Feature Article - May/June 2015

The Other 'R': Trends in Recognition

Elevate Performance, Strengthen Culture, Retain Your Best

By Brian Summerfield


Desire for recognition is more or less a universal human trait. There may be rare exceptions, but people generally want to feel they're appreciated when they do their job well or accomplish something new and different.

What isn't universal is how people want to be recognized at a particular point in time. Depending on the person and the achievement, a simple "Attaboy" (or "Attagirl," as the case may be) might suffice, but other situations might call for bringing out the proverbial brass band and 21-gun salute.

If you want to motivate and engage your employees, encourage specific behaviors, create a culture of purpose and fulfillment, and instill a sense of achievement and pride, then you should be familiar with the recognition landscape. Here's what you need to know.

Getting Strategic

In the past, recognition was thought of mostly in tactical terms, if and when it was actually reflected on at all. Organizational leaders and managers probably viewed it as a succession of isolated events that took place whenever they deemed an action or accomplishment "worthy" of their praise.

But today, many companies view recognition as a pillar of people management, said Susan Adams, director of engagement for Dittman Incentive Marketing and current board member of the Incentive Marketing Association.

"Increasingly, leadership training and development delivers a message that engaging and recognizing employees is a required skill," she said. "Managers are now expected to be effective at recognizing employees and providing timely feedback on the organization's needs and interests."

And plenty of data supports that approach. Adams pointed to recent research from Gallup that found "the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs: They don't feel appreciated. Sixty-five percent of Americans received no recognition in the workplace last year." She also cited a quote from an Aon Hewitt report that said, "According to employees worldwide, the engagement drivers needing immediate attention are career opportunities, recognition and organization reputation."

"A recognition program provides a way to communicate what's important to the company and is also critical to employee engagement and retention," Adams explained. "Employees are looking for direction and feedback. They want meaningful work—to be appreciated for their efforts and to work for a company that makes them proud. A recognition program is important to developing a culture where expectations are clear and achievements are celebrated. It also makes explicit the relationship between contributing best efforts and personal aspirations for success and acknowledgment. Research shows that the engagement which is then generated has a significant impact on the health of the organization, both in terms of quality and profitability."

A few years ago, the issue wasn't so pressing. During the height of the Great Recession, jobs were so scarce that most U.S. workers didn't think they could afford to grumble about the fact that they felt unappreciated. But recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show unemployment levels falling back down near the historical norm of 5 percent. Consequently, people feel they have more options in the job market, and their reservations about speaking up or taking action in these circumstances are largely gone. To illustrate this point, Adams pointed to recent research from Blessing White that found 87 percent of employees surveyed said it was more likely that they would quit than be fired.

"The growing talent deficit is emerging as one of the most important issues in the workplace today," Adams said. "Employees are taking a hard look at what their company has to offer, including those three drivers identified by Aon Hewitt: career opportunities, recognition and organization reputation. If there is no clear direction and no recognition for a job well done, a talent exodus is likely. Best-in-class businesses now understand that employee engagement is part of a strategic plan to connect people with the organization and to inspire their best efforts. Recognition and rewards programs are important parts of the foundation on which the brand's success is built."