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by Craig Cochran

All humans crave recognition. It’s a universal need. Whether you’re a manager in Atlanta or a mechanic in Baltimore, you want others to notice your efforts. Simply put, getting recognized feels good. We’re all aware that employees benefit from recognition, but we tend to forget that organizations benefit just as much from recognizing their employees. What are some of the benefits to both employees and their companies? Let’s take an inventory:

Employees receive unequivocal feedback on their performance.

Employees understand that their efforts make a difference.

Employees’ pride and self-esteem are reinforced.

Organizations receive greater motivation and effort from recognized employees.

Employees see that their organization values its people and cares about their success.

Employee performance increases as personnel strive to perform in a way that receives recognition.

mployees feel more loyal to their organization. They begin to feel that they are part of the organization, as opposed to simply being employed by it.

Employees are willing to work harder and better in a way that money can’t buy.

Organizations increase their advantages over competitors.

Clearly, recognizing employees makes good business sense, but it can be a complicated issue. With the best of intentions, organizations often implement recognition systems that backfire and create effects exactly opposite to those intended. Embracing the following principles will ensure that recognition achieves the desired results.

Recognition should be:

Public. It must be done in front of the larger organization. This might constitute a department, division, facility or the entire corporation. The type of recognition will obviously influence the context within which it’s presented, but it’s important to do so in front of a group. Recognition’s public nature reinforces its significance for both the recipient and the rest of the organization. A public event also means that the recognition is done in person, not via telephone, e-mail, fax or some other remote means.

Available to everyone. In order for it to have a positive effect on organizational culture, recognition must be available to anyone. Many companies implement recognition policies but limit them to certain employees (e.g., production or hourly personnel). The rationale, apparently, is that recognition is important only to people in certain parts of the organization. This is absurd, of course. Make sure your organization rewards the efforts of all personnel, not just certain segments.

Dignified. It must fuel a feeling of dignity in the person who receives it. This can be achieved by building a ceremony, such as a company meeting or holiday dinner, around the recognition. A degree of seriousness and formality is also helpful. This doesn’t mean everyone must be stiff, humorless and dressed in uncomfortable clothes, but the ceremony should be serious enough so all personnel realize that special contributions are valued.

Symbolic. It must have symbolic value, something that lasts and can remind the recipient of the performance being recognized. Keepsakes such as letters, certificates, plaques, trophies and paperweights are very effective in this regard. They provide motivation long after the recognition ceremony itself has passed. My wife still displays her “East Ridge Hospital Nurse of Excellence” plaque on our bedroom wall, more than 10 years after she received it. I once asked her why she still displays the plaque. “Because it makes me proud,” she responded. “It means I can succeed at anything.” Years later, the symbolic recognition continues to inspire not just motivation but pride as well.

Nonmonetary. Are people motivated by money? Of course they are; that’s why most people work. But exceptional performances are often motivated by something much more complex and mysterious. Offering money as part of your recognition policy cheapens it by attempting to affix a monetary value onto something extraordinary. Not every effort, contribution, idea or suggestion can be quantified. Organizations must recognize this fact and simply provide honest, symbolic recognition. Issues of fairness also arise when money becomes part of the equation. Instead of inspiring a culture of continual improvement, monetary recognition often creates resentment and rancor. Money can be an effective part of the recognition formula only when it’s purely symbolic.

Of course, sustained, outstanding performance should be matched with increased compensation and promotions. If an organization has the resources to increase its star performers’ pay, then it’s wise to do so. But this is different from a day-to-day recognition system. Keep it free of monetary awards and you’ll have far fewer headaches.

Presented by top management. This sends the message that top management is aware of everyone’s contributions and is thankful for outstanding efforts that lead to the organization’s success. Especially in larger organizations, executives are somewhat removed from individual performances. However, when an executive recognizes the individual, it enhances the event’s significance and symbolism--and it also helps to humanize the executive.

Prompted by a variety of actions. Objective, data-oriented criteria usually offer the best means to make decisions, but this isn’t necessarily the case with recognition. Superior performances take many forms; ensure your recognition system can capture the full range of actions and performances that deserve recognition. Don’t restrict its scope by declaring, “Here are the three things that will trigger recognition.” Inevitably, a policy of this sort will prevent you from recognizing someone who really deserves it, simply because his or her performance doesn’t meet the predetermined criteria. Give your system plenty of flexibility and discretion.

Unscheduled. You’ve seen the awards countless times: “Employee of the Month,” “Employee of the Quarter” and so forth. With timeframes of this sort, recognition becomes predictable and routine. There might not even be any particularly outstanding performance during the month, but it’s that time again… heck, just pick someone. Forced decisions like this degrade recognition systems. In reality, organizations might go months without identifying performance worthy of special recognition, only to later run across half a dozen in one week. Recognize personnel when performance, rather than the calendar, dictates it.

Now that we’ve considered how people should be recognized, we must determine who will be recognized. What process can be used? Many organizations form a management committee representing a cross-section of the company. Generally, I oppose decision making by committee, but this is a workable way to do it. A reasonably small committee of managers--no more than 10 people--meets regularly to discuss the special achievements of personnel in their areas and agree on persons deserving recognition.

However, even better than having a management committee decide is to let personnel do it. People who answer phones, package products, troubleshoot equipment and service customers quickly spot which performances are worthy of recognition. An easy way to capture their perspectives is through a card system of some sort. Organizations put catchy titles such as, “We’re writing you up… for being excellent.” on the cards, and provide adequate space for relevant details. The cards are placed throughout the facility or are available electronically. Anybody is authorized to complete one, detailing the person to be recognized and what he or she did that was outstanding. Completed cards are displayed on a wall or bulletin board, and all those who were “written up” receive formal recognition according to the guidelines already mentioned. Using the entire workforce to identify outstanding performances offers a number of advantages. Among other things, it:

Quickly builds an environment that is supportive and team-oriented

Accurately identifies outstanding contributions because those who submit names have first-hand experience with the performances

Results in more evenly distributed recognition, including people who work within the less visible functions

Addresses people’s need to feel involved and have their voices heard

Disproves the notion that management plays favorites when personnel are recognized

Displaying completed cards serves as a constant reminder not only of the personnel who are recognized but also the system’s democratic nature. The message is, “We support one another in our jobs and take the time to provide recognition when it’s deserved.”

Few systems are as powerful as an effective recognition system. Because its effect on organizational culture is significant and immediate, the time and effort spent establishing such a policy for your company will be repaid tenfold.

About the author

Craig Cochran is a project manager with the Center for International Standards & Quality, part of Georgia Tech’s Economic Development Institute. He’s an RAB-certified QMS lead auditor and the author of Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques and Formulas for Success and the soon-to-be-released The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line, both available from Paton Press (www.patonpress.com). CISQ can be reached at (800) 859-0968 or on the Web at www.cisq.gatech.edu. Letters to the editor regarding this article can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.