“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. 


A few words of praise can make a big difference

Several weeks ago, I was feeling a bit down when I received an unexpected message from a new LinkedIn connection.

“You did the most amazing Professional Development at the convention on teacher appreciation,” she wrote. “I’ve watched it a few times. It was so inspiring.”

Here was validation of what I do. I immediately felt a boost to my energy. I was energized to do more that afternoon (and eventually inspired to write about it).

It was a reminder that simple words of praise make a difference.

I wrote back to thank her for her kind words and to describe their impact: “Your words were the energy boost I needed.”

As those who paid more attention in chemistry class than I did could tell us, there is a scientific basis for how these words made me feel—dopamine. An article on The Whole U website of the University of Washington explains, “Researchers have also discovered that receiving praise releases dopamine, the same chemical that is released when we fall in love, eat a cupcake or meditate.”

Unfortunately, this feeling is fleeting. “The jolt of feel-good chemicals wears off quickly … a compliment feels wonderful, but it doesn’t last long,” the article states.

That is why I plan to return to LinkedIn to reread the message from my new connection from time to time so that I’m reminded how I felt when I first read the words. This is a practice everyone should start.

As a leader, you should encourage all staff members to follow the example of those who hold on to letters, thank-you notes and even messages scribbled on sticky notes.

The first time (or the next time) you recognize staff members in writing, hand them a file folder. “I hope to be able to recognize you frequently. Use this folder to file letters, thank-you notes, etc., from me and others. Review them often. Go back from time to time to reread them, especially on difficult days when things are not going well.”

Of course, this sets up an expectation that you will provide similar messages in the future and you will do so frequently. Recognition is important for all staff but it is particularly important for new staff. They should be recognized on their first day and regularly thereafter as a way to build their commitment to the organization. As this updated version of an old adage states: Hire slowly. Fire quickly. Recognize immediately!

Before you onboard another staff member, purchase a box or two of thank-you cards and a file folder for every new staff member—and for all your existing staff.  Remember to keep one for yourself to collect the messages of praise you will receive from your supervisor, staff and customers.

Even a few Genuine words of praise can make a substantial difference in a person’s day.

More Staff Recognition Tips from 2022 Convention Participants

A week or so ago, I published staff recognition tips collected from participants in the programs 97 Staff Recognition Tips in Just Minutes and Crowdsourcing Staff Recognition that I presented at conventions in February and March. 

There were too many for one newsletter, so as promised, here are the rest.

The previous article included ways to incorporate fun into the serious business of recognition, how to personalize recognition, tips for peer recognition, and various approaches to “SP” programs, pass-along awards and appreciation walls.

Now, the focus is on using food, snacks and treats to help convey messages of appreciation; recognizing staff with the gift of time; tips on using the words of others when recognizing staff; putting recognition in writing; and recognition at staff meetings. There are also suggestions for recognizing staff if your budget permits and a few thoughts that didn’t really fit any of the other categories.

But first, Words of Advice from participants:

  • Get out of the office and into the halls/classrooms. Celebrate what you see.
  • Recognize in private and then talk well about staff members/praise them behind their backs.
  • Forced recognition where everyone gets recognized reeks (i.e. no valentines unless everyone gets one). This does not appear Genuine.

Read what follows with the 4As of Staff Recognition in mind. Adopt those ideas that resonate with you. Adapt others to fit your organization. These tips may replace practices that you wish to Abandon because they don’t work as they once did. And of course, Avoid tips that aren’t right for you, your staff or your organization.

Food, treats and snacks

Food, treats and snack always seem to be prominent when people talk about staff recognition. This year’s program participants certainly use them:

  • On our Demo of Learning Day, we created a cart of goodies that our teachers could choose from. We gave each a little bag to load up.
  • Create a “treat train” to classrooms with a wagon of treats for staff to choose from.
  • Leave treats (mini chocolate bars, etc.) on photocopiers to say thanks to all staff after a busy week.
  • I have a chocolate cart in my office. It gets people to my office and I can see how they are or recognize them for something they’ve done or have been working on.
  • Use a snack cart combined with verbal recognition in front of students.
  • Offer treats as an appreciation on special occasions.
  • Have student council drop off treats to teachers randomly throughout the year. Make sure everyone gets one by the end.
  • Say thank you as much as possible, as often as possible. I always have a stash of chocolate in my office for teachers and staff who need a pick-me-up.
  • Put little treats in mailboxes. 
  • Set up a popcorn bar. 
  • Stock a snack bar in the staff room for “spontaneous spirit-lifting.”  
  • Maintain a pluck-it bucket of goodies. 
  • Hold an after-school chip party.
  • Create a Tim Hortons order list for all members.
  • I bring in food and baking.  
  • Bake cookies and give them out in little treat bags. 
  • Bring muffins or other treats to school occasionally.
  • “Coffee barista” for making gourmet coffee drinks for staff all day long. 
  • Push a cold drink cart through the hallways on a warm day. 
  • Deliver hot drinks to classrooms on a cold day. 
  • Bring coffee to staff in the morning.
  • During parent-teacher interviews, have a drink and snack cart delivered by the principal. 
  • Coffee cart/hot chocolate cart delivery to classrooms by administrators.
  • Order the person a coffee and in the special notes add a message.
  • Pop and pizza with the principal for staff.
  • Provide food during early morning meetings.
  • Buy teachers dinner on parent-teacher interview nights.
  • Free lunch on PD days.
  • Lunch with a bunch. Invite staff to grab lawn chairs and meet in the parking lot for lunch, special treats and time to recognize.
  • Breakfast or lunch for staff.
  • Dispense a favourite chocolate bar or candy on staff member’s birthday. 
  • Hold a birthday pizza party. 
  • Leave birthday treats on a desk.
  • People can sign up and have birthday cakes brought to school for them on their birthday.
  • Celebrate birthdays with treats at the end of the month.
  • Spontaneous wine and cheese to recognize an achievement.
  • Share recipes to go with special national days. 

Words of others:

Occasionally, colleagues or non-staff members—customers, parents, suppliers, etc.— will spontaneously praise staff members. Other times, we solicit feedback through surveys, posters and other means. However they are gathered, positive comments should be passed on to staff members.

  • Have students write a thank-you to their favourite teacher.
  • Staff recognition Google form: Allows colleagues to send anonymous recognition that administrator reads out during staff meetings.
  • Staff recognition good form: Sent to administration and the administrator sends a card to the staff member to be recognized.
  • A “Win” board in the staff room recognizing wins that staff (or students) have had.
  • Encourage parents to send thank-you notes to their children’s teachers.
  • Allow students an opportunity to write cards to staff.
  • Cards to staff members based on “good news stories” you hear to recognize both the staff member and the one who told you about that good news.
  • Have small groups of students write notes to staff members including things they appreciate about the staff member.
  • Ask leadership students to write appreciation letters to staff
  • Customer praise: Gather staff to inform everyone.

Putting it in Writing:

There are two reasons for expressing appreciation in writing, whether it’s in thank-you notes, on sticky notes or electronically:

  1. Putting recognition in writing shows you value recipients and their contributions enough to invest time to recognize them.
  2. Recipients often will save your messages and can reread them. Your written expressions of gratitude have staying power.
  • Postcards: For thank-yous, things I noticed.
  • Personalized note on Christmas cards.
  • Monthly Valentines:  I keep track in a Google doc who I recognized and for what.
  • Shout-outs in our weekly staff memo.
  • Thank-you notes with a Tim Hortons card.
  • We deliver cards to three staff members each Friday in recognition of something great they did during the week.
  • I always leave sticky notes on how amazing and helpful my EAs (educational assistants) are. I also buy cups with personalized sayings that we both understand.
  • Recognize staff who have made positive contribution to students in weekly morning minutes.
  • We receive a lot of business emails. I like to mix in some words of thanks to people. Not as personal as a handwritten note, but I’m more likely to follow through.
  • Email messages to recognize meeting schools goals.
  • Social media posts telling the world at large of their accomplishments.
  • Thank-you cards provided for no specific reason other than to show appreciation.
  • Special notes to point out strengths of colleagues. Can be anonymous or actually include the names of who they are from.
  • Recognition on our weekly calendar update.
  • Provide recognition of staff in our weekly updates to families.
  • Sticky notes with a compliment on each staff member’s classroom or office door.
  • Sticky notes on a whiteboard in the staff room.
  • Send recognition emails after special events to each staff member.
  • Thank-you emails and handwritten notes.
  • Just purchased some “Pep Talk Postcards” to email to staff throughout the remainder of the year. I did this during our first lockdown in 2020. Going to commit to it again. (Related article: Postcards: an anachronism or a tool to personalize communication?).
  • Give each teacher blank thank-you cards and treats to hand out throughout the term. Include a thank-you to them from you.
  • Gratitude book.  
  • Leave notes in mailboxes. 
  • Send Valentines with positive affirmations.

During Meetings:

Scheduling time at staff meetings for recognition provides opportunities for front-line leaders to recognize staff members publicly and for staff to recognize their peers.

  • Bouquets to start staff meetings.
  • Shout-outs and honourable mentions during staff meetings.
  • Celebrations and staff recognition at the beginning of all meetings. 
  • We celebrate accomplishments and creativity of employees on special projects during Monday morning kickoff meetings.
  • Weekly kudos at our staff meeting and in our weekly staff announcements.
  • We nominate staff to be recognized at every staff meeting. They have their pictures taken with an icon meaningful to our school and it’s posted on Twitter and on a display board.
  • Assembly shout-outs for students and staff.
  • Thank individuals at the beginning of staff meetings with a kudos moment.
  • Start team meetings with gratitude remarks.

Related article: 7 Dos and 7 Don’ts for Staff Recognition During Meetings

A Gift of Time/One-on-One

Staff understand that of the limited resources available to front-line leaders to recognize staff, time is the most precious. They welcome the time leaders share with them when it is linked to recognition.

  • Offer to take a teacher’s supervision or to cover a teacher’s class.
  • Provide extra preparation time, having administrators cover for staff.
  • Involve staff in meaningful discussions.
  • Take personal, one-on-one uninterrupted time to “listen.”
  • Take staff member aside, personally recognize performance and ask them what you can be doing to help them.
  • Personal one-on-one conversations.
  • If comfortable, invite a staff member and their family to your house for dinner and to get to know them.
  • Listen for ideas as people as they tell you about their day.

If your budget permits:

  • Monetary gift cards. 
  • Manicures. 
  • Spa day. 
  • Free flights.
  • Long weekend staycation at a hotel for a staff member and significant other.

Didn’t Fit Any of the Categories

  • We highlight staff for a week on our bulletin board and have their favourite songs playing during our transition times in the day. We include a photo of the employee and a short bio.
  • Recognize accomplishments of staff that are not strictly work-related, but relate to overall feel good/wellness (E.g. Congrats on running your first 10K race). Congratulate staff on personal achievements.
  • 12 days of Christmas gifts.
  • Random acts of kindness.
  • Host a staff party and have fun together. Will do again after COVID.
  • We have a Wellness Committee that delivers uplifting goodies to staff having a tough time.
  • Our administration brings birthday gifts and a balloon to us on our birthdays.
  • We have monthly awards for teachers, but we could do this for staff as well.
  • Spruce up the staff bathroom with messages of gratitude on the mirror, nice soap, lotion and flowers.
  • Substitute Teacher Recognition: Thank-you cards and coffee cards, school logo items, survival kit, etc. Available during substitute teacher appreciation week.
  • Bowling night.

Perfunctory praise will not soften the pain of a layoff

A Briefly Noted reader’s comment made after reading a staff recognition tip in the most recent edition of this newsletter reminded me why it’s important to be Explicit when describing what staff members did when recognizing them.

Explicit is one of the five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition—recognition that recipients will value.

Here is the staff recognition tip that prompted reader Jess’s comment:

In responses to letters of resignation, express your appreciation to staff members for their service. Be specific about how the organization benefited from their contributions (Emphasis added by Jess).

“I think it could be expended to when downsizing occurs, too,” she wrote.

She continued by sharing a very personal experience of being the victim of a budget-related layoff.

“I felt quite hollow and needlessly slighted when, while telling me that I was being laid off because of budget cuts beyond their control, my two bosses said, ‘We want you to know we appreciate all the hard work you’ve contributed to make this department a success.’ 

“Yet they said absolutely nothing that indicated they had any idea what I did. A tiny, tiny comment on something they noticed that I did for them would have made the moment so much less awful (for them, too, I suspect.)”

This is an example of how some managers attempt to use praise to buffer bad news. They erroneously believe that empty praise will make being told you don’t have a job easier to take. 

Of course, that’s not how recipients of “recognition” used for this purpose feel.  

“It felt perfunctory, not genuine,” Jess wrote.

Being motived by a Genuine sense of appreciation is the essential ingredient of meaningful staff recognition.

During the program based on my book Thanks! GREAT Job!I share the image of a thank-you card that no one has ever purchased, sent or received. Its message: “Thanks for nothing in particular!”

A thank-you card that no one has ever purchased, sent or received, but you can find cards with a similar message: “Thank you for everything you do.”

“You won’t find this at Hallmark,” I say. “But you will find cards with a similar message: ‘Thank you for everything you do.’” 

Receiving this message—or what Jess heard from her bosses—must leave recipients wanting to scream, “If I do everything well, I must do a good job of something. What is it?

Avoid leaving staff members feeling “hollow and needlessly slighted” when recognizing them, when responding to letters of resignation and especially when laying them off “because of budget cuts beyond their control.” 

Jess’s advice is valid. The original tip should be extended to include what is said when staff members are being laid off, and that matter, to people who are retiring.

Whenever staff members leave the organization, whether it’s due to a resignation, retirement or layoff, express your appreciation to them for their service. Be specific about howthe organization benefited from their contributions.

Being Explicit when acknowledging the contributions of an individual who is being laid off is even more important than doing so in response to resignations. People who resign decide to leave, but those who are laid off  had no choice. They are forced to leave due to circumstances beyond their control.

Recognition must be motivated by a Genuine sense of appreciation and the message can be strengthened by including an Explicit description of what the recipient did.

If you can’t do that, it would better to just tell the individual she is being laid off “because of budget cuts beyond their control” and leave it at that.

You Asked: How much recognition is enough?

There is no simple answer to such a simple question. However, you likely should be providing more recognition than you are now. 

In addition, some staff will deserve to be recognized more often than others and others will need to be recognized more often.

Some will suggest that we should recognize people at least once a week. This may be influenced by one of the Gallup Q12 questions which measure employee engagement: “In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?”

Whether that interpretation is correct or not, a goal to recognize each staff member at least once a week is a good starting point, but with one caveat.

Your recognition must be motivated by a sincere sense of appreciation for what the individual did. What the individual did must be deserving of recognition.

Recognition based on the desire to meet some artificial targets or to check off a to-do list becomes a meaningless, empty gesture. Recipients and others will not perceive it as Genuine, which is the essential ingredient of recognition that recipients will value. People know when you are just going through the motions.

Another factor to consider is that the need to be recognized varies from one staff member to another. Some people simply need more recognition than others. Some suggest that younger workers desire to be recognized more often, although there are certainly more experienced staff who have a high need to have their contributions acknowledged. 

Another group that needs recognition is staff who have recently been hired. Recognition should be part of your strategy to welcome them and to build commitment to the organization from the first day on the job. Turnover can be high among new staff members. They can be most at risk of leaving. It is natural to question whether the decision to take a job is the right one and recognition helps validate that they made the right decision to accept your offer. It helps them feel they are where they should be.

If your goal is to recognize staff more often, how do you go about doing this?

First, make recognition a priority. Include recognition on your daily to-do list

Set aside time each day to focus on recognition. Who deserves to be recognized? How can you express your appreciation?

In addition to your daily recognition time, find other times in your day to recognize staff. Turn waiting time into recognition time. Rather than browsing the Internet or just staring off into space, use the time when you are waiting for a meeting to start, waiting to be called into your doctor or dentist’s office, or waiting to board an airplane to write thank-you notes or to text or email words of appreciation to deserving staff members.

As you move through you day, be alert for behaviours and achievements that warrant recognition. Consider focusing on one of the organization’s values for a day or week. Whenever you see behaviour that is Relevant to that value, say something to the individual, either right away or soon afterward.

American writer William Arthur Ward (1921-1994) once wrote, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” There is no reason to wait. Recognition that is Timely has a greater impact than recognition that occurs weeks or months after you witnessed the action you appreciate.

As Nike says, “Just do it!”

Puzzled by the puzzle? Here’s the explanation

This puzzle is a graphic representation of the five ingredients that create staff recognition that recipients value.

To understand this image, consider how most of us put jigsaw puzzles together. There are four steps, beginning when the pieces are dumped from the box.

Next, we sort the pieces into two groups—pieces with flat edges and all the others.

Most start by fitting those flat-sided pieces together.

Completing this frame may establish a sense of accomplishment, but this is just the beginning. The biggest challenge lies ahead—to fit the remaining, and most important, pieces together to make the whole picture obvious.

Examine the pieces of the staff recognition puzzle. Notice the unique shape of the middle piece. It’s unlike the others. It connects with all the pieces. This piece represents the essential ingredient of recognition that recipients will value. 

Recognition must be inspired by a Genuine sense of appreciation. Without this ingredient, the recognition will seem insincere. It won’t be valued by recipients and they may feel that what they do isn’t valued.

Now, consider the four corner pieces. Their identical shape makes them interchangeable. None is more important than the others. 

They don’t all have to be included in the “completed” puzzle. It would appear no less complete if the only pieces used were Genuine and four pieces representing just one other ingredient—Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate or Timely. The puzzle would still appear as a square.

Just adding one of the other ingredients to the essential ingredient (Genuine) is enough to create an impression of appreciation:

Staff members understand that what they do is appreciated if the message is linked to the mission, values and goals of the organization (i.e. Relevant).

That is also true if the message includes a specific description of what the staff member did (i.e. Explicit).

Or the gesture of recognition reflects that you know the recipient well enough to be able to personalize the message of appreciation (i.e. Appropriate). 

Finally, if the recognition is delivered soon after the contribution for which the person is being recognized occurs (i.e. Timely) it reinforces that your sense of appreciation is Genuine.

The more ingredients you include, the more powerful your message of appreciation. Each of the corner pieces contributes to your message of appreciation. The more pieces that are in place, the more complete the puzzle and the stronger the message of appreciation.

How complete is your staff recognition puzzle? Do you always begin with a Genuine sense of appreciation? Which other pieces do you add to strengthen your message of appreciation? Which ingredients do you add less frequently than others?

Genuine: Making staff recognition authentic

The five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition

The acronym GREAT is a reminder of the ingredients of powerful staff recognition. To be most meaningful and valued by recipients, GREAT recognition must be Genuine (inspired by a sincere sense of appreciation for what the person did). Your message of appreciation becomes stronger as other ingredients are added: Relevant (linked to what your organization feels is important), Explicit (includes a specific description of what the recipient did), Appropriate (reflecting the interests and recognition needs and the preferences of the recipient) and Timely (delivered soon after the behaviour occurs).

This is the first of a series of five articles, each of which will focus on different ingredient for GREAT staff recognition.

Why do staff members value the recognition that some leaders provide while other attempts to recognize employees fall flat?

Why are some leaders able to recognize staff in ways that boost morale, increase engagement and improve retention, while what other leaders do seems to make no difference?

Is it that some people just write better thank-you notes, give better rewards or offer better praise?

The truth is that the value and effectiveness of staff recognition is not determined by what you do, but by why you do it, as assessed by those who are recognized.

Recognition must be seen as inspired by a sincere sense of appreciation for what the recipients achieved or how they contributed. 

Recognition must be Genuine. It is the essential ingredient.

If recognition is not motivated by a sincere sense of appreciation—if it’s not Genuine—the suggestions that I (and others) make about how to recognize staff will not be effective. 

The ability to recognize others in ways that they perceive as Genuine depends on how staff members feel about the people providing the recognition, and that comes down to two concepts: trust and respect.

Do staff members know, respect and trust you? Do you know, respect and trust them?

When Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin, authors of The Great Workplace, asked,Is your organization a great place to work?” and “Why?” what they heard from staff members who felt they worked in a great place was that, “they believe their leaders to be credible, respectful and fair—they trust them.”

Researchers find that providing recognition appears to increase trust levels. Ninety per cent of employees who receive recognition trust the boss who provides the recognition, while only 48 per cent of staff members who are not being recognized trust their bosses.

Without respect and trust, attempts at recognition will be seen to be empty rituals, rather than Genuine expressions of appreciation for what people achieve and how they contribute.

One common practice that destroys a leader’s credibility is recognizing everyone the same way. They do not want to treat anyone differently, because this may be seen as “unfair” and might upset other staff. Some even use this fear as an excuse for never recognizing anyone.

Staff members know that different people contribute in different ways at different levels of effectiveness. Most accept that there will be differences in how individuals are recognized. They understand, as Thomas Jefferson did, that “Nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”

Avoid other practices that make attempts at recognition appear insincere, such as:

  • Following praise with the word “but,” a verbal eraser that cancels everything that went before.
  • Sandwiching criticism between two layers of praise, which appears to buffer criticism, rather than acknowledging contributions.
  • Immediately assigning new tasks, without allowing time for the recipient to savour the recognition.
  • Attempting to recognize an individual you don’t know (and who doesn’t know you), whose name you can’t pronounce, and whose contribution you don’t understand.
  • Laying it on too thick, hoping that at least one platitude will fit the circumstances.

On the other hand, there are ways to recognize staff that make it clear that your appreciation is Genuine:

  • Recognize people only when you sincerely believe they deserve to be recognized, not because “it’s the thing to do” or because someone said you should recognize staff more (although you probably should).
  • Separate positive feedback from the negative, except when conducting performance appraisals, during which both are expected.
  • Ensure that your body language and tone of voice are in sync with your words of praise.
  • Include as many of the other ingredients of GREAT staff recognition—Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Timely—as you can in your message. The more ingredients you include—and they don’t all need to be present every time—the stronger your message of appreciation.
  • Be emotional. Show recognition comes from the heart. Let them know how good you feel about what they did.
  • Be consistent. Recognize what deserves to be recognized, no matter who did it, when or where. Never recognize what doesn’t warrant recognition, just because you feel bad that Joe has not been recognized recently. Wait and watch. His turn will come.
  • Keep it short and simple. The longer and more flowery a presentation, the more artificial it seems.
  • Provide honest feedback. When someone screws up, tell him. When he succeeds, tell him. Both types of feedback will be more believable. 

Up next: Relevant: Making staff recognition strategic

Is it time to press the eject button on service awards?

COVID-19 comes with challenges, but it also presents opportunities. It has forced changes to some staff recognition practices and pushed a pause button for others. 

Due to restrictions on larger gatherings, one type of staff recognition that won’t be happening now, is organization-wide celebrations of service anniversaries to which employees are typically invited once every five years, for an evening of speeches, awards and buffets.

Organizations should take advantage of this interruption to reconsider these events, which gobble up huge portions of annual staff recognition budgets. There are other ways to acknowledge staff who have reached service milestones, and to do so more frequently and at less expense.

To be clear, these once-every-five-years-of-service events do not really celebrate what is usually emphasized during speeches by senior leaders—loyalty, contributions and excellence.

Certainly some—perhaps most—of the people invited to these events do deserve praise for those three items. But from scanning the list of invitees it is evident that this is not what everyone has in common.

The only attribute they all share is survival. Whether they actually made significant contributions over the past five years or did little more than avoid dying or being fired, they are lumped together—hearing the same words, receiving the same awards and eating the same food.

Staff members—especially top performers—know this and see the phoniness in what’s happening.

Most damaging is the loss of trust that occurs once an organization is seen as delivering recognition that is perceived as insincere. It is difficult to recapture the capacity to deliver recognition that recipients and other will believe is Genuine.

Consider abandoning these outdated celebrations of survival and focus on more effective, less formal ways to acknowledge staff who have reached service milestones.

First, get away from the practice of waiting five years to celebrate service anniversaries. Five years is longer than many people will stay with the same organization. Also, don’t limit celebrations to a once-a-year event, where everyone is recognized at the same time.

Celebrate service anniversaries as they occur. If someone began work on July 15, plan to acknowledge that on July 15, or as close to that date as possible.

For new staff members, celebrate more often. These people are most at risk of leaving. They begin jobs uncertain whether accepting the job offer was the right decision or a mistake.

Taking time frequently to reassure them that they are in the right place and are doing a good job is an important component of building their commitment from day one on the job.

During these brief service celebrations, provide specific praise for how they have contributed and what they have accomplished over the past years, or in a shorter period for those who are new.

Some staff may miss the speeches, awards and food but most will value the words they hear more frequently. No one wants to wait five years to be told they are doing a good job.

How to avoid the “Participation Ribbon” trap when recognizing staff

It was an unexpected question from a participant in a program I was presenting at a recent teachers’ convention: “Are we talking about ‘participation ribbons’ here?”

I could understand why he asked. Another participant had just described what he did to ensure that no staff member was overlooked for recognition and I had suggested other tactics to ensure that no one was forgotten.

How to avoid the “Participation Ribbon” trap when recognizing staffThat conversation and the other participant’s question highlighted one of staff recognition’s challenges: how to ensure that everyone is recognized  without it becoming a participant-ribbon exercise, filled with empty gestures of appreciation which are not Genuine and which recipients won’t find meaningful.

Desiring to be fair, some leaders employ tactics that treat everyone equally. Individuals who receive a letter thanking them for their contributions are aware that everyone else will have received the same letter. 

Money is spent on once-a-year events to honour those who have reached defined service milestones (usually once every five years) for which they receive the same gift as everyone else, as prescribed in a staff recognition policy. In truth, these events celebrate only the recipients’ ability to survive long enough to reach the milestone and not how each person contributed in their unique ways over the most recent five-year period.

Where they exist, individual awards such as employee-of-the-month are awarded based not on what the recipient did, but because it’s the recipient’s turn. The employee-of-the-month selection is completely random. It’s  figuratively—and sometimes literally—drawn out of a hat.

Because they “don’t want to miss anyone,” some managers recognize no one.

None of these approaches can be expected to realize any of the outcomes associated with meaningful staff recognition, which are increased engagement, improved morale or reduced turnover.

We must avoid thinking that staff recognition is an entitlement. It isn’t! As long as they continue to be employed, staff members are entitled to a paycheque. They are entitled to receive the same benefits everyone else receives. They are entitled to a physically and emotionally safe work environment.

But recognition is not an entitlement. It must be “earned” by the recipient by  contributing in ways that are valued. It should be bestowed for actions that we want to see repeated. It’s a reward for behaviours that reflect the mission and values of the organization and which help the organization achieve its goals.

Because not all contributions or achievements will be as important as others, leaders who are committed to providing meaningful staff recognition vary how they acknowledge staff members. Recognition should be proportionate to what the recipient did. 

When leaders take this “different strokes for different folks” approach to recognition, they are focused on treating staff equitably, not equally, because not all staff members contribute equally to the organization’s success. 

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “There’s nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”

Each staff member should be recognized based on how—and if—they contributed.

This doesn’t mean that only some people should be recognized. It’s just that some may be recognized more frequently and in more significant ways than others.

Because everyone contributes in some fashion, everyone should be a recognition recipient from time to time. How they are recognized should reflect the significance of their contribution. Not everyone deserves to be recognized in the same way. And no one should be given a participation ribbon!

Here are seven ways to ensure that all staff members receive the recognition they deserve:

  1. Accept that staff members contribute in different ways and are deserving of being recognized in different ways.
  2. Avoid an “everyone-gets-a-turn” approach to recognition. Recognize staff only when it’s deserved.
  3. When staff members act in ways that contribute to the success of the organization or behave in ways that reflect the organization’s values, recognize those actions and behaviours.
  4. As a leader, be alert to the less obvious but still important contributions of some staff members.
  5. The recognition you provide should include specific descriptions of what the recipients did. Such Explicit recognition makes it clear why particular staff members deserved it at this time, while others did not.
  6. Keep track of who you recognize, how and why. Who are you missing? Why? Are you the problem or are they? If you can’t find a reason to recognize a staff member it may be evidence of a performance problem that needs to be addressed.
  7. Don’t force it. Don’t recognize someone who has not done anything deserving of recognition. Limit the time you provide time at staff meetings for peer recognition, cutting it off before the staff runs out of reasons to recognize colleagues. That avoids having staff come up with contrived reasons to recognize some colleagues.

Related article: 7 Dos and 7 Don’ts for Staff Recognition During Meetings 

Search for additional ways to recognize staff so you can provide recognition that is appropriate to the action or behaviour that you wish to see repeated, and appropriate to the individual being recognized.

Related article: 7 Questions to Ask to Recognize Staff Appropriately

A good place to begin is with the 22 staff recognition tips listed on my website. Continue by reading a book on staff recognition, such as Thanks! GREAT Job! If you’re attending a conference or convention where I am sharing staff recognition tips, tools and techniques, drop into my session (When you do, identify yourself as a Briefly Noted reader because I will have a gift for you). Schedule a Staff Recognition: One Piece at a Time workshop for your leadership team.