5 Tips for Effective Employee Recognition

How to Reward, Recognize, Award, and Thank Employees Successfully

Warehouse worker high fiving colleague on forklift truck
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Employee recognition is not just a nice thing to do for people. Employee recognition is a communication tool that reinforces and rewards the most important outcomes that people create for your business. 

When you recognize people effectively, you reinforce, with your chosen means of recognition, the actions and behaviors that you most want to see people repeat. Your recognition reinforces the employee's understanding of how you would like to see him or her contributing in the workplace.

Since the majority of employees want you to see them as effective contributors, because it reinforces their own positive self-image, their self-worth, and self-esteem, your positive recognition is meaningful and supportive. An effective employee recognition system is simple, immediate, and powerfully reinforcing.

When you consider employee recognition processes, you need to develop employee recognition that is equally powerful for both the organization and the employee. It must make the employee feel recognized and rewarded in a powerfully positive way. Your employee recognition must also reinforce and ensure that you, the employer, will see a continuance of the positive behavior that was recognized.

You must address five important issues if you want your employees to view the recognition you offer as motivating and rewarding and important for the success of your organization.

The Five Most Important Tips for Effective Recognition

You need to establish criteria for what performance or contribution constitutes rewardable behavior or actions.

By telling the employees the behavior that you want to see, you set them up for success and accomplishment.

  • You need to make all employees eligible for the recognition. You should never exclude any employee or group of employees.
  • The recognition must supply the employer and employee with specific information about what behaviors or actions are being rewarded and recognized. The more clearly you design and communicate the criteria for eligibility for the award, the easier it is for employees to perform accordingly. Since this is the performance you most want to see from employees, it's a plus for the employer if many employees attain eligibility. 
  • Anyone who then performs at the level or standard stated in the criteria receives the reward. Or, in an occasionally used approach especially when the affordability of the reward by the employer is a concern,  every employee who meets the criteria has his or her name added to a drawing. You must communicate on the front end the fact that one name or three or however many employees you plan to reward will be selected randomly from among the employees who met the eligibility criteria. 
  • The recognition should occur as close to the performance of the actions as possible, so the recognition reinforces the behavior the employer wants to encourage. Monthly recognition is too infrequent and not reinforcing. Annual recognition, plaques, and gifts reinforce the performance you'd like to see even less effectively.
  • You don't want to design a process in which managers select the people to receive recognition. Employees will see this type of process forever as managerial favoritism. Or, they will talk about the recognition in words such as, "Oh, it's your turn to get recognized this month." This is why processes that single out an individual, such as Employee of the Month, are rarely effective.

A Working Example of Successful Recognition

A client company established criteria for rewarding employees.

Criteria included such activities as contributing to company success serving a customer without the supervisor needing to ask for your help.

Each employee, who meets the stated criteria, receives a thank you note, hand-written by the supervisor. The note spells out exactly why the employee is receiving the recognition.

The note includes the opportunity for the employee to draw a gift from a box in the office. Gifts range from fast food restaurant gift certificates and candy to a gold dollar and substantial cash rewards. The employee draws the reward, so no supervisory interference in the amount of the award is perceived.

A duplicate of the thank you note goes into a periodic drawing for even more substantial reward and recognition opportunities. A copy of the thank you note is placed in the employee's personnel file.

More Tips About Recognition and Performance Management

If you attach recognition to real accomplishments and goal achievement as negotiated in a performance development planning meeting, you need to make sure that the recognition meets the above-stated requirements.

Supervisors must also apply the criteria consistently, so you may find the need to provide some organizational oversight. The challenge of individually negotiated goals is to make certain their accomplishment is viewed as similarly difficult by the organization for the process to succeed.

People also like employee recognition that is random and that provides an element of surprise. If you thank a manufacturing group every time they make customer deliveries on time with a lunch, gradually the lunch becomes a given or an entitlement and is no longer rewarding. 

In another organization, the CEO traditionally bought lunch for all employees every Friday. Soon, he had employees coming to him asking for reimbursement for lunch if they ate lunch outside of the company on a Friday. His goal of team building turned into a given or an entitlement and he was disappointed with the results.

There is always room for employee reward and recognition activities that generally build positive morale in the work environment. The Pall Corporation, in Ann Arbor, MI, had a Smile Team that met to schedule random, fun, employee recognition events. They have decorated shop windows, with a prize for the best, most attractive window, during the holidays. They sponsor ice cream socials, picnics, the boss cooks lunch for all employees day, and so on, to create a rewarding environment at work.

Another company holds an annual costume judging parade with a lunch potluck every Halloween. (An appreciated tradition, too—the costumes are hilarious—picture the CEO of the company dressed up as a hanging shower curtain.)

You'll want to make sure that you avoid the employee recognition traps that:

  • single out a few employees who are mysteriously selected for the recognition,
  • sap the morale of the many who failed to understand the criteria enough to compete and win, and
  • sought votes or other personalized, subjective criteria to determine winners.

If you implement these tips for effective employee recognition and avoid the traps that can ensnare your employee recognition efforts, you'll have a successful employee recognition approach.

Rewards and recognition that help both the employer and the employee get what they need from work create a win-win situation. Make this the year you plan a recognition process that will wow your staff and wow you with its positive outcomes.

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