Finding staff recognition advice on billboards

The billboards I remember best are those that offer passing motorists advice, particularly when the advice can be linked to staff recognition.

A few years ago, Tim Hortons suggested, “Have a better day. Take ’Em Donuts.”

Certainly, a sweet treat would be appreciated, but the doughnuts would taste even sweeter if their arrival was linked to a positive outcome that was achieved through the efforts of everyone on the team.

A billboard in 2014 led me to conclude that Johnnie Walker should stick to distilling scotch, not dispensing gift-giving advice.

The whiskey manufacturer suggested that, “Some gifts don’t require a card.”

While this might be true in a limited number of contexts, it’s not true if a bottle of scotch or any item is part of your staff recognition strategy.

Gifts, tokens of appreciation and treats are only vehicles to help convey your message of appreciation. They don’t stand alone. Recognition works because of the words you use to express your gratitude for what the individual or team did or achieved. Those words can be included on a thank-you card or delivered in person when you hand the gift to the individual.

Without your words of thanks, a bottle of scotch is just booze. Doughnuts are just a sweet treat. Tokens of appreciation are just the icing on the delicious cake created by your words.

A billboard recently erected on behalf of OpenCircle, a St. Albert based company that helps companies in the construction industry create “sustainable and supportive workplaces” with a range of benefits and training, reflects this theme.

“Employees need support. Not pizza parties.”

There’s nothing wrong with bringing pizza or doughnuts into the workplace for no particular reason. Sometimes it is appropriate just to roll a barbecue into the parking lot and prepare lunch for staff or to deliver ice cream treats to staff members at their work stations. 

The recipients of your culinary contributions will appreciate the food, but the gesture may not result in them feeling appreciated for how they contribute and what they achieve.

Staff will grow and thrive in a workplace where they feel valued as individuals and appreciated for what they achieve and how they contribute. Staff will feel they are where they belong when they are in an environment of trust and respect. 

Well-delivered recognition creates an emotional connection between front-line leaders and staff members, and among co-workers. It connects them to their work and to the organization and its purpose, which can increase employee happiness and engagement and improve retention. 

Princess Diana had a Habit We Should All Adopt

Recently, while I was in Las Vegas to present How Would Sherlock Hire? at a convention, my wife invited me to accompany her to Princess Diana: A Tribute Exhibition, at The Shops at Crystals.

I went reluctantly, but the exhibition proved more interesting than I had expected. What was most relevant to me was a display of thank-you notes written by the princess.

The information on a nearby museum label explained how Diana came to develop a habit that we all should consider adopting.

“Diana’s father used to sit her down every Christmas and birthday to write thank-you letters within 24 hours. It became such an ingrained habit, she could never go to bed without putting her thoughts and appreciation on paper right away.”

All parents should follow Earl Spencer’s example and encourage their children to write thank-you notes for gifts they receive. Grandma, Uncle Don and other gift-givers will love receiving these cards and you will be contributing to developing future managers and supervisors who will understand the importance of saying thank you.

I am a great believer in the power of handwritten thank-you notes as a way to express appreciation. In my forthcoming book, Thanks, Again! More Simple, Inexpensive Ways for Busy Leaders to Recognize Staff, I identify thank-you notes as staff recognition’s number one tool.

I recall a high school principal telling me that during daily meetings of the administrative team, they always asked who deserved to receive a thank-you note and then decided who would express appreciation on behalf of the team. Over the course of the school year, they wrote hundreds of notes of appreciation.

Taking time each day to reflect on what has been accomplished and who was responsible is a way to ensure that recognition is Timely.

What a difference it would make to staff morale, engagement and retention if all managers and supervisors paused at the end of the day to put their “thoughts and appreciation on paper right away.”

Front-line leaders can follow Diana’s example and write thank-you notes to those who contributed that day, but that is just one way of delivering recognition.

Appreciation can also be expressed on sticky notes attached to staff members’ computers or desks, and in text messages or emails. Messages can be left on individuals’ voice mail or posted to social media. Or just provide a “pat on the back” accompanied by a few words of praise delivered in person.

What you write may never be featured in a display along Las Vegas Boulevard, but you will have the satisfaction of having let someone know their contributions were appreciated.

Your words may make someone’s day. Some recipients will treasure and display your thank-you note for month or even years.


Staff recognition is the focus of two workshops and several shorter programs that Nelson presents. Contact him to learn more and schedule a workshop or program for your team ( or 780-232-3828).

Money is an Ineffective Staff Recognition Tool

Civil right leader Martin Luther King Jr. said it well: “You can buy a man’s time, you can buy a man’s physical presence at a certain place, you can even buy a measured number of skilled muscular motions per hour or day. But you cannot buy enthusiasm, you cannot buy initiative, you cannot buy loyalty; you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, and souls.”

You have to earn staff members’ enthusiasm, loyalty and devotion.

Money won’t buy staff members’ commitment and devotion. Money won’t boost morale, increase engagement or reduce turnover. All of which makes cash a poor staff recognition tool.

Given a choice, most staff would prefer receiving a simple gesture of appreciation, delivered in words or via a small item chosen with thoughtfulness. A survey by the Incentive Marketing Association found that 65 per cent of respondents preferred receiving a gift to receiving cash.

Why is cash such an ineffective way to recognize staff?

Cash seems to assign a value on a staff member’s extra effort, and often the amount devalues the staff member and their contributions: “Is that all I am worth?”

On the other hand, a gift—particularly a carefully chosen gift—has greater value than what the giver paid for the gift. In other words, a $50 gift is worth more to the recipient than $50 in cash.

Why is that?

Because cash has no trophy value. Once received, money is soon gone. The recipient is left with little to show for the expression of appreciation that may have come as a reward.

A survey by the American Express Incentive Services found that 30 per cent of workers who received a bonus used the cash to pay bills. Another 20 per cent couldn’t remember how they spent the money and 10 per cent couldn’t even recall having received the bonus.

Few reported that they spent the money to do something special, to buy a gift for someone or to purchase something special for themselves.

Simple, inexpensive tokens and expressions of appreciation work when they are chosen with the interests of the individual in mind. When a token item is Appropriate, people remember receiving it, why they received it and from whom they received it. 

The way to earn the enthusiasm, loyalty and devotion of staff is with simple, inexpensive staff recognition that is GREAT (Genuine, Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Time).


Invite Nelson to lead a half- or full-day workshop for your leadership team to identify simple, inexpensive ways to boost morale, increase engagement and improve retention. Contact him to schedule a staff recognition workshop or to learn more ( or 780-232-3828) or visit

Program Descriptions

Improve Staff Retention Without Spending Buckets of Money

Even if more money was the key to retaining staff—and it isn’t—most organizations could not afford to pay more to reduce staff turnover. What people want most from their jobs is to know that their boss cares about them and values them for their contributions and achievements. The real answer lies in simple, low-cost techniques that let employees know they are valued and appreciated for what they do and achieve.

Staff Recognition: One Piece at a Time

Providing staff recognition is like putting together a simple jigsaw puzzle: easy enough that a young child could do it. Yet the results are so powerful that all leaders should think about the five components of staff recognition every day. To be most meaningful to the recipient, recognition has to be GREAT: It must be Genuine, and it should also be Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Timely. As each piece is fitted into the puzzle, the picture of gratitude becomes more complete and the message of appreciation grows stronger.

Recognition as a Tool to Help Staff Develop Good Habits

One of the themes in my forthcoming book, Thanks, Again, is “Making Staff Recognition a Habit.”

A resource I accessed while researching this theme was Atomic Habits, by James Clear. In this bestselling book, Clear defines a habit as a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.”

This is the type of behaviour for which we should recognize staff. Recognition is a way to help staff members develop habits that will make them successful (and eliminate those that impede their success).

Atomic Habits is built around a four-step Habit Loop from which Clear developed Four Laws of Behaviour Change:

  1. Cue: Make it obvious.
  2. Craving: Make it attractive
  3. Response: Make it easy.
  4. Reward: Make it satisfying.

If you wish to make staff recognition a habit, Clear’s Four Laws of Behaviour Change might work something like this:

You witness a staff member’s response to a situation in a way you wish to see them repeat (Cue). You realize that is a reason to recognize (the habit you wish to develop) this individual (Craving). You reach for a thank-you card from the box sitting on your desk (Response). Recognizing staff for doing their job well makes you feel good (Reward).

Repeat this behaviour often enough and staff recognition becomes a habit.

The behaviours for which we recognize staff should be actions that we want to see repeated. Ideally, the habits that we hope to see staff members develop are aligned with the habits they wish to develop.

The cue may come in the form of assigning a task, a text reminding the individual of a task, or the staff encountering a situation with which they are familiar to which they realize they should respond.

Every behaviour is preceded by a prediction. People believe that benefits will result from behaving in a particular way. In a recognition-rich work environment, the prediction that will make the behaviour attractive is the prospect of praise when the job is complete and done well.

Behaviours are more likely to be performed when they are easy. Tasks are made easier to accomplish when what is needed is readily available. Find ways to remove barriers to the successful completion of tasks. Encourage staff members to search for ways to overcome points of friction to make completing tasks easier. Tasks that are familiar or that people enjoy seem simpler and are more likely to be completed satisfactorily, creating opportunities for you to recognize staff.

Completing tasks satisfactorily feels good, which is rewarding to some. In Atomic Habits, Clear writes, “The first three laws of behaviour change—make it obvious, make it attractive, and make it easy—increase the odds that a behaviour will be performed this time. The fourth law of behaviour change—make it satisfying—increases the odds that a behaviour will be repeated next time. It completes the habit loop.” Being recognized for doing the job will increase the chances that the behaviour will be repeated—and that it will become a habit.

Let’s focus on providing exceptional customer service as an example of a desirable behaviour/habit that can be encouraged with recognition:

Cue: A customer enters or the telephone rings.

Craving: The staff member recalls from previous experience that satisfying a customer feels good and anticipates that serving a customer well could result in praise from the boss.

Response: Because the staff member has been trained in customer service, it’s easier for them to respond in ways that produce a positive customer experience.

Reward: In addition to the satisfaction that comes from creating a happy customer, the staff member may be rewarded by being recognized for a job well done.

Ideally, this recognition will be Timely, one of the ingredients of meaningful (GREAT) staff recognition. Clear writes that, “the speed of the reward is a crucial factor.” 

Recognition doesn’t have to wait until the task is completed. Recognition along the way adds to the sense of satisfaction that is necessary when encouraging habit development.

“Behaviours that make you feel good—that is, behaviours that are followed by an immediate sense of satisfaction or praise or encouragement or pleasure—are exactly the kind of behaviours you want to repeat in the future,” Clear writes.

Behaviour that you want to see repeated in the future is a habit you will encourage with staff recognition.

When It’s Time for Staff Recognition Programs to Retire

Some say that continuing to do what we have always done and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Certainly, that could be true when it comes to recognizing staff.

Staff recognition practices become stale. They pass their “best-before” date. They don’t work as well as they once did—or we think they once did. Change is required.

It’s time to apply one of the 4 As of staff recognition: Abandon staff recognition practices that don’t work or have become stale.

Retiring long-serving staff recognition practices is easier said than done. They become engrained in the fabric of the organization and are difficult to remove. You need to consider why you are changing “how things have always been done.”

Recognition practices may be based on values that no longer reflect the organization’s purpose or culture. They no longer help boost morale, increase engagement or improve retention.

Cost may be another factor. The resources needed to recognize staff in ways they have been recognized in the past are simply no longer available.

On the other hand, the need to change may be less about cost and more a belief that you could get a better bang for the same staff recognition spend. 

It also may be that enthusiasm for a program is fading.

In Thanks! GREAT Job! I described a client’s service awards event where no one who had reached their fifth- and tenth- year service milestones attended the banquet and awards ceremony, and attendance by people who had reached the other anniversaries was spotty.

It was a program due for an overhaul.

Before continuing to host service awards, consider conducting assessments after any of those events, asking participants why they choose to attend and non-attendees what drove their decision to stay away.

What you learn may point the direction ahead.

Sometimes programs disappear organically, such as an employee-of-the-month program that falls into disuse because no one remembers to identify recipients for several consecutive months and no one notices. Some may wonder why the name of the employee-of-the-month from last February is still displayed a year later, but no one asks. Likely no one ever really cared who became the employee-of-the-month.

Other programs will be less easy to abandon. Some employees may notice if you simply no longer hold service awards events. Decisions about the future of staff recognition programs should involve staff representatives and be announced to everyone.

The program could be ended cold turkey, with a rationale for doing so, although a statement that “we can no longer afford it” is unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm or understanding.

Even if few are attending an awards program, a decision to abandon it without presenting an alternative might give staff morale a hit.

Some who were due to be acknowledged at the next event may feel they are being cheated out of a free meal and award to which they feel entitled. Other will interpret the decision to end the program that cannot be afforded as evidence that management does not care about staff or value them for what they do.

There should be a plan for how to retire the program and how to introduce its replacement. In lieu of a formal organization-wide event, the money could be redirected to departments within the organization, with an expectation that the leaders of those departments use the money to celebrate all their staff as they reach service annual anniversaries and for other contributions and achievements.

As an alternative to going cold turkey, consider a gradual phase out of the program. Perhaps announce that only staff with 10 or 15 years and more of service will be invited to an organization-wide event and that the money saved will be redirected to recognition initiatives at the departmental level. 

Or, the banquet could be replaced with a reception for those reaching service anniversaries.

Once new ways of recognizing staff are identified, those who will have added responsibilities related to recognition should be prepared to fulfil these expectations In addition to money in their budget for recognition, they should be offered tips and training to prepare them to recognize staff. 

Once ready for this added responsibility, they should be held accountable for ensuring that staff receive recognition when it is deserved. During one-on-one meetings with front-line leaders, their supervisors should ask what they have done to recognize staff and what is planned.

Top 10 Articles of 2022

Each December, I check the year-end statistics to discover which articles posted to my blog attracted the most readers during the previous 12 months. Doing so provides insight into which topics have most appeal to Briefly Noted readers.

For the fourth year in a row, the top article was one written in 2017 in response to a question asked by a Briefly Noted reader: “How do I discover if the candidate is a fast learner?” In this article, I suggested how to incorporate required competencies into your advertising and how to consider them when reviewing resumes, when writing and asking interview questions, and when checking references.

Every issue of Briefly Noted includes a link to the second most popular article of the year from a feature titled, “A question that may help you hire the right people.” First published in 2015, Grab the tool to navigate your way through the interview journey suggests preparing to assess responses to interview questions by identifying answers you would typically consider as outstanding (top performer), acceptable and unsatisfactory.

The most recently posted article appears to resonate with readers, having reached #3 on the annual list in just over a month. The gist of this article is pretty much captured in its title, 
 “No recognition, please,” said no one ever

The title of an article from 2018 that is fourth on the list asks a question and foreshadows the answer, Who Is better prepared for Interviews? Hint: It’s usually not the people who are hiring. While job seekers invest time and money preparing to be interviewed, most managers and supervisors have little training on how to conduct interviews. Learning more about interviewing would lead to the right people being hired more frequently.

Researchers discover that the impact of thank-you notes is greater than writers imagine was inspired by research that confirmed that people value the thank-you notes they receive, no matter their age or gender. Receiving a thank-you note also has a positive influence on how the recipients view the person who wrote the note. This article from 2019 was the fifth most frequently viewed post of 2022.

At #6 on the list is an 2016 article that suggests front-line leaders could Encourage peer recognition with a pass-along award. This article outlines ways to introduce a pass-along award and encourage its use.

Next on the list, at #7, is an article inspired by a 2017 visit to the Lambert-St. Louis airport. Looking for more reasons to recognize staff? Ask customers and use their words includes several suggestions on how to collect and use feedback from the people your organization serves as part of your staff recognition strategy.

The oldest article to make the 2022 Top10 list, at #8, was written in 2013 and suggests 7 questions to ask to recognize staff appropriately and ways to use what you learn about the people with whom you work.

Appropriate ways to recognize staff was the theme of the article in ninth place on the list. Appropriate — Making staff recognition personal was written in 2020 as part of a series of articles exploring the five ingredients of meaningful staff recognition—Genuine, Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Timely.

Related articles: 

Genuine: Making staff recognition authentic

Relevant: Making staff recognition strategic

Explicit—Making staff recognition specific

Timely—Making staff recognition prompt

Tenth place on the list for 2022 an article written in 2014. The main message of Advice to hire slow and fire fast is incomplete” is that having done the hard work necessary to hire the right person, a similar effort is required to influence the newcomer to commit to your organization.

Related articles:

Some old, some recent articles are among Top 10 blog posts of 2021

In 2020, an article inspired by a reader’s question topped the most viewed list for the second year in a row

“No recognition, please!” said no one, ever

Pure fiction!

These is no other way to describe the following exchange between two characters in Looking Good Dead, a mystery novel by British writer Peter James.

It is difficult to imagine anyone, in any school, office or other workplace, responding in a similar fashion to words of appreciation.

‘I’m coming up there myself,’ (Roy) Grace said. ‘I’ll be about ten minutes behind you.’

‘I’ll have the results waiting for you.’

‘I appreciate it.’

‘Actually, I don’t give a @#!* whether you appreciate it or not,’ the SOCO said, staring straight at the Detective Superintendent.

Sometimes Grace found it hard to tell when Joe Tindall was being serious and when he was joking; the man had a peculiar sense of humour. He couldn’t gauge it now.

‘Good!’ Grace said, trying to humour the man. ‘I admire your detached professionalism.’

‘Detached, bollocks!’ Tindal said. ‘I do it because I’m paid to do it. Being appreciated doesn’t bang my drum.’

Unlike Joe Tindall, most staff members would say that appreciation does “bang my drum.” They would prefer that a whole drum line celebrated their work.

Over the years, I have asked many participants in my programs if they felt they received too much recognition.

The universal response, whether I am working with teachers, health care workers or employees of construction companies, never varies. No one has ever said, “That’s me! I just want to go up to the boss and say, ‘No more recognition, please!’”

According to a new report from Gallup and Workhuman, just 23 per cent of employees strongly agree that they are satisfied with the amount of recognition they receive. That leaves three quarters of staff feeling less than satisfied with the amount of recognition they receive.

Separate research by Gallup found that 65 per cent of employees had not been recognized in the past year.

Another study—this one by Authentic Recognition—paints a somewhat brighter picture. Among workers asked, 42 per cent felt that the recognition they received from their immediate supervisor was “about the right amount,” while 39 per cent felt that recognition was not frequent enough and 15 per cent said it was “about frequently enough.” At the other end of the scale, only one per cent felt they were recognized “much too frequently” and another two per cent said that it was a “little too frequently.”

It’s fair to conclude that people believe you can’t provide too much recognition—if the recognition is Genuine.

I realize there are some managers who believe their staff is made up of people like Joe Tindall. 

“I don’t feel we should thank people for just doing their job,” they say.

Other supervisors think recognition is unimportant for another reason: “I don’t get any recognition myself—never have, didn’t need it.”

These are among the most common reasons one hears for not recognizing staff, all of which are simply not valid. They are just excuses for doing nothing.

Ironically, these same managers see no contradiction between not recognizing their staff and what they, themselves, do when attending sports events and concerts. They join other fans in cheering loudly when athletes and performers do their jobs well, whether it’s scoring a goal or singing one of their hit tunes. 

They likely even cheer when these well-paid professionals simply show up for work, be that running onto the field, skating onto the ice or stepping onto a stage.

How might those managers who claim to have never received praise or recognition feel now, had they had been thanked for jobs well done? What if they had received regular praise? What difference would that have made?

Some managers think the bashfulness or awkwardness that some staff members exhibit when being thanked means they want their fine work ignored. Phrases such as, “I was just doing my job,” or “anyone would have done the same thing,” are seen as evidence that those employees don’t want or don’t need recognition. 

The actual response to their awkwardness should be to offer more recognition, not less. A lack of recognition in their past may mean that they are unsure of how to accept recognition

Eventually, staff members will learn that the appropriate way to respond when they receive praise is with a smile and a simple, “Thank you for noticing what I do.”

In the real, non-fiction world where we live, you will encounter very few employees like Joe Tindall, who are satisfied with just the financial reward of doing their job. Most want more than financial income. They are also looking for emotional income—the feeling that they are valued for who they are and appreciated for what they do. 


Why staff recognition doesn’t belong to HR

Why does everyone see staff recognition as a task for which the human resources department is responsible?

When I tell people that I write and speak about staff recognition, most of them quickly identify it as “HR stuff.” Bookstores and libraries categorize books on staff recognition as belonging to “Human Resources and Personnel Management.”

Perhaps, this is understandable. Conferences for human resources professionals seem a natural place for me to speak about how to recognize staff.

HR professionals understand the value of thanking people for doing their jobs well. They believe in the power of staff recognition.

But staff recognition should not belong to human resources. Those hardworking professionals already have enough on their plates. 

Staff recognition belongs elsewhere.

Every member of the leadership team, from the top of the organization to those on the front line, should be responsible for ensuring that staff members feel valued for who they are and appreciated for what they do. They must create a work environment where everyone is comfortable being themselves and feel they are where they belong.

The tone should be set by those who lead the organization.

Senior leaders may not be present to recognize staff on the front line for what they do, but they can champion recognition throughout the organization. They can encourage and support their subordinates in their efforts to acknowledge the contributions and achievements of the people they supervise. 

Senior leaders should themselves be role models for staff recognition. They should recognize those who report directly to them when those staff members meet or exceed expectations. People who are recognized frequently are more likely to recognize others.

They can provide other leaders with the training, tools and resources they need to become skilled in recognizing staff. They can require their direct reports to describe how they are recognizing staff. They should recognize the recognizers for demonstrating a behaviour the top leaders want to see more often—acknowledging others for doing their jobs well.

When hiring for leadership positions in the future, it is important to search for people who have demonstrated a commitment to recognizing staff. Once you hire them, provide them with the tools and training they need to grow their recognition skills.

Responsibility for staff recognition does not have to end with the leadership team. Encourage peer recognition, too. Provide your staff with tools to recognize their co-workers.

Throughout your organization there can be a culture of recognition and appreciation. 

Recognition belongs everywhere and to everyone—including to the folks in the HR department.

An exercise to better understand the diversity of your workplace

What you don’t know about the people with whom you work may be preventing you from recognizing them in Appropriate ways and providing them with an inclusive work environment. 

All of us are shaped by our experiences—our families, where we grew up, our cultural background. The more you understand about the history of staff members, the better your understanding of who they are today.

Knowing them as individuals enables you to express appreciation in meaningful ways that are culturally sensitive. 

An initiative recently introduced to the Rotary club of which I am a member offers a model that workplaces could use, too. Our “Meet a Rotarian” program helps us get to know other members better, including those who have been members for years.

It’s common in Rotary clubs to ask new members to present a “Classification Talk” shortly after they join. These brief presentations focus on their professional lives, with a bit of their personal history mixed in. Meet a Rotarian is a way for longtime members to provide an update on their lives since their own Classification Talk, years earlier, and to share more of their personal stories.

It also is an opportunity for members who have joined subsequently to learn more about the older members.

The Meet a Rotarian presentations have evolved into a sharing of key moments from the past that shaped who they are and of achievements about which the rest of us were unaware.

One woman talked about her successes at the national level in racquetball and squash and her coaching career at a private club. Another talked about how he and his wife once piloted hot air balloons. A third member shared that he had surprised his co-workers by winning a beer drinking contest and a fourth, known as an accomplished golfer, talked about being introduced to the sport while he was still in diapers, by his grandfather. 

These are but four examples of the “secret lives” I was surprised to discover about individuals I had known for more than a decade.

This idea could be adapted for your workplace and help create a more inclusive workplace, where staff members are recognized in Appropriate ways.

Schedule time at staff meetings for people to share stories from their past and to describe how they spend their non-work hours. 

In Birds of All Feathers, diversity and inclusion expert Michael Bach suggests beginning team meetings with “a diversity moment, when someone shares something about themselves to help educate their co-workers on the diversity that exists around them.”

What you learn will add to your understanding of the people with whom you work and may even surprise you.

Several incidents highlight the challenge of diversity and the need for inclusive recognition

Three unrelated events reminded me of the importance of diversity and inclusion in today’s workplaces: shopping for ingredients for one of my favourite sandwiches, the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and a visit to a bank.

One of the first things I do during my infrequent visits to New Orleans is to head to the Central Grocery in the heart of the city’s French Quarter where the muffuletta sandwich was invented. After years of searching, I have found a recipe that comes close to replicating the original. It requires a variety of sliced meats, cheeses and olives available at the Italian Centre in Edmonton’s Little Italy neighbourhood.

Waiting my turn at the deli counter, I observed a sign on one of the three machines used to slice deli meats: “Do not use for pork products!” Obviously, the managers implemented this probation because the store has a diverse customer base that includes members of the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

In the days following Queen Elizabeth’s death, news reports included excerpts of speeches she made during her 70-year reign, including from her 2004 Christmas message: “Some people feel that their own beliefs are being threatened. Some are unhappy about unfamiliar cultures. They all need to be reassured that there is so much to be gained by reaching out to others; that diversity is indeed a strength and not a threat.”

Finally, there was the disturbing episode at my bank, where a customer verbally attacked a teller who could be the poster girl for the diverse nature of the organization’s workforce: a racialized little person who was barely half his height.

While this customer might still have been frustrated by the bank’s protocols (and aren’t we all from time to time?), one doubts that he would have behaved the same way if the person behind the counter had been a six-foot-tall white male.

These three incidents all occurred as I was finalizing a chapter for a new book that suggests ways staff recognition can contribute to more inclusive workplaces, where all  feel they belong.

While they’re related, diversity and inclusion are two different concepts.

Diversity is metrics. It’s about who is hired and about differences that are both visible (race, gender, age, disabilities) and invisible (religion, sexual orientation, family status).

Organizations benefit from being diverse. In an article on the Forbes website, Ashley Stahl writes, “Not only is diversity crucial for creativity and social justice, but also research shows that a diverse workplace is good for the bottom line.” 

Businesses with workforces that reflect the communities they serve are more successful. An article on the Business Development Bank of Canada site states, “Research also suggests that diverse teams are more effective, produce higher quality work and have deeper engagement.”

Biases can become a barrier when hiring. They can severely restrict the pool of talent available to the organization and, in some cases, can attract substantial penalties for violating human rights laws. Positive biases, based on schools attended or where candidates have worked previously, can also lead to poor hiring decisions.

Hiring for diversity is just the first step, as Michael Bach points out in Birds of All Feathers. “You can focus on the number of people you have from an underrepresented group, but if you don’t focus on the bigger picture of ensuring those people feel included and valued, twice as many people from that underrepresented group will be going out the back door than coming in the front entrance.”

The challenge is to create an inclusive workplace where everyone feels welcome and comfortable being themselves. In inclusive workplaces, everyone feels safe, valued and respected. Everyone is treated equitably. People feel they are where they belong and where they want to stay.

During a 2018 TED Talk, inclusion advocate Janet Stovall drew a significant distinction between diversity and inclusion: “Companies can mandate diversity, but they have to cultivate inclusion.”

Staff recognition is one way to cultivate inclusion. At its core, inclusive staff recognition is about ensuring recognition practices are Appropriate. Inclusive recognition requires us to get to know and value the people we work with as individuals.

Unless inclusion is embedded in the workplace culture, attracting and retaining a diverse team will be difficult and perhaps impossible. A 2020 study by Glassdoor found that the diversity of a workplace is a consideration of three quarters of jobseekers and is a crucial factor when evaluating companies and job offers.

Here are ways to make recognition inclusive:

  • None of us are blind to race or gender, but all of us can see the person in front of us for who they are. Value people as individuals and recognize them for how they contribute and what they achieve.
  • Respect and treat all staff members with dignity, without regard to their role within the organization. Everyone matters. Everyone contributes. Everyone has thoughts worth hearing.
  • Strive to understand the culture of others. Don’t assume. Verify the truth about cultural stereotypes, which may introduce unconscious biases into your hiring and recognition practices. Ask questions to understand. “I want to learn more about you and your culture.”
  • Avoid asking questions that begin with the word “why” (Why do people from your religion do this?) Asking people “why” can make them defensive. People may feel their background or religion is under attack when asked, “why do/did you?”
  • Involve a diverse group in planning for staff recognition. Seek their input on how to celebrate success. Be prepared to change practices that may unintentionally exclude people (E.g., family responsibilities may be a barrier to attending evening celebrations, events involving alcohol may deter the participation of others, etc.)
  • Names are important. Learn  to pronounce ones that are unfamiliar. Ask staff members to assist you in mastering their names. Don’t anglicize names to make it easier for you or expect staff to do so. 
  • Determine which pronouns (he/she/they) staff members prefer and use them when referring to these individuals.
  • The fear of doing the wrong thing can prevent us from doing the right thing. When dealing with people from different backgrounds we will make mistakes. That’s OK, if our actions and questions are driven by a sincere hope to learn about the people with whom we work and a desire to create a workplace where all believe they belong. As with staff recognition, there is no endpoint for inclusion. There will always be more to learn, more to do.

“Do the best you can do until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

— Maya Angelou, American writer