April 12, 2011 Advertise Join ASHHRA

Recognition: The Key Driver in Employee Engagement

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Many people remember seeing encouraging comments written on the top of their elementary school homework assignments. The friendly green ink and accompanying colorful stickers always seemed to bring a smile to an ordinary moment during the day. Teachers make these comments to build their students' self-esteem, and to show their hard work is noticed and appreciated. In turn, children take these words to heart, soaking up the praise and reveling in a sense of accomplishment.

It turns out an individual's need to be recognized does not change all that much as he or she gets older. According to a recent study conducted by HR Solutions Inc., recognition is the key driver of Employee Engagement1. Some might find it surprising that recognition surpasses many other important motivational factors, such as adequate training, relationships with co-workers and career growth. These results illuminate that even as adults, people still want to feel appreciated for a job well done.

Tapping into this engagement driver seems simple enough, yet research has shown that many organizations' efforts have been ineffective in this regard. Only 59 percent of employees say their supervisor lets employees know when they have done a good job. These findings reveal that many employees do not feel as though their manager acknowledges their accomplishments. Surely, more than 59 percent of managers appreciate when their employees have done a good job, so there must be a common disconnect somewhere in the process of showing recognition.

It is important for managers to consider their employees' perceptions of receiving recognition, and how this can differ from their own perception of giving recognition. Although managers may think they are frequently recognizing employees, many employees may not feel the same way. According to a recent study by Michael C. Fina, Millennials, generally characterized as people born between 1980 and 2000, like to be recognized seven times each day. To some tenured employees, this may come across as an indulgent and unrealistic expectation. While that might have been true many years ago, American culture has shifted dramatically over the years, causing workforce culture to change as well. For instance, Millennials are famous for growing up in an era where 13th place ribbons actually exist. To attract and engage this new generation, company recognition efforts must keep up with the times.

Although recognizing employees seems fairly straightforward, there is more structure and planning that goes into a successful recognition program than many people might realize. It is great to tell someone they have done a good job, however, it makes a difference what they are recognized for, how they are recognized and how often they are recognized. Creating a program that appropriately caters to all of these aspects can be challenging.

To help simplify this process, HR Solutions has compiled a list of 10 best practices for developing an organizational culture of recognition:

1) Define what should be recognized
When establishing a recognition program, it is important for an organization to define the behaviors or outcomes that are deemed worthy of recognition. A great way to develop a guideline is for senior leadership to brainstorm a list of employee actions that contribute to the organization's success and mission. Ideas can range from bringing in a certain amount of revenue, to receiving a positive comment from a patient or customer, to simply volunteering to help a co-worker. This list should be shared with all supervisors and used as a guideline for giving recognition. When the desired actions or outcomes are clearly defined, employee recognition can be streamlined throughout the organization, helping to create a culture of recognition.

2) Be sincere
All too often, companies turn recognition programs into just another task that needs regular attention. Employees can tell when a manager just "goes through the motions" of providing recognition, but has lost genuine interest in showing appreciation for staff members' efforts. This lack of sincerity and enthusiasm can make recognition diminish in meaning, even if the reward remains the same. The reason recognition is so powerful is because people thrive on the warm, fuzzy feeling of being appreciated. If sincere appreciation is lost from a recognition program, it will no longer be effective.

3) Recognize in public and in private
Public and private recognition can be appropriate in different situations and the best results come from employing both methods. Public recognition is highly effective because it gives employees structure so they know what to expect. If top-performing employees are recognized at each monthly meeting, employees have a goal they can work toward. For many employees, being congratulated in front of peers can actually be the most rewarding aspect of receiving praise.

Providing private recognition can also be very effective in showing employees they are appreciated. Private recognition is easier for managers to give more frequently and it is as simple as a quick "on-the-spot" verbal thank you. Whether it is an email, voicemail, hand-written note, or just stopping by in person, letting an employee know they have done a good job goes a long way and only takes a few moments.

4) Balance criticism
Criticism is an important factor that affects employee perception of recognition. Unfortunately, it can be common for employees to focus on the criticism they received, rather than the recognition. With that in mind, managers should not shy away from providing constructive feedback because they are afraid it will hurt an employee's feelings. They should, however, be aware of how criticism can affect an employee's perception of recognition efforts overall. If a manager has been providing more constructive criticism than usual, it could be a good idea to increase recognition efforts when employees perform well.

5) When in doubt, ask!
The type of recognition or reward is not a benefit if the person does not want it. It is unwise to assume all employees want the same things. Ask individual employees how they like to be recognized. Although this is the most straightforward approach, oftentimes, managers overlook the simplicity of communicating openly with employees. There does not have to be anything secret about recognition and managers do not need to be illusive with employees. Telling employees you want to recognize them in a way that is meaningful to them shows genuine interest and appreciation in advance, which is a great first step in providing effective recognition.

6) Equal does not necessarily mean fair
Employee recognition does not have to be equal. After all, some things have to change in adulthood! To make recognition meaningful, it needs to be appropriate for the effort or accomplishment. In a perfect world, all employees would be equally dedicated and successful, but in reality, it is very unlikely that will happen. Organizations will generally have certain employees that consistently outperform others. If managers do not recognize and reward these employees, they will go elsewhere. Health care organizations in particular should keep this in mind, as the anticipated shortage of nurses looms on the horizon. Instead of losing talented employees who feel under-appreciated, senior leadership should focus on retaining top performers by increasing recognition. To cut back on perceptions of favoritism, top-performers can be rewarded more frequently in private. Making employee recognition equal is not a risk worth taking.

7) Do not overdo it
Although employees can thrive on recognition, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Over-recognizing can quickly dilute the meaning and heighten the risk of seeming insincere to employees. In addition, if an employee is congratulated for every single task they complete, they could have little motivation to work harder or do a better job. Managers should recognize at their discretion, while considering the possibility of over-recognizing.

8) Appropriate rewards
Rewards and gifts are the cherry on top of recognition. While not always necessary, it can be a great addition to simply telling an employee they have done a great job. With that in mind, the reward must be appropriate for the action or outcome. Giving a reward that is disproportionately smaller than the amount of time or effort expended can actually decrease the value of the recognition and possibly be perceived as a de-motivator.

9) Educate employees on your efforts
It is important for employees to understand the importance their organization places on recognition and the effort managers undertake to ensure employees are recognized. For example, if managers are privately rewarding employees with gift cards or extra paid time off for a job well done, all staff members should be made aware of those initiatives. When employees see the whole picture of actions taken to help increase their recognition and engagement, they are much more likely to have a positive viewpoint on the recognition they receive.

A best practice for involving employees is to ask for feedback on new initiatives they would like to see. When management is aware of employee opinion, it is much easier to make the changes employees desire. Any changes that are made as a result of employee feedback should be clearly communicated to staff members. A hospital newsletter or bulletin can be a great vehicle for educating employees.

10) Encourage employees to recognize one another
To create a true culture of recognition, everyone should be involved. While senior leadership should manage organizational recognition efforts, employees should be encouraged to recognize their colleagues' hard work as well. A best practice for involving employees is to post a white board in a high-traffic area or online through an internal intranet system where employees can publically recognize each other. In hospitals, nurses can use white boards in patient rooms to recognize the care team on staff. Rather than simply posting that Carol is the head night nurse, staff could also post that Carol is passionate about nursing and well-known for her dedication to patients. Not only will this initiative contribute to employee engagement, but it should help build trust with the patient and patient's family.

A strong recognition program can be the difference-maker in an engaged workforce. Although employees no longer need smiley-face stickers on returned assignments, they do need recognition for a job well done. Luckily, it is easy for managers to begin increasing recognition immediately. A great way to start a new initiative is by setting a calendar reminder to recognize one employee each day and increasing this number over time. When providing frequent recognition becomes second-nature, employee engagement should increase as well, creating a workplace culture headed toward organizational success.

1HR Solutions' International Normative Database is comprised of over 3.3 million survey respondents from 2,400 organizations across various industries.

About HR Solutions, Inc.: Noted for its comprehensive research and actionable data, HR Solutions, Inc. is an International Human Capital Management Consulting Firm located in Chicago, IL, specializing in Employee Engagement and Exit Survey design, implementation, and results. HR Solutions is the exclusive endorsed provider of The American Hospital Association (AHA) for Employee, Exit, and Physician Surveys. For more information, please visit www.hrsolutionsinc.com.

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