By Bob Nelson

To successfully grow employee engagement in your organization, you must make recognition a part of the work environment. Although that’s a new concept for some companies, many organizations are getting on board. Case in point: 95 percent of organizations surveyed in the Aberdeen Group’s Employee Engagement research reported that they feel employee recognition will improve overall employee engagement. It’s not as simple as just feeling something, though.

Despite best intentions, many organizations still grope their way around employee recognition, wonder how they can build a business case for it, and are unsure of what they need to do to successfully implement recognition. Following are ways to understand (and present) the importance of recognition, as well as best practices for designing an effective recognition program.

The business imperative

In today’s competitive economy, organizations must not only identify top talent but also retain their current staff. Employees who feel disengaged from their work environments are likely to look for new opportunities. According to a survey by the Aberdeen Group that involved 1,300 business leaders, improving employee engagement is among the top five business challenges companies currently face.

Fortunately, improving employee engagement is completely achievable. You can improve engagement simply by making employee recognition a priority and actively appreciating employee contributions.

If you do not show your employees that you appreciate them on a consistent basis, they will leave. Robert Half International, the staffing firm, has found that the number one reason employees leave their jobs is limited recognition for the job they do. As a result, many companies are investing more in recognition. In fact, 58 percent of the Aberdeen Group’s Best-in-Class organizations have implemented a formal recognition program.

Recognition works because it engages employees through a wide variety of methods, ranging from simple interpersonal behaviors and intangibles (like involvement, delegation, and visibility) to activities (such as events, celebrations, team outings, and prizes and awards). Seventy-two percent of organizations with formal recognition programs are satisfied with their employees’ level of engagement, according to the Aberdeen Group, compared to 54 percent of organizations that lack a formal recognition program. When you invest in strategic employee recognition, the engagement levels of employees in your organization improve.

Peer-to-peer recognition is also gaining momentum as an effective engagement strategy. Forty-three percent of organizations with formal recognition programs use peer-to-peer recognition tools — such as notecards or and e-cards — compared to only 27 percent of organizations that have no formal recognition program.

Creating the recognition-engagement link

How, then, can you link your recognition to engagement behaviors? The link occurs on several levels: first, through the specific desired behaviors; second, through the specific desired results; and third, through the specific desired end state,” or environmental culture you’d most like to be known for. The table provides examples of these kinds of connections.

Ways to Link Recognition to Engagement Behaviors: Examples
Desired “Engaged” Behaviors Potential Recognition Activity to Deploy
Understanding corporate mission Recognize examples of work that tie into the mission, using
photos, videos, and stories
Understanding professional expectations Support question-asking; create quizzes and contests about job
descriptions
Providing input on workplace matters Solicit and thank employees regularly for input; make sure
upper management is present during key discussions and
meetings
Making suggestions Actively solicit and recognize ideas and allow employees the
autonomy to try them; trumpet successes and “successful
failures”
Engaging in teamwork and collaboration Recognize team progress; celebrate milestones and final
achievements
Taking initiative Recognize proactivity and those who ask questions; support
extra efforts by allowing flextime and more resources
Doing high-quality work and providing high-quality service Recognize the attainment of quality standards, error
reductions, high or rising client satisfaction scores, and positive
customer feedback
Engaging in problem-solving Recognize creative group processes, brainstorming, and
innovative solutions
Bonding with managers and learning about one another Encourage face time and interactions between employees and
managers
Connecting with others Celebrate successes; enable networking by offering open access
to others; encourage or host town hall meetings
Learning and developing skills Host games and friendly competitions that are based on
workplace and professional skills
Engaging in career development Offer workshops, mentorship programs, time off; and/or funding
so that employees can attend seminars
Pursuing career paths Give employees job variety, opportunities, and opportunities to
take on new positions and work challenges
Showing excitement and having fun Host celebrations and parties

Secondly, you want to make sure you’re recognizing the desired results for your organization to be successful and competitive. Although this mandate seems fairly straightforward, it can actually be quite complex. An easy trap to fall into is inadvertently recognizing the wrong things and consequently incentivizing the behavior that’s opposite of what you’re going for!

Most companies, for example, need profitable sales, but they often end up settling for sales revenue of any type rather than recognizing only the sales that are actually profitable. The following table lists outcomes that companies commonly want and identifies what you should (and shouldn’t) recognize to achieve that outcome.

Recognizing the Results you Really Want
If You Want … Then Recognize … Not …
Profits Profitable sales Any sales revenue
Teamwork Collaboration Internal competition
Quality Process improvement Inspection
Effective training Skills used on the job Training time
High performance Results achieved Seniority
Problem-solving Problems found and solved Problem hiding
Knowledge-sharing Organizational expertise Individual expertise
Leadership Quality of leadership behaviors and decisions A manager’s title or position alone
Creativity Creative ideas Conformity
Aiming high Meeting stretch goals Over-performance
Safety Safe behavior Reported accidents
Cost containment Reduced spending Keeping within budget
Customer service Customer loyalty Lack of complaints

Lastly, you should recognize desired end states — that is, the type of organization and culture you want to be known for, which is a growing factor in attracting and retaining desired talent. So if you want to have a fun place to work, you should do things that employees consider fun on an ongoing basis (like bringing in free food, hosting celebrations, and sponsoring gaming activities, contests, and challenges).

Likewise, if you want to be known as a collaborative company, an innovative company, a charitable or green/sustainable company, or even a good talent development company, engage in and recognize activities and behaviors that reinforce that that end state.