Departments - March/April 2014

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Above & Beyond
Personal Awards, Verbal Expression More Effective Together

By Deborah L. Vence


Giving a personal award to employees who go above and beyond their responsibilities is considered very effective, in particular, when coupled with verbal expression.

This, according to research by O.C. Tanner, a company that specializes in strategic employee recognition solutions, which revealed that 44 percent of a great recognition moment comes from a personal award, 37 percent comes from the actual expression of appreciation and 19 percent comes from a symbolic award. (An independent third-party research firm collected both quantitative and qualitative data for the O.C. Tanner Institute to better understand employee perspectives on performance recognition.)

"While a sincere 'thank you' is important, it is also fleeting and quickly forgotten," said Christina Chau, research and assessment services manager at O.C. Tanner. "Therefore, the award element can create those lasting feelings of being appreciated. Employees see the 'personal gift' as a reward for their hard work, something they can use to pamper themselves and a reminder of the recognition they received. This is especially true in performance recognition."

Results from the research showed the following:

  • Formalized expression combined with a personal award is 50 percent more effective in helping employees feel appreciated than either tactic on its own.
  • When asked to describe the ideal recognition program, 21 percent of respondents' answers included a cash award, compared with 57 percent who included an award item.
  • For the average employee, 44 percent of the utility from an award program was derived from a personal award, compared with 37 percent from an expression of appreciation.

"Verbally telling employees that they are doing a great job and providing an award is more effective than either approach on its own. We asked employees which would make them feel most appreciated: a well-executed presentation of recognition with company leadership and peers, but no award item; or a well-executed award program with the right number of award choices, but no presentation of recognition; or both. Employees told us having both would be the most effective, rather than just a presentation or just an award item," Chau said.

"However," she added, "the nuance is in the presentation. Employees should be informed personally of their achievement by their direct supervisor, and it is critical that it happens in a timely manner and that sincere appreciation is expressed. In other words, how the employee is verbally given recognition is important. Employees frequently complain of receiving a catalog in the mail before ever being informed of their achievement.

"This greatly depersonalizes and cheapens the experience. Having both the personal presentation and the personal award is more effective than either on its own," she said.

In terms of the types of personal awards that are given out, the most effective ones should fulfill three criteria:

  • They must be relevant to the employee.
  • They should fill wants versus needs (i.e., they should be items that employees may not buy on their own).
  • The items should be of high quality (i.e., brand names or leave an impression of real value).

"Typical personal award categories that employees find meaningful are jewelry, sporting gear, spa and beauty packages, household and garden products, food or restaurant certificates, electronics, tools and home improvement products, travel or luggage items, event tickets and high-end retail gift cards," Chau said.

When asked why award items are preferred over cash for recognition, research participants indicated four important reasons: First, employees see an award item and remember the recognition experience. Second, cash is quickly spent and forgotten. Third, an award item will be around longer than cash. And, fourth, cash easily is spent on everyday items, such as gas, groceries and bills.

"Employees work hard and put a lot of effort into making their companies successful," she said. "When they are recognized, they want a memorable experience and award that they can look back on. Cash simply does not provide that. It has a minimal symbolic or emotional tie to the company or the accomplishment recognized."

In fact, Chau noted a few examples of employees who participated in the research on how they felt about receiving cash vs. an actual award.

  • "I think more of an object is going to remind you. That's my hard work. That's what I got. You get cash and you're just gonna blow it away." - John, hotel chain
  • "I don't know if I want cash. You're going to spend it. You don't know what for. You're not going to remember." - Anita, financial organization
  • "Especially if you're going to commemorate a milestone, a nice gift is always nice to remember. It's good to keep. And, with cash you pay the bills." - Diane, software company

O.C. Tanner's latest research of 7 million recognition moments also revealed that tremendous value exists in presenting an award (merchandise) versus providing a shopping experience (gift card). And, this is the trend they see companies following. Some of the research showed that in performance recognition, for the past two years, there has been about a 60 percent ratio for merchandise versus 40 percent for gift cards. And, the top three awards selected (in order) were headphones, coffee products and luggage.