Beyond Balloons: Employee Recognition That Works

Susan Hall

We've been hearing a lot about dissatisfied workers and that 2011 might be the year that many of them jump ship. At The Leadership Advisor, writer William Powell calls turnover "the next drain on your budget."


I wrote about a Manpower survey that found 84 percent of respondents plan to look for a new job this year-and also about the work of Gilad Chen, a professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, who found that any slight improvement in worker satisfaction can really help turn things around.


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There's plenty of buzz in the blogosphere about keeping workers happy. And among Millennial workers especially, that tends to mean more communication, feedback and recognition. Meanwhile, my colleague Don Tennant has written about dangers of failing to properly reward your high performers and of relying solely on money for rewards.


Yet, as Peter Hart, president and CEO of Rideau Recognition Solutions, writes in a Recruiting Trends piece, "recognition has long held the stigma as a soft science for 'the huggy people' or 'the balloon blower-uppers' which embarrassed serious executives."


Hart says companies such as H&R Block, Royal Bank Financial Group and Best Buy have gone with formal recognition programs and that food product giant Cargill even has a chief recognition officer in the executive suite. Even over the interwebs, I can see some executive eyes rolling at the thought of that. He also mentions research from the '90s by David Maister that found a 42 percent improvement in a company's financial performance when employee morale was improved by 10 to15 percent-that modest uptick that Chen reported.


The "performance-based recognition" that Hart advocates, though, doesn't focus solely on results, but also the process that leads to those results. He writes:

Recognizing employees on the journey, rather than at the destination, increases the frequency of recognition. Results of the increased frequency are employees receive coaching and motivation on a regular basis, providing more opportunities for course correction and improved personal performance. Ultimately, the impact on results is significant.

In Powell's article, he stresses that recognition needs to be personal and genuine:

... don't send out a mass e-mail talking about how grateful you are and leave it at that. Face to face is always the best. If your organization is large, reach out to those the next level or two awaypersonally. Encourage them to do the same and it will eventually permeate the organization. THEN send out the e-mail and continually follow up.

In a Quora discussion on keeping employees happy, Raj Khera, co-founder and CEO of e-mail marketing firm MailerMailer, argues for one-on-ones between managers and workers:

You might find that each employee has different motivations. For some, it could be challenging work. For others, it could be the work environment and the people they interact with or the flexibility in your work hours. Doing the one-on-one also makes the employee feel appreciated and heard.

And this Workforce Management piece, which contains other ideas, goes back to that old mantra "specific is terrific":

Don't say, "Everyone is doing a good job-keep it up," but rather, "Before we start our meeting agenda, let's name five things that are going well for us right now."

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