10 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Employee Rewards and Recognition

By Bob Nelson

Managers have lots of questions when it comes to rewarding and recognizing employees. Sometimes, these questions even stop people from trying to do something inspiring for their employees, but you shouldn’t let these questions stop you because each question has plenty of answers. Here are ten of the questions (and answers) people most frequently ask when trying to implement and continue their recognition efforts:

  • If I recognize one person, doesn’t that mean I’m not recognizing everyone else? (Or in other words, “What do I do about the employees who feel left out?”) When someone in your organization is upset about someone else being recognized other than him- or herself, it’s a red flag that you are not doing enough recognition. When recognition is a scarce commodity, people cling to it so that they can stay in the spotlight as long as possible. Leaving employees out isn’t usually a problem in organizations that have a strong recognition culture, have a variety of formal and informal programs and tools, and have managers who emphasize recognition practices and behaviors daily.

    To move toward an “abundance” mentality, revamp your recognition activities and programs to avoid a single “winner” or quota. Instead, create opportunities for everyone to be potential winners, such as having an honor roll for all employees who have practiced a key value within a given time period rather than an employee-of-the-month program. Also remember that some of the best forms of recognition have little, if any, cost — verbal and written praise, for example, or symbolic gestures by managers — so do more of these activities in a timely, sincere, and personal way!

  • What can be done when managers know they should recognize their employees but feel they’re too busy? You can’t force managers to recognize their employees, but you can make a persuasive case for why they should want to do so, so try to build on and expand from your recognition successes. Discuss with your managers the increasing problem of attracting and retaining employees, the hidden costs of employee turnover, the loss of productivity, and competitiveness. Show the demographics and what your competition is doing. Relate the issue to the bottom line. Remember, too, that “lack of time” can be an excuse. High-use recognition managers actually value recognition in part because it can be well done with very little time.

  • If I praise employees, won’t it be more difficult to discipline them when necessary? If your praise is specific, this is less of a problem. Generic praise, such as “You’re one of my best employees,” can be misleading because it seems to indicate little, if any, need for improvement. You can leverage those things the individual is good at as evidence that he or she can improve in other areas of the job. For example, “Gary, I know you can make these new changes we’ve discussed, because I’ve seen how well you handle assignments that you put your mind to.” As the person makes improvements, be sure to notice and acknowledge those improvements. Doing so is one of the best ways to ensure that the improved performance continues.

  • My company does a lot to recognize employees, but employees report they don’t receive much recognition. What’s going on? Many organizations confuse lots of employee activities with lots of recognition, but they’re not the same thing. Although activities are a part of recognition — helping morale and social interaction among employees — they fall into a narrow band on the recognition spectrum because they don’t make individual employees feel special. The best recognition singles individuals or groups out for extraordinary performance.

  • How can we get top management to support recognition activities? Different people are persuaded differently. Think of other times when top management has been persuaded (to purchase equipment, approve a policy exception, or hire a person, for example), and what convinced them (data, cost/benefit, urgency of the problem, competitor doing it, personal appeal). Now mimic what worked!

  • Our recognition programs are feeling stale. How can we re-energize them? Find out why people don’t use the existing program. Do a focus group or find other ways to collect information, being sure to include the biggest cynics so that you get their feedback. Perhaps the program just needs to be relaunched to remind people of its existence, and new incentives need to be established. Or you may discover that the program has run its course, and doing something new and exciting would be better.

  • We hold some recognition events that a lot of employees — even ones receiving the awards — do not attend. How can we get employees to come to these events? You need to host recognition events that create a buzz with employees, where fun things happen! Build anticipation: Announce that upper management will be serving the refreshments, list door prizes that will be given for attendance, hire a standup comedian — that type of thing. If your timing and venue are the issue, schedule the event for a time that makes sense for your workers. One hospital held all recognition events during off hours so that employees had to stay an extra hour or two after what was an already long shift or even forced overtime. The preference of employees who feel overworked and stressed is to be able to go home to their families. The last thing on their minds is “How can I spend more of my limited free time at work?”

  • Can too much recognition lead to constantly escalating forms of recognition or unfulfilled employee expectations? Employee motivation is a moving target. You’ve got to be in constant contact with your employees to determine what they most value and then find ways to systematically act on those desired forms of recognition and rewards. So yes, you need to vary your forms of recognition, adding new things, experimenting, and so forth, but you can also stop doing other things that have run their course and are no longer very motivating to employees.

    Variety is the spice of life, and as you try new things — especially things your employees are interested in — your rewards will be higher morale, productivity, performance, and retention. Also, the one form of recognition that never goes out of style is effective praise. Being timely, sincere, and specific in thanking employees who do good work is a form of recognition that never gets old.

  • What’s the best way to get employees involved in the decision-making process and motivated to perform for the good of all? The best decision-making involves those people who are expected to implement the decisions being made! Ask their opinions, involve them in a discussion, or give them the authority to handle the situation as best they can. Being involved in this way is highly motivating for most people, and reaching goals they’ve set helps keep people going.

  • What’s the best way to make recognition become part of my organization’s culture? One step at a time. Create a motivation baseline and move in the desired direction a little at a time. Start small and build on your success. Ask, “Who wants to help?” and run with those individuals who see the need and are positive about the change. Build momentum until every manager in your operation knows the value of recognition and acts on it as a matter of course.

    Training is an important part of raising awareness about the need to recognize employees systematically in meaningful ways, helping managers develop the skills they need to recognize others well, and setting the expectation of all managers that they need to make recognition a priority in their jobs. Regarding managers’ performance evaluations, their ability to manage and motivate staff should be an integral part of how they are evaluated in their jobs; otherwise, the activity is not likely to be taken seriously.