Setting the Record Straight on Employee Recognition | HighGround

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Setting the Record Straight on Employee Recognition

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Today we’re diving into what employee recognition is and isn’t, as well as some tips for implementing a new program or revamping a stale one that may not be as effective anymore.

What is employee recognition?

If you think this is an easy question, a quick Google search proves that many still get it wrong. Many of the misconceptions that lead to poorly designed recognition programs can be found in definitions of employee recognition found around the Web.

Case in point: BusinessDictionary.com defines employee recognition in part as “Communication between management and employees which rewards them for reaching specific goals or producing high quality results in the workplace.” It goes on to say “Recognizing or honoring employees for this level of service is meant to encourage repeat actions, through reinforcing the behavior you would like to see repeated.”

While the second part of this definition does a great job of explaining the intended broader outcome of a recognition program, the first part perpetuates some commonly believed myths.

Employee Recognition

Here’s a few “do’s” of employee recognition.

1. Employee recognition should flow in all directions.

Recognition should never occur only between management and employees. One of the biggest flaws of a standard “Employee of the Month”-type program is that it only flows in one direction – down. Peer-to-peer recognition builds a sense of community between employees and contributes to a positive company culture. On a more tactical level, it creates a bigger window into an employee’s performance, by allowing those who work together to recognize others for their contributions that managers might not otherwise see.

2. Employee recognition is not the same as rewards.

Recognition and rewards often go hand in hand, but it’s important to note that they aren’t the same thing, nor are they interchangeable. Reward programs tend to incentivize employees for reaching or surpassing specific milestones related to performance, such as bonuses for sales quotas, and tenure, like anniversary gifts.

The goal of a recognition program is very different. It recognizes employees for specific behaviors and actions that represent a company’s mission and values. And, making that recognition public allows employees to see firsthand what it takes to successful.

3. Employee recognition is an everyday activity.

For a recognition program to be successful, it must be accessible to employees every single day. Asking for employees to submit each other and announcing them periodically lessens the impact that the positive behavior was meant to encourage. Employees need to be recognized in the moment to feel valued and for the action to have a positive ripple effect throughout the organization.

4. Employee recognition celebrates the unexpected.

Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. In the case of recognition programs, too much of it lessens its impact and power. Employee recognition should be reserved for those who go above and beyond their job description in a way rings true to a company’s values – not doled out to anyone who does this work and hits their goals.

The domino effect of employee recognition is real.

While the goal of an employee recognition program is to ultimately recognize individuals for displaying behavior that you’d like to be repeated, there are many other ways that businesses benefit from the program.

Brand reputation can make or break a company’s ability to attract talent – which is critical in the low unemployment world in which we live today. An active recognition program shows potential employees that a company cares about individual performance as well as fostering a sense of teamwork and community amongst its employees.

If employees feel valued and that their work is validated, they’re more likely to stick around, right? Right. Higher retention rates are also a byproduct of recognition. Deloitte found that companies with a highly effective recognition program had 31% lower voluntary turnover than those with an ineffective program.

Employee recognition programs can also have a positive effect on organizational culture. Since recognitions are tied to the values most important to employees, they serve to reinforce the culture in a very direct, relevant way.


So, what is the best definition of employee recognition?

The best definition we’ve seen for employee recognition comes from a now defunct Canadian organization called the HR Council. It defines it as “the acknowledgement of an individual or team’s behavior, effort and accomplishments that support the organization’s goals and values.” HR leaders should keep this definition in mind when designing a recognition program.

Employee Recognition

Human Resources Today

Human Resources Today