How to get employee recognition right

When Terry Virts, commander on board the International Space Station’s 2015-16 Expedition 42, discovered fellow astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti would miss the one thing she really looked forward to, her six-monthly couture haircut, he decided to do something about it.

We specifically want our managers to really get to know staff, so on-the-spot recognition feels authentic and appropriate to them

Before blast-off, he secretly took lessons from Cristoforetti’s own hairdresser to perfect doing it himself. Mid-mission the surprise was revealed when, with scissors in hand, he set to work, even enlisting cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov for vacuuming duties.

As lessons in what creates great engagement go, this one is literally out of this world. But it’s also much more than this.

Great employee recognition means making it personal

“Virts tells this story in terms of how it’s crucial to understand individual employee recognition,” says Luke D’Arcy, UK president of ad agency Momentum Worldwide, who last year spent two months at Harvard to learn more about staff engagement and heard this anecdote direct.

“He learnt from others that her appearance mattered, especially as the only female. So he chose to recognise her great work with this gesture. The engagement it created was so powerful. That’s when the penny dropped for me about what we could do in our organisation.”

Mr D’Arcy now has measures in place to make recognition of his own people a lot more personal, including recently sending high performers with families to Disneyland, Florida, on a learning trip, rather than flying Disney executives in, because he knew the gesture would give his staff the chance to extend their time away and have a family break.

For some, who value other things, employee recognition is different; it’s trips to the theatre, or even something very simple, like letting an employee, who he knew had just moved house and would be busy unpacking, start late.

“Recognition is the secret ingredient to engagement, motivation and overall business success,” argues Dawn Smedley, culture and engagement strategist at recognition experts O.C. Tanner Europe. “And, in today’s diverse workforce environment, having a personal approach to recognition is more important than ever.”

Peer-to-peer recognition does not work for everyone

But the trouble is, even when employee recognition occurs – a damning Gallup survey showed 65 per cent of staff haven’t received any in the last year – much of it fails at this more personal point of delivery.

“Recognition is all about the manner staff are appreciated,” explains Shainaz Firfiray, associate professor of human resources management at Warwick Business School. “A on-size-fits-all approach comes across as superficial and empty. What employees really want is for their efforts to be noticed with personalised appreciation, something that’s relevant to them. Often it’s not.”

Trailblazers in taking a more personal approach to recognition are US startups. For example, each Friday the entire team at LA-based SnackNation take it in turns to go around the room and celebrate someone they think has helped them that week.

These so-called Crush it Calls are whoop-whoops that might make us Brits cringe and, for introverts, it’s probably the very definition of what’s mortifying. But, argue experts, that’s the whole point of making things bespoke, doing what you know will work for one, but not the other.

“Knowing people as individuals means not making generalisations,” says Amrit Sandhar, founder of The Engagement Coach. “It’s realising that extraverts might like the whole company to know they do a great job, but maybe a handwritten card with voucher is all the person who likes to stay under the radar needs.”

Rewards should never be used to solve business problems

Being personal doesn’t just mean employee recognition budgets can work harder – for some, small tokens work better than grand gifts – it can actually save firms creating disengagement.

A famous Harvard Business School experiment found that when a laundry firm introduced a prize draw to recognise perfect monthly attendance, productivity actually fell by 6 to 8 per cent because those who routinely arrived on time anyway disliked how those habitually late were now potentially being rewarded to do something they considered normal. It strikingly reveals how staff values are important to understand and recognise too.

“The worst thing you can use employee recognition schemes for is to solve a problem [like attendance],” argues Rita Trehan, author of Unleashing Capacity, and former human resources director at AGL Energy. “This is also when understanding people’s values come in. For some, there is a difference between reward and appreciation. If it’s the latter, money won’t engage them.”

Aligning recognition to values is predicted to be the next big step in reward, according to Mr Sandhar. “Grouping people as millennials or Generation X creates confusion,” he says. “We know that it’s not just the young that value having a sense of purpose, so organisations need to tap into people’s outlooks. By rewarding along these lines, staff then create more value of their own, in terms of extra productivity, to the business. It’s a virtuous circle. But the only way to do this is via regular management check-ins.”

Personalising recognition must come from company culture

Knowing people at an individual level can, of course, feel like an onerous task for some organisations. But at 100-year-old high street jeweller Beaverbrooks, its managing director Anna Blackburn says it needn’t be. “I hold at least 12 focus groups a year to understand exactly what type of recognition staff want,” she says.

“Some really enjoy being part of a league we run, where we recognise the best performing stores, while others have highlighted wanting to take time off for volunteering or fundraising, which we do with a promise to double-match what they raise.

“We specifically want our managers to really get to know staff, so on-the-spot employee recognition feels authentic and appropriate to them, be it giving time off so they can go to their kid’s nativity, to giving cakes, flowers, wine, small items of jewellery.”

Ms Blackburn attributes this personal approach to employee recognition as part of what keeps staff stay, with 30 per cent having 15 years’ service or more. And her ethos is now being followed by others.

“Meals out really work for some employees, for others it’s a weekend away or vouchers according to performance targets,” says Karen Barley, head of sales operations at Hattons, the specialist in rare and exclusive coins. “On top of this are more general activities like the chance to win a car, team socials and even taking the entire team to Ibiza.

“But given we hire people from all walks of life – we have former midwives, ex-care assistants and hairdressers – it’s the tailored approach we want to take. When each new employee joins, we specifically ask what engages them; typically it’s anything experiential rather than money.”

Get employee recognition right though and true engagement could only be a short step away. As O.C. Tanner’s Ms Smedley concludes: “With a more individual approach to recognition, everyone from the cleaner to the CEO can be commended. This is absolutely key for both and everyone in-between.”