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On Workplace Thanks: How Do Employees Really Want to be Recognized?

In light of Thanksgiving approaching, it is an excellent time of year to evaluate how we thank and recognize our most valuable assets: our people.

Before exploring recognition programs, employers must first ensure they are compensating their employees enough to take the issue of money off the table. Both formal and informal employee recognition will fall on deaf ears if employees’ basic needs are not met, or they are severely underpaid for their contributions, skill level, or tenure compared to the market.

The Why Behind Employee Recognition

What’s the business case for employee recognition, anyway? A 2022 Gallup study found that with an effective recognition program, employees are 73 percent less likely to feel burned out, 56 percent less likely to be looking for a new job, 4 times as likely to be engaged, and 4 times as likely to recommend their organization to friends and family. Employee recognition goes beyond basic kindness and respect for employees, it also drives retention, fosters a culture where employees are willing to go above and beyond in pursuit of broad organizational business goals, and strengthens the employers’ position and reputation in the community.

Painting the Picture of Effective Employee Recognition

The Gallup researchers identified five pillars critical to successful employee recognition. The study found that employee recognition must be:

  1. Fulfilling – finding the perfect frequency for recognition is less important than ensuring it validates effort and appreciates the value added.
  2. Authentic – the recognition has a clear reason behind it; it is tied to specific achievements and goals met.
  3. Equitable – balanced and consistent. Gallup’s study found that only about 26 percent of respondents strongly agreed they receive equitable recognition. Recognition can either demonstrate inclusivity at your organization or reveal underlying attitudes and biases with serious implications.
  4. Embedded in the Culture – the deeper it is embedded, the more likely everyone will be to participate in showing appreciation. Make recognition public, for those comfortable with it.
  5. Personalized – recognition is not a one size fits all endeavor. Employee preferences for how and where recognition is received will vary.   

Where to Start

So how should employers begin their quest to find out how theiremployees really want to be recognized? Ask them! Consider facilitating a survey to collect data on current employee views on recognition, such as:

  • How do employees perceive the organization’s current efforts at employee recognition?
  • How, where, and how often do employees prefer to receive recognition?
  • How does effective recognition impact employees personally and professionally?
  • What does recognition mean for employees’ short term and long-term career goals?
  • Would any employees have a special interest in helping to drive employee recognition initiatives?

Consider collecting basic data on recognition (how, where, and how often) from new hires as part of their onboarding, to send a loud and clear message that employee recognition is embedded in organizational culture from day one of employment.

Pulling it All Together

Once employers have a pulse on their current climate of employee recognition, they can begin building employee recognition habits and programs across the organization, focusing efforts one step at a time, based on employee feedback. Consider the following:

  • Readiness: Is the organization ready for recognition initiatives? Are there any glaring issues, lack of trust among employees, or problems that need to be addressed first within the organization before new recognition efforts should be introduced?
  • Day-to-Day Recognition: Is the organization lacking in simple day-to-day recognition moments? Both peer-to-peer and manager to employee? Which influential leaders can be empowered to blaze the trail in this area?
  • Formalized Programs: Are employees looking for semi-formal department or divisional recognition, or more formal company-wide programs and/or ceremonies with high visibility? What would be the frequency and nature of such programs?
  • Business Case and Cost: What would be the cost of various recognition initiatives? Put together a business case outlining how the organization will benefit, to get the program and a specific budget approved.
  • Administration: Who will administer formal recognition programs? How can the process be kept as simple as possible? Ensure the process is not over-engineered so that it can be sustained.
  • Technology: What technology can be leveraged to drive employee recognition? Consider platforms such as Paylocity, Microsoft Teams, and Slack that have built-in recognition tools.
  • Awards: Will awards be issued to employees? If so, on what occasions? What types of awards do employees value, and can the organization feasibly obtain them?
  • Communication: How, when, and by whom will recognition efforts be communicated to employees?

Answering all these questions may seem daunting, however organizations should remember that employee recognition is an ongoing endeavor, without a finish line. Additionally, recognition efforts cannot rest on any single person. Collective efforts toward effective recognition, tailored to specific organizations and individual employees, will continuously raise the bar for more engaged company cultures, improved employee well-being, and better business results.   

HR Works, headquartered in Upstate New York, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States for over thirty years. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.