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.

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

Retention improves when staff believes they are “Right where we belong”

A local radio station recently invited listeners to share the songs they sing or listen to during their commutes.

My contribution: Right When I Belong by Kermit the Frog from the 1984 movie The Muppets Take Manhattan.

And now I’m here

Now you’re here

Nothin’ can go wrong

‘Cause I am here right where I belong!

Staff members who feel they are where they belong are more likely to stay where they are.

Staff retention is particularly important now as unemployment is historically low and “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere. Retaining the right staff is critical for organizations to be successful.

While there is no shortage of business and human resources gurus offering advice on how to meet this challenge, the best advice may be found in the words of Kermit’s song. 

The way to improve staff retention is to create a workplace where staff feel they belong.

To do so has two requirements. First, staff must feel that they are respected and valued for who they are as individuals. They also need to know what they do is important and appreciated.

Showing respect requires that you spend time with the people with whom you work, both in small groups and during one-on-one meetings. Listen to them. Use stay interviews to learn how they feel about their work and their place within the organization. 

Utilize what you learn to improve their work experience and create a work environment where they feel they belong.

Embrace the diversity of the workplace. Demonstrate respect for the cultural values and beliefs of all staff members. The workplace must feel inclusive.

To convey your appreciation for what staff members do, employ the five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition:

  • Genuine—Recognition must always be motivated by a sincere sense of appreciation for what staff members achieve and how they contribute.
  • Relevant—Linking recognition for what they do to the organization’s values, goals and mission reminds staff of the importance of what they do.
  • Explicit—Staff will see specific descriptions of what they did as evidence that you are paying attention to what they do.
  • Appropriate—Recognition that reflects the interests, career plans and recognition preference of recipients shows that you care enough to learn about the staff as individuals. These seven questions are a good guide to discovering Appropriate ways to recognize staff.
  • Timely—Show that recognizing staff is a priority by delivering recognition soon after witnessing the behaviour that warrants recognition.

Apply these techniques and you may find that your staff will be singing along with Kermit:

Look at us!

Here we are!

Right where we belong!

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

The most-viewed articles on my Briefly Noted Online blog during 2021 were a mix of the new and the old. The most popular was my response to a reader’s question, “How do I discover if the candidate is a fast learner?” It was first posted in February 2017. Readers made it the most-read post during 2019 and 2020, too.

The second most-read article this year was a guide to assessing candidates’ responses to interview questions using a five-point scale. 

The next two articles on this year’s list reflect a staff recognition theme, including 7 suggestions of how to respond when recognized (#3) and how ending emails with “thank you” can increase the response rate (#4).

Another popular read was initially part of a series:

12 Clues that a Staff Member is at Risk of Quitting (#5) was part of a series about about using stay interviews to reduce staff turnover. Published between November 2020 and February 2021, the other articles focused on stay interviews as a proactive tool to improve staff retention and events that trigger thoughts of leaving.

One post continues to be relevant nearly a decade after it was published in February 2012. It lists 7 ways to build commitment on a new employee’s first day. It’s number 6 on this year’s list.

Explicit — Making Staff Recognition Specific (#7) is the third article in a series that focused on the five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition—Genuine, Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Timely—all were published in the fall of 2020.

When How Interviewers Are Like Literature’s Famous Detectives (#8) was published in December 2015, I didn’t realize that it would be the first of four articles (the rest were published in 2017) that would marry my passion for classic murder mysteries with my commitment to providing frontline leaders (including school principals, department heads, business owners and other managers and supervisors) with tools and techniques to hire the right people. Those articles were the catalyst for developing How Would Sherlock Hire? a new program that I have been invited to present several times during 2022.

My most recent post is in ninth place. It’s about the importance of understanding staff members’ recognition preferences. I wrote it after witnessing a marriage proposal go wrong when a young man decided it would be a good idea to pop the question at a football game and have it shown on the stadium video screen. (Spoiler: it wasn’t!)

Tied for number 10 on the most-read articles for 2021 are posts that used annual observations as jumping-off points. On Mother’s Day, and Throughout the Year, Practise Family-Friendly Recognition emphasizes the importance of including staff members’ families in our staff recognition plans. People in leadership roles also need recognition explains why it’s important to give bosses recognition all year long, not just on National Boss Day.

Recognition that removes winter’s chill

While staff recognition knows no season, there are certain staff recognition practices that seem better suited to certain seasons. This thought prompted me to write Recognition for a Summer’s Day six months ago, followed three months later with examples of how recognition could fall like autumn leaves.

In the third article in this series, my focus shifts to ways of recognizing staff during the winter season (December, January and February).

Since this season includes the celebration of Christmas, the exit of the old year and the beginning of a new year, it’s natural to look back on what was and look forward to what could be. That makes it a perfect opportunity for revisiting recognition practices.

With every holiday card you write to staff members, express appreciation for at least one contribution the individual made during the past year.


Create an Advent calendar of gratitude. Each day during December, open a door to expose a message expressing gratitude to an individual or team.


’Tis the season of school concerts. Provide opportunities for parents to leave work to attend their children’s daytime performances.


Personally deliver candy canes (or another sweet treat) to the workstation of everyone on your team, along with an Explicit description of something that the person did that you appreciate.


What challenges did your organization face during the past year? How were they overcome? Remind the people who helped solve these issues that you know and remember what they did by thanking them again.


Reflect on your team’s list accomplishments during the previous 12 months. If specific successes can be traced to the efforts of one person or to a group of employees, ensure that their contributions are acknowledged.


Year-end is a good time to review your staff recognition practices. Think back on what you did to recognize staff over the past year. What worked? What didn’t? What staff recognition techniques appear less effective? What worked for some staff members but not others? Have you recognized staff frequently enough? How could you improve your staff recognition practices? Use what you learn to improve your staff recognition plan for the new year.


Help prepare staff to set New Year’s resolutions by asking, “Where do you see your career in five years? What steps can you take during the next 12 months that will help you get there? How could I help you move closer to your career goals?”


Retail stores and offices may be closed on Christmas Day so that staff can spend time with their families but there are organizations for which December 25 is just like any other day. There is no pause button they can push just because it is Christmas. Police, health-care workers and firefighters are the first that come to mind, but there are many other organizations that operate 24/7, 365 days a year—hotels, restaurants, utility companies, media organizations, etc. 

If you are a supervisor or manager who has the day off but there are others who must work or be on call during the holiday, take a moment to think about them. Sure, they will receive extra pay, but money isn’t everything. Let them know that you appreciate them sacrificing time with family and friends. Think particularly about those who volunteer to work on a holiday so that co-workers can spend time with their families. Send them a text or email expressing your appreciation. Give them a phone call or drop in for a few minutes to express appreciation in person. Arrange for them to receive a special treat during their break.


On a chilly winter morning, greet people as they arrive with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.


End the year with a message for each of your staff members. Describe what you value most about having had them on the team over the past year. Focus on the individual’s contributions to the organization as well as on what their work team achieved. Finding contributions to highlight will be easier than you think. When you sit down to write your emails, you will discover that two or three contributions jump out for each person. Don’t be surprised if you hear from some staff members that you have given them the “best Christmas gift ever” from a manager or employer.


Have you ever wondered how many letters Santa Claus receives each January? From Halloween to Christmas Eve, children send him lists of the toys, books and games they would like to find under the tree. What happens after Christmas? How many children thank Santa for the gifts he delivered? Encourage the children in your home to spend part of the holiday season expressing gratitude for what they received. Santa would certainly appreciate hearing from them—his mailbox is quite empty after December 25—nothing there but a bunch of bills. And you will be contributing to building a future generation of leaders who know how to say thank you and how to recognize those with whom they will work. 


During the holiday season, think of others. Your family and friends, of course, but also the people who deliver your mail or newspaper and pick up your garbage and recycling. And there are those who are less fortunate. Donate to charities, support your local food bank, etc.


If you don’t work for an organization that operates 24/7 during the holidays, think of those who are required to be on duty—police, firefighters, health-care workers. Take a few minutes away from your celebrations to drop off a special treat to them.


Avoid missing key dates in staff members’ lives, such as service anniversaries and birthdays, by entering these in your calendar at the beginning of the year.


In early January, start preparing to celebrate what will happen over the next 12 months with a yearbook that will record the success story of your organization and staff. Throughout the year, gather examples of what individuals and the team achieve and how they contribute to the organization’s success. Collect media coverage and also positive notes from customers (remember to also provide copies to the individuals who customers identify as exceptional, as you receive them). Take photos of employees at work. Record key events and milestones as they occur during the year, noting the employees responsible for these specific successes. Capture information on new hires, retirements and significant service anniversaries. Bring all this information together in a yearbook you unveil at a year-end celebration. Then begin collecting next year’s moments to remember and celebrate. Create a tradition of celebratory yearbooks in your organization.


Observe National Handwriting Day (January 23) by writing thank-you notes to members of your staff.

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.

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?

Timely—Making staff recognition prompt

This is the final article in a series focused on the five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition. It suggestions eight ways to make recognition Timely, plus there’s a bonus tip for those times when we failed to give people recognition as soon as we should have.

Pervious articles in this series:

Genuine—making recognition authentic (includes five practices that cause your staff recognition efforts to seem insincere and nine ways to ensure recognition appears Genuine)

Relevant—making recognition strategic (includes nine ways to make recognition Relevant)

Explicit—making recognition specific (includes seven tips to provide Explicit recognition)

Appropriate—making recognition personal (includes 10 suggestions to provide recognition that is Appropriate)

Timely—Making staff recognition prompt

Does this seem familiar? You observe a staff member performing a task well and you think, “That’s deserving of recognition. I’ll do that … later.”

You really intend to do it. 

Later, you will have more time to acknowledge the person’s contribution. Waiting allows time to figure out the best way to say, ”Well done!“ There will be time to write a thank-you note or to find a small token to express your appreciation.

But then life happens. You get even busier. A crisis demands your immediate response. Your praise goes unspoken and the contribution is forgotten.

Eventually, when there is a chance to say thank you, you begin, “I should have said something sooner.” 

Yes, you should have. Recognition too long delayed seems an insincere afterthought.

Worse yet, you say, “I can’t remember what you did, but I know you did a good job of something.”

When you don’t remember what happened, providing Explicit recognition is impossible, whereas recalling the details would strengthen your message of appreciation. It would  seem more Genuine.

Stop waiting for the right moment. Be spontaneous. Provide immediate feedback. When you see behaviour deserving of recognition, there’s no reason to put off saying or doing something.

Let people know you saw what they did and appreciate their contribution while what happened is still fresh in both of your minds. 

Smile. Give the staff member a pat on the back or a thumbs-up. Express your appreciation in a few words.

What you say or do may not be the most Appropriate way to recognize this individual, but immediate recognition sends a powerful message of appreciation.

Want to do more? You can always follow up on-the-spot recognition with some other gesture of appreciation if you wish, but when the recognition is Timely, something more may not be needed.

Here are eight ways to ensure recognition is Timely, plus a bonus tip:

  1. Add “recognize staff” to your daily to-do list. Recognition is important and best when delivered in a Timely fashion.
  2. Prepare to provide Timely recognition by stocking up on tools you will need to express appreciation when you witness behaviour that deserves to be recognized: thank-you cards, sticky notes, treats, small gifts, coffee shop gift cards, etc.
  3. Schedule time to recognize staff—a time to write notes, send emails, make phone calls, or to drop by to say thank you. It could be a few minutes each day or an hour or two once a week, but never wait any longer to acknowledge contributions. The longer you wait, the less Timely the recognition becomes.
  4. Using email or texts may be the most Timely way to recognize staff, but don’t always leave it at that. You can strengthen your message of appreciation by following up in person.
  5. E-cards are a simple way to provide Timely recognition.
  6. While recognition should be Timely, this doesn’t mean it must always be immediate. Let a staff member know you would like to meet to provide positive feedback. “When would be a good time, tomorrow or the next day, for us to meet so that I can recognize you for what you did recently?” Waiting for praise that they know is coming may increase the impact of your message of appreciation. 
  7. Recognition is most meaningful when it’s Timely, delivered immediately after you witness behaviour that you appreciate. However, there are times when this is not possible—you don’t want to interrupt what the deserving employee is doing, you are on your way to an appointment for which you can’t be late, or you are involved in a conversation with others (perhaps even congratulating them on a job well done). Plan to connect with this staff member as soon as is reasonably possible to recognition his/her contribution.
  8. If your recognition program requires a supervisor’s approval before recognition is bestowed, ensure the timeline for the approval process is short to ensure recognition is Timely.

Bonus Tip: No Statute of Limitations on Recognition—Most of us, at one time or another, have failed to give people recognition when we should have—soon after becoming aware that they had done a task well. We may have been distracted by other duties and now it seems too late to recognize the person. While recognition should ideally be Timely, being late with recognition is not a reason to forego it. Even recognition delayed is better than no recognition at all. What’s important is that it’s motivated by a Genuine sense of appreciation. You can then strengthen your message by including at least one other ingredient of GREAT staff recognition: make it Relevant, Explicit or Appropriate.

Want more ways to recognize staff? Subscribe to Briefly Noted to receive tips every two weeks on how to hire, engage and retain the right people. Or purchase Thanks! GREAT Job! for hundreds of tips, tools and techniques to boost morale, increase engagement and improve retention with high-value, low-cost staff recognition.

Appropriate — Making staff recognition personal

This article explores how to personalize recognition by ensuring it is Appropriate, one of the five ingredients of GREAT staff recognition. The article includes 10 suggestions of ways to provide recognition that is Appropriate.

Pervious articles in this series:

Genuine—making recognition authentic (includes five practices that cause your staff recognition efforts to seem insincere, and nine ways to ensure recognition appears Genuine)

Relevant—making recognition strategic (includes nine ways to make recognition Relevant)

Explicit—making recognition specific (includes seven tips to provide Explicit recognition)

Coming next: Timely—Making recognition Current

The key to meaningful recognition is knowing staff members as individuals.

This enables you to personalize staff recognition. You can express appreciation in ways that reflect staff members’ interests, their preferences for public or private recognition, and their need to be noticed and acknowledged.

Because the value of recognition is determined by the recipients, all three variables should be considered when deciding how to recognize staff.

How well do you know the people with whom you work? How do they spend non-work time (hobbies, travel, volunteering)? Which do they prefer, coffee or tea? What are their career goals? 

Answers to these questions provide clues to how to personalize your recognition of individual staff members.

Much recognition, particularly formal recognition, occurs in public, in front of colleagues, friends and family. But a surprisingly large number of people tell researchers that they would prefer to be recognized in private.

Knowing everyone’s preference is important because the value of recognition will be diminished when the recipient feels uncomfortable being acknowledged in front of others.

Avoiding all public recognition, such as what occurs during staff meetings, may be difficult, but whenever possible find ways to respect people’s wish to be recognized in private—in your office, during a visit to the recipient’s work station, with a thank-you note left in the staff member’s mailbox or delivered by the post office, or in an email.

Recently, I wrote about a third factor to consider when finding ways to recognize staff in Appropriate ways —some people need more recognition than others.

Responding to this need is a challenge. Nevertheless, you need to satisfy those with a greater need for recognition, without recognizing others less frequently.

We all want to treat everyone fairly, but this does not mean treating everyone equally.

High-need-people’s thirst for recognition might be satisfied with a simple gesture of appreciation, delivered more frequently—a few simple words of appreciation written on a sticky note, in a text message or email, or a “pat on the back” when you meet in the hallway.

Here are a 10 ways to provide Appropriate staff recognition:

  1. Learn what’s important to staff members by asking the 7 questions to recognize staff appropriately.
  2. Listen to staff members’ expectations and aspirations. What clues can you discover to enable you to recognize staff in Appropriate ways?
  3. Not sure how staff members prefer to be recognized? Ask them. Bring it up during one-on-one meetings. Ask them to list how they prefer to be acknowledged for doing their jobs well. Add a question to a staff survey. Make it a topic for discussion at your next staff meeting.
  4. Consider how you have recognized staff in the past. How have they received the recognition? What have they done with awards and certificates, thank-you notes or small gifts? What you observe may lead you to more Appropriate ways to recognize staff.
  5. Recognition that works in one work environment may not work in yours. Provide recognition that fits your organization’s culture. Consider whether you can Adopt recognition practices you encounter, Adapt them for your circumstances, or if you should Abandon them (Staff Recognition Tip #1: The 3 A’s).
  6. Ask a staff member to lead a brainstorming session with his/her colleagues to answer the question: “What are the best ways to recognize staff for how they contribute and what they achieve?” Have this facilitator leave a list on your desk to guide you when recognizing staff in the future.
  1. When you know a hard-working employee devotes much of her personal life to a not-for-profit organization in the community, reward her hard work with a day off that she can spend volunteering for that organization.
  1. Get to know each employee’s interests. Surprise staff members with a special calendar or another small gift that reflects their interest in sailing, cats, cooking or their hobbies.
  1. A mug can help convey your appreciation. Make the recognition Appropriate and show that you know the recipient as an individual by filling the mug with the employee’s favourite treat, or include a gift card from the employee’s favourite coffee shop. Make this gesture of appreciation even more Appropriate by beginning with a mug decorated with the recipient’s favourite cartoon character or the logo of the sports team for which the recipient cheers.
  1. Try semi-private recognition. Rather than acknowledging publicity-shy staff members in front of the entire staff, deliver your message in the presence of just a few of the people with whom they work most closely and who know what they do every day.

Explicit—Making staff recognition specific

This is the third in a series of articles focused on the five ingredients of meaningful staff recognition. The acronym GREAT reminds us that recognition must be Genuine and your message of appreciation become stronger as you add one or more of the other ingredients: Relevant, Explicit, Appropriate and Timely.

The first article focused on how being Genuine makes recognition authentic and identified five practices that make your attempts to recognize staff appear insincere and suggested nine ways to ensure recognition is and appears to be authentic. The second article included nine suggestions of being Relevant that make recognition a strategic tool to focus staff on the organization’s mission, values and goals.

This article suggests seven ways to make staff recognition Explicit by using specific descriptions of what is being acknowledged, which demonstrates that you are paying to what staff members do.

Up next, how recognition that is Appropriate shows you see and know staff members as individuals.

“Recognition is the highlighter pen of behaviour.”

— Cindy Ventrice, author

Explicit may be the simplest of the ingredients of GREAT staff recognition to explain.

It begins with The Oxford Canadian Dictionary definition of Explicit as, “expressly stated or conveyed, leaving nothing merely implied; stated in detail.” Other definitions include the phrase, “leaving nothing to the imagination.”

Applied to staff recognition, this means describing what the recipient did in as specific terms as is reasonable.

Providing Explicit recognition shows that you are paying attention. You know and understand what people do and how their efforts contribute to your organization’s success and that of the staff member.

Being seen as paying attention has a powerful impact on the level of staff disengagement. The Gallup Organization found that when staff received positive input from leaders, disengagement is very low (only about one per cent). When feedback is negative, disengagement increases to 22 per cent, but when staff leaders are ignoring them, the disengagement rate increases to 40 per cent.

Staff may interpret Explicit recognition as evidence you respect them as individuals. You care enough to learn about what they do, and why what they do is important to the organization.

Simply saying, “You are doing a good job” without any description falls short.

Explicit recognition also conveys a message about what is important—it reminds staff of what they need to do to perform their jobs well.

What gets acknowledged (because it important) is what gets repeated. You get more of what you praise.

Being Explicit when praising staff members allows you to recognize specific contributions by otherwise underperforming staff members without fearing that the person will use the fact that you recognized them previously against you if you criticize their work in the future. You are focusing on just one aspect of their work, not providing an overall assessment.

This small bit of praise may even help turn around their underperformance.

Here are seven ways to use Explicit recognition to strengthen your message of appreciation:

  1. Set up staff members for success by communicating clear expectations. 
  2. Recognize both outcomes (meeting pre-defined goals, completing a project on time, etc.) and behaviour (listening to a patient’s concerns, keeping filing up-to-date, etc.).
  3. Success breeds success. Create opportunities to celebrate success by encouraging staff members to set reasonable goals. Praise their efforts when the goals are realized.
  4. Before giving into the temptation to recognize staff with a general “well-done” compliment, ask yourself, “Why am I thanking this person? What did he/she do that I feel warrants praise?” The answer will be the key to unlocking more Explicit recognition.
  5. Consider using a pneumonic device to organize your message of appreciation. Here are a couple of possibilities: SAR (What was the Situation? What Action did the person take? What was the Result?) or SAIL (Situation, Action, What was the Impact? How did his/her action Link to the organization’s values or goals?)
  6. Often recognition programs are filled with ambiguous phrases about “going above and beyond” or “outstanding service.” While reaching these levels of performance certainly deserves to be acknowledged, it’s important not to ignore the day-to-day contributions of staff members who consistently fulfil the expectations associated with their jobs. It is this performance, along with occasional achievements that go above and beyond, that make organizations successful. 
  7. What’s being recognized: looking busy or being productive? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. Some people can look busy, without really achieving anything. Some managers, who fail to focus on the results that staff members achieve, praise people because busy-ness can be easier to see than outcomes. Recognition should acknowledge staff for doing what’s important—efforts that reflect the values of the organization and help it achieve its goals.