Guest opinion: Recognition strategy

As HR and compensation professionals, we spend a significant amount of our time developing strategies, plans and processes to motivate our employees. The plans are usually costly and, depending on the total payroll, can run into millions of pounds. So why is it that many organisations, public, private and not-for-profit miss an opportunity to motivate their employees fairly easily and at little cost.

So few organisations have effective recognition plans, but it’s the cheapest form of motivation I know. Every employee appreciates a ‘thank you’ at the right time, while a bottle of wine, bunch of flowers or an offer of a meal out with their partner are all extremely effective, if presented in the right way and for the right reasons. And they are much more effective than giving four or five times the amount in cash.

So why don’t more companies do it effectively? Firstly, managers don’t feel comfortable about doing so, secondly there are issues of fairness, then there are the rules from HM Revenue & Customs to follow. And of course there are the issues of whose budget it comes from. The excuses are many, but they are all surmountable.

The biggest issue, which is a real problem, is one of company culture. Recognition is all about finding people doing good things and providing a thank you. It’s about rewarding those who go the extra step for the customer or company. But many organisations have a culture of find and punish; wait until they do something wrong and then ‘zap’ them as Doctor Ken Blanchard, author of The one minute manager, would say.

The trick is to follow some golden rules. Mine include: make it part of the way that the organisation thinks about reward, make the award as soon as possible after the event and make the award appropriate to the event and the person.

Also, don’t make it overly bureaucratic. Someone (usually HR) needs to monitor it, but line management must own it. Have a budget for it if you must (0.25% of payroll is typical), but it works best when it is part of the normal operating budget and isn’t seen as special. And don’t make a big public announcement about the award unless you know doing so won’t offend the recipient.

Don’t have just one scheme – develop lots and see which ones work well. It’s not just about managers recognising employees. It should be about anyone or any group of employees recognising another person or group – at any level and in any department. Be prepared to change, revitalise or replace the scheme and publish success. You don’t necessarily have to mention the award, but you should let everyone know that the success has been noticed.

Finally, don’t listen to those who say it won’t work around here or their people don’t like it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and you don’t know if you like it until you’ve tried it.

There are some who say that recognition schemes are only justified if they support key business objectives such as customer retention or waste reduction. I have some sympathy for this view, and if it’s the only way that recognition is going to get started then so be it. But in an organisation that treats recognition as ‘part of the way we do things around here’, it really isn’t necessary. Recognition should be for all and serve as a communication of the organisation’s values.