old saying goes, "It's the thought that counts." Money can be thoughtlessly thrown at anything, but that special brand of golf clubs that the awardee has always dreamed of owning, that's a gift of value. The key here is to research and deliver gifts that meet the unique desires of the person being recognized.

I'll spare the name of the company in order to protect the guilty, but during an interview with one of the above-mentioned organizations, I was told this story: At a large dinner banquet, the company presented its "salesman of the year" a two-week, all-expense-paid trip for two to Hawaii. At the podium, with the president of the division at his side, the award winner thanked his company for the recognition but handed the gift packet back, saying the trip held no appeal for himself or his wife. You see, the trip required that he take two customers and entertain them. Apparently, the tax write-off was more important to the company than what was best for the employee. According to the gentleman who told me the story, it was a rather embarrassing moment for the organization. They have since changed their ways.

Another important tip is to make sure that any special employee recognition is supported by a well-defined, well-communicated selection process built around objective measures of qualification. Anything short of this will spell disaster. Employees will view the process as politically driven and think even less of the winners and management.

Finally, if you decide to formalize an employee recognition program, do so with commitment. Etch the program into stone so it becomes an annual tradition that inspires employees and enables them to feel the prestige and honor intended. 

The author is global marketing resources manager for Sika Corp., with U.S. headquarters in Lyndhurst, N.J. Write him at tompkins.carl@sika-corp.com.