Four Keys to Overhaul Your Employee Recognition Program for Success

Employee Recognition

If you’ve seen any leadership articles lately, you’ve been bombarded by the latest buzzwords: Employee Recognition, and especially Employee Recognition Program Development.

In fact, there are some consulting firms that have made Employee Recognition Program Development their lead focus – their core offering.

The idea behind Employee Recognition programs is that by expressly calling out and recognizing good performance, you can dramatically increase employee engagement, leading to even better performance. Recognition can be as simple as public praise to as complex as bonuses, flex time, and additional vacation time. Some programs incur little to no cost, while others plan for between 1-3% of an employee’s base salary to cover recognition costs.

I’m not here to convince you that Employee Recognition is bad.  In fact, employee recognition is a key part of building employee engagement – but only when done right.

However, the vast majority of what you’ll read about employee recognition is not only misleading but the way it’s touted can be downright damaging to the productivity of a company because it removes focus from the goals of the company, and I’ll show you how.

Nearly every article you’ll find on Employee Recognition is totally misleading because they don’t explain the larger context in which Employee Recognition ought to occur.  They make it sound like if you focus on employee recognition alone, your engagement problems will be solved, and that simply isn’t true. As with most things in business and in life, there’s more to it than that.

Employee recognition has it’s place and it’s most effective when it’s put in its place, and that’s what I want to talk about.

A Two Sided Coin: Employee Recognition and…?

The problem with most “employee recognition programs” is they take the focus off of productivity and goals and put it on employee engagement for engagement’s sake.  The truth is you can have both if you do it right, but just focusing just on employee recognition is missing the boat.

The larger context that employee recognition must exist in is Performance Management.  Want a simpler word?  Accountability.

Accountability is a two-sided coin. At its root and very heart is the concept that we have a goal for performance for everyone. The concept behind accountability and performance management is that everyone has an expected level of performance.  Everyone from the top key executives, to the line level office workers, to the clerks in a retail environment, to the custodial personnel. Everyone has a key role to play and an expected level of performance that, if not attained, will let the rest of the team down and the team simply won’t function as well.

This is a key concept: that the business has performance goals, and that attention shouldn’t be removed from those goals.  We can achieve engagement and employee recognition without ever removing our attention from our core goals.

When we measure actual performance against the established goal, there are only two logical outcomes.  Performance could meet or exceed the goal, or it could fall short.

When performance meets or exceeds the goal, that’s when employee recognition comes into play.  That’s when it’s time to break out the public adoration, the small gift certificates – whatever is appropriate to the situation and the motivations of the receiver.

But when performance falls short, that situation must be dealt with, too. There’s no room for this in employee recognition programs, and that’s why they’re the wrong focus.

Performance management celebrates success and recognizes employees for achieving defined goals, but it also deals with substandard performance by helping problem solve, getting employees and teams back on track, and intervening when necessary.

So if you choose to focus only on employee recognition, you’re overlooking half the coin. You’re letting substandard performance go unchecked. You’re unrealistically focusing on the positive at the expense of reality.

If instead you choose Performance Management, you still have employee recognition for excellent work, but you also have the reality check against performance that doesn’t measure up.

Focusing on employee recognition at the expense of performance management is like playing with a double headed coin where you’ve called “tails” – you lose. Take all performance into account.

Four Rules for Implementing Successful Employee Recognition

It would be one thing if the typical business were excellent at accountability and performance management and just lacked a little in employee recognition. But my experience says that’s not the case. The typical team and business struggles not merely with how to recognize success but especially with what to do in the face of failure to meet goals.

For that reason, it is a disservice to stress stand-alone employee recognition programs. And the key to overhauling any employee recognition program is to set it properly into an overall program of accountability and performance management, where it belongs.

So with that introduction, we can review some rules for running successful employee recognition not as a stand-alone campaign, but within the larger context of performance management.

Establish Objective Measures of Success

It’s easy to fall into the habit of “feel good” recognition – looking for areas where employees have gone above and beyond to do a good job – and rewarding those.  In fact, with clients who are new to the concept of recognizing, I often encourage this approach as a way to get started.

But don’t let that become a permanent habit.

Whether in management meetings, team or project meetings, or one-to-one meetings between managers and personnel, it’s relatively easy to build the habit of establishing individual goals.  If you need help building this habit, put a “Set goals” item on your agenda for the next few meetings. It should be your goal at the end of each meeting that each person walk out with clearly identified action items and/or goals, and clarity as to when those items are expected from them.  By the next meeting?  The meeting after that?

If we’re going to implement performance management properly, then the first step is to have clear what is expected from whom.

Measure Performance Regularly

A popular term these days is “organic” as in, “Our meetings happen organically.” This translates to: “Our meetings happen whenever the hell we remember to have them / get around to calling them / can’t avoid them any more.”

“Organic” is for food, not for meetings. Set them at known times. Measure performance religiously.  Some guidelines: I like to see the following meetings no fewer than:

  • Management team: 1-2 per month;
  • Project team: 2-4 per month; daily at critical junctures;
  • One-to-One: 1-2 per month

It’s in these meetings that Expected vs. Actual performance is measured and we move on to Accountability: either Recognition or Corrective Action.

Recognize Performance that Meets or Exceeds Goal

Here is where all the other articles on employee recognition comes into play. By all means, when performance meets of exceeds goals, take a moment to celebrate! Business can be a bear and it’s not every day goals are met. It is legitimate to celebrate.

It’s also legitimate to ask “What went right?” and “How did we have this success?” and “Can we apply anything we’ve learned to anything else in our business to ensure success?”

When recognizing employees and teams, consider the following:

  • Employees differ radically on what motivates them. If you’ve used the Success Insights Behaviors and Motivators Assessment, you can literally pinpoint whether recognition vs. money vs. something else may be most motivating. Otherwise don’t assume it’s money. It may be best to ask.
  • Try small motivators: Public recognition, a “trophy” that is passed around the office, small gift cards to coffee shops.

Apply Corrective Action to Performance Not Meeting Goal

Don’t overlook the other side of performance – performance that doesn’t meet goals. If you fail to deal with these issues, employees find it disengaging and discouraging.

The key here is corrective action: What will it take to restore performance to the goal? That often means problem solving with an employee who is at wits end, coming up with a new approach, assigning fresh resources, etc.

Remember, our core concept is to stay focused on the goal. As you problem solve with the employee who owns that goal, remember that it is ultimately the company’s goal, not the employee’s. Ask yourself: Is he or she equipped to meet the need with the additional mentoring given, or are they in over their head? When you manage to keep the judgment simply about making the goal and not personal, it becomes much easier to see what is needed both for the individual and the company.

Doing Employee Recognition Right

So call me a curmudgeon but employee recognition on its own, in isolation, is a misappropriation of company resources that in the face of unchecked underperformance is seen as disingenuous and wasteful.

That’s why I’m stressing Performance Management, which incorporates employee recognition in its proper place, along side corrective action to create full accountability throughout the organization.

more than
15 years experience building
and leading high performing
expert organizations and
accomplishing projects others
gave up on. Dustin is a corporate
performance management
consultant, trainer, author, and
speaker working with leading
companies to achieve their
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