When it comes to employee recognition, not all recognition is equally effective


April 21, 2017

Employee recognition is widely touted by HR experts as one of the most easily executed strategies for organizations to attract and retain their top-performing employees while driving company growth and increasing employee productivity. In fact, a 2018 survey of 1,000 companies employing eight million people worldwide found that recognition (apart from pay and benefits) is the strongest driver of employee engagement. And, an online global study of 200,000 employees from 189 countries conducted by the Boston Consulting Group conducted in 2014 determined that “the most important single job element for all people is an appreciation for their work.”

But a Gallup analysis done in 2016 found that only one in three US workers strongly felt they had received recognition or praise for doing good work in the previous seven days.

This is a worrisome statistic considering that organizations spend US$720 million annually on employee engagement, including recognition initiatives like employee recognition programs and employee recognition platforms, with projected annual spending topping $1.5 billion. And while the most recent employee engagement figures are on the rise, numbers are still low: only 34% of US workers are engaged.

The age-old philosophical question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” provides an interesting framework for managers and leaders to assess their work recognition initiatives.


Jacob Morgan in his Harvard Business Review article entitled Why the Millions We Spend on Employee Engagement Buy Us So Little, argues that many organizations’ approach to the employee experience focuses only on a short-term boost in the form of a perk or program, rather than the totality of the employee experience.

So, if organizations are committed to retaining its employees, and their managers have been encouraged to hand out recognition, how can they ensure that their recognition efforts—and the money they invest in employee recognition initiatives—translate into memorable gestures that employees perceive and feel as genuine and sincere recognition?

Work recognition evaluation

The first step for an organization is to assess the total employee experience.

Morgan breaks down the employee experience into three components:


Physical environment

    • On his blog, Morgan defines the physical workplace as

“the one we can see, touch, and taste, and smell. It’s the art that hangs on the walls, the office floor plan, the demographics of the people we work with (old, young, diversity, etc.), and any physical perks we might get such as catered meals in a beautiful cafeteria, an on-site gym, or a lounge area that employees can use to unwind a bit.”

Cultural environment

“If the physical environment is about the one that you can see, touch, taste, and breathe, then the cultural environment is the one that you feel; it’s the “vibe” you get when you walk in the door and it’s the mood and the tone that the workplace sets.”


Technological environment

“The technological environment of the organization refers to the tools employees use to get their jobs done. This includes everything from the internal social network your company might use to the mobile devices that are approved to the laptops, desktops, and video conferencing solutions that employees have access to. This also includes any apps, software, e-learning tools, and user experience and design elements that impact how employees use these various tools.”


Recognition initiatives that employees will feel

With these three components in mind, below are some of the key components employee recognition program and work recognition initiatives need so that organizations’ recognition efforts are truly felt by employees.

Don’t put all the pressure on your managers. Employee recognition and reward initiatives need to take a holistic approach to encompass everyone in the company. In several surveys, employees said that employee-to-employee recognition, from peers or from leadership other than their direct boss, is the most memorable, citing it as more “heartfelt.” It is important to implement recognition initiatives that are not driven by quotas or a sense of “duty” but rather feed off a “gratitude vibe” (to use Morgan’s phrase) in the organization’s cultural environment.

Waiting for an annual or bi-annual review may be too long for employees to feel recognized for their daily contribution to the company.Long periods or gaps can lead to managers forgetting some of the smaller but equally important contributions an employee made to a project. Giving timely, regular feedback for the big and small jobs well done is a way to ensure that employees feel recognized on an ongoing basis.


Make sure recognition expresses how an employee’s work impacted the organization’s goals, values or purpose. This is a way for organizations to reinforce company culture and values and create a virtuous cycle.

Create a gratitude ‘vibe’ in your organization. Employees don’t need grand-scale gestures like a lifetime achievement award to feel appreciated. They do need frequent and timely recognition of the work they do—and not just from their direct boss. A slap on the back for a job well done; a quick thank-you in an email; or a verbal exchange of congratulations in the hallway are all gestures that reinforce a message of gratitude for your employees’ contributions to your organization.

For organizations, the key is defining what engagement feels like to their employees. Once you have defined it, the next steps are measuring it, harnessing it, and leveraging it to ensure that more good money isn’t being thrown after bad in pursuit of something that everyone knows they need to have but most organizations are struggling to generate.

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Employee Engagement, employee experience, Employee Recognition


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