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The Power of Recognition

Brenda Pohlman, practice leader at Workhuman, talks about the importance of recognizing employees amid global workforce changes.

By Maggie Mancini

The workforce landscape is constantly changing. As organizations settle in for a hybrid future or push for a return to so-called normalcy, the workforce is grappling with unpredictable evolution and the challenges those shifts bring. With employees focusing more heavily on their well-being both inside and outside of the office, HR leaders are tasked with rising to the occasion, supporting employee wellness while addressing the needs of the business at all levels. Recently, HRO Today sat down with Brenda Pohlman, practice leader at Workhuman, to talk about the importance of recognition amid these global workforce changes.  

HRO Today: How would you say that recent workforce changes—including the rise of hybrid work and a heavier emphasis on employee well-being—have impacted the role of recognition as an effective engagement strategy? 

Brenda Pohlman: Recognition is important in so many ways. We have known that now for many years, and there’s evidence of it everywhere. The idea that recognition has an impact on your culture and your business is not a secret anymore, but I feel like years ago we used to talk really specifically about recognition’s impact on things like employee retention and engagement, because those were really pressing in the minds of HR leaders around the world.  

People were struggling with things like low engagement scores, particularly when it came to recognition, so that was often the focus, and sometimes we see a focus on using recognition to deepen employees’ connection to the company’s core values. Those are all excellent aspirations, but I feel like we’re seeing recognition’s impact on things like well-being, psychological safety, and feelings of belonging, which is top of mind for many HR leaders because of the focus on diversity and inclusion.  

How do we help people feel like they belong here? It’s really the core of that question. People who are more recognized at work feel more psychologically safe. People who are more recognized in the workforce report stronger feelings of well-being at work and even at home, which is a fascinating detail that came out of research that we did with Gallup.  

That connection between recognition and well-being is important and has shifted from what we saw five or six years ago, which was much more about retention and engagement.  

HRO Today: How do you think that recognition programs help improve the employee experience and boost trust? 

Pohlman: In a fundamental way, recognition helps support the employee experience because it’s something every employee needs just as a human being. All that’s required for somebody to benefit from being recognized at work is just that they’re a human being. When we create opportunities for people to have that experience where they feel seen, valued, and feel like they belong, they report having a much stronger experience working with that company in a lot of different ways. They report higher levels of psychological safety, so they feel like it’s okay to take risks. And all of that is very connected to the idea of building trust. My manager sees me, my manager understands what I do, and my peers have an appreciation for the contributions that I make.  

What we’re doing in those moments is making small but important deposits into the bank that are positive and reinforcing. And when there’s a moment when an employee hasn’t contributed in a way that was up to a level of expectation, the employee and the leader are drawing from all the capital that has been created in those positive moments where that person feels valued and seen. In that way, it doesn’t seem so scary, and that’s where a lot of trust is built.  

HRO Today: What are some key things that HR leaders should consider when implementing any sort of recognition program in their organization for the first time? 

Pohlman: A fascinating thing about recognition is people can make the argument that it’s all about thanking each other, which is something we do naturally. People may question, why would an organization need a “program” to do that? And by doing that, are organizations dehumanizing the whole experience by adding technology into the mix? Those are important questions, and they are asked a lot. The fascinating thing is that thanking each other is fundamental. It’s something we do all the time, but it doesn’t happen on its own to the extent that creates any meaning between the two people involved and therefore doesn’t generate impact for the business.  

That is evidenced in engagement scores in organizations the world over. It’s common for recognition to be the lowest scoring item in an organization’s engagement survey. Sometimes I want to question whether, if we’re all doing the gratitude and expression of appreciation so naturally without a program, why is it manifesting in these lousy scores? 

Organizations need a framework that helps facilitate those moments and HR leaders need their organizations to acknowledge that recognition is a part of who they are and how they work together.  

It’s also important for this to not feel like an HR program. It shouldn’t feel like it’s being pushed out from the HR function. It should feel like it’s owned by everyone in the company. Allowing peers to recognize peers is critically important because they should feel accountable for that part of the organizational culture. As leaders, we can’t just leave the recognition on the shoulders of managers who represent a small part of our organizations. We need employees to participate in that.  

It’s also important to understand what that recognition moment looks like. How should organizations invest in that experience? At Workhuman, we’re really strong advocates of monetary recognition, like points that accompany a moment of gratitude, because it’s part of what inspires employees to participate. It’s the kind of thing that makes the experience a little extra sticky and more meaningful. It’s not the most important part of the experience, but it’s critical to helping the whole thing take root in an organization. Without monetary recognition, things fall a bit flat. We have some evidence that it can do more harm than good over time because it can lead to cynicism.  

HRO Today: Tell us about some of the results that you’ve seen from customers so far regarding the connection between recognition and retention or employee engagement? 

Pohlman: The best part of this story is that there is a measurable impact on HR and the entire business that we see without our customers all the time. Some of that relates to what the organization cares about, what their priorities are, and what they are looking for recognition to do for them.  

In some cases, it’s about boosting engagement levels in the workforce. Sometimes it’s because they’re struggling with turnover. Sometimes, it’s about psychological safety. Interestingly, those are universal. Even highly compensated employees benefit from recognition.  

I remember having this interesting conversation with the head of total rewards at one of our customer organizations. They were saying that we were making the connection between recognition and retention, and it can be seen in the data, but they weren’t sure how it applies to highly compensated individuals in very technical jobs.   

I remember saying that they would probably be surprised. Often, these monetary rewards are worth about $25. And while employees are likely not to leave their job over a $25 reward, many of those valuable employees are leaving the organization because they don’t feel appreciated for the work they do. He later said that it was an eye-opening moment for them. He was too focused on the reward component, which is important, but it’s the feedback and the connection between the giver and the receiver that’s so powerful and matters to everybody in the organization.  

One powerful example of a customer who has achieved remarkable results with a strategic recognition program is Merck. In a case study we developed based on their recognition program INSPIRE, we found that when new hires are recognized, they are five times less likely to leave within their first year at the company. The first year is often a crucial timeframe in the employee lifecycle, when new joiners are making long-term decisions about whether to stay or go. INSPIRE’s influence on that early tenure experience has been very meaningful. Results also extended to Merck’s employee engagement levels. There was a 12-point increase on the recognition-related question in their engagement survey compared to pre-INSPIRE responses. Launching a formalized recognition program can have a tangible and lasting impact on the overall employee experience, making it a must-have HR strategy for any business. 

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