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The Role of Leaders in Successful Employee Recognition

Say “employee recognition” in a room full of HR professionals, and you’re likely to see more than a few eyes roll. While recognition is incredibly important – a recent survey revealed that employees value recognition more than monetary rewards – far too many companies fail to implement recognition programs in a way that is meaningful, and relevant to employees. In fact, as of 2003, companies were spending $18 billion per year on employee recognition programs, and achieving a satisfaction rate of only 40%.

So, what’s the key to a successful employee recognition program? Individual managers can make a huge impact, but it’s the company leadership that sets the tone. Here are a few ways in which a business’s leaders can help a recognition program succeed:


Align recognition with company goals and values

Employees don’t appreciate being recognized for things that don’t matter. To be meaningful, recognition programs have to support activities and achievements that help a company achieve its goals. Establishing goals and values is the role of company leaders, and it’s also their role to communicate how employee recognition programs fit into that framework.

Align recognition with the behaviors that are truly valued

When official recognition programs focus on one set of behaviors, but the people who get promoted exhibit entirely different behaviors, the recognition programs lose credibility. If employees are recognized for efficiency, for example, but the people who are promoted put in a lot of extra hours, the recognition programs become meaningless. But, if leaders “walk the talk” – in other words, promote people who exhibit the same behaviors emphasized in official recognition programs – employees will be motivated to emulate those behaviors.

Select rewards that employees value

Employees like to be singled out for recognition, but if the reward itself is seen as meaningless or silly, it can actually be demotivating. It’s up to leaders to understand what their employees value, and to choose rewards accordingly. Options include access to additional training, access to company executives, paid time off, gift cards, etc.

Don’t give recognition simply to give recognition

Employees know when their employer is merely going through the motions. Still, many businesses feel compelled to recognize employees based on the calendar, like with “employee of the month” programs. But, what if there isn’t an achievement worth being recognized for every month? The same is true for tenure-based recognition programs. It’s fine to recognize employees for years of service, but that should be distinct from merit-based recognition. It’s up to leaders to set patterns based on accomplishments rather than the calendar.

One way to avoid the trap of recognition for its own sake is to make sure all recognition is specific. Don’t recognize someone for “always giving their best.” Instead, communicate exactly what the person is being recognized for, and why it matters. If you can’t come up with something specific, think very carefully about whether you need it at all.

Recognition programs that are poorly designed and implemented can backfire, wasting both time and money. In addition, while employee recognition might be carried out at all levels of the organization, company leaders are the ones who set the tone and direction. If your employee recognition program isn’t generating the desired results, it might be time to sit down with company leaders, and design something new that works for everyone involved.

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