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Recognizing your employees: What’s appropriate?

by Cassandra Lewis

People crave recognition. According to a Gallup survey, the number one reason most Americans leave their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated. It is human nature to crave that “thank you,” and it is our jobs as managers to ensure employees receive it. There are specific issues to keep in mind as you navigate various recognition and reward systems. 

The most obvious structure for rewards in many organizations is a raise or bonus as recognition of an achievement. Although employees should be compensated appropriately and their achievements may warrant an increase in compensation, effective leaders often place more emphasis on other types of recognition programs.

Keep price tags in mind
Effective recognition tools can include gift cards, happy hours, or catered lunches. However, it is important to see the common thread in such rewards: They all come with a price tag. While awards are not always direct cash (such as a gift card), they are easily distilled down to fixed monetary values. The team who won a pizza party is worth X, while the team who won lunch at a swanky restaurant is worth Y.

It is important to remember how much people value and respond to other types of recognition. A genuine “thank you” and thoughtful feedback are simple yet effective ways to show appreciation and recognize your outstanding employees.

Critical factors
Whether you implement a companywide employee recognition program or simply look for a good way to recognize a one-off accomplishment, it is critical to consider some important factors.

Be timely. If you give Bob a $25 gift card for his hard work during a high-profile campaign from last year, he will likely feel let down by his boss. While “better late than never” might apply in this situation, untimely recognition makes it look like you were not aware of your employees’ accomplishments at the time. Awarding employees in an untimely manner indicates a lack of engagement, tarnishes your credibility, and diminishes the recognition.

Be authentic. Never reward your employees as a formality. Recognition truly should reflect a desire to spotlight an individual (or team of individuals) for outstanding work. If you are not genuinely proud of, thankful for, or impressed by the accomplishment, do not provide a reward. It is as simple as that.

Match values. Be mindful that a reward should always match the value of the effort, and stay consistent. If you link a team happy hour to a monthly metric, your employees will expect no less for similar efforts. Setting the bar (pun intended) high is usually a good thing! Just make sure your goals are achievable.

Match the reward to your culture. Although managers are typically in tune with their departments, it’s important to consider company and department culture when determining appropriate rewards. For example, a marketing team of creative and collaborative people may prefer an off-site picnic to individual Starbucks gift cards.

Cater to generational differences. Good managers are acutely aware of generational differences since the workforce composition is constantly shifting. Generational differences should be taken into consideration when developing reward programs. For example, Generation Y workers—often referred to as Millennials—typically are collaborative, are immersed in technology, and value work-life balance. Therefore, effective reward options might include an ice cream social, a Bluetooth speaker, or a vacation package.

No magic pill
Caution! Rewards are not magic pills that turn below-average employees into model employees. Rewards should not be provided simply for doing the basics. Think about this: If your employees are being compensated fairly but consistently underperform, a $25 gift card or an employee-of-the-month poster is unlikely to be the answer.

Cassandra Lewis is a management consultant for F&H Solutions Group. She may be contacted at