Today’s employees seek meaningful and personalized appreciation. Leverage these five strategies to get it right.
By Christa Elliott
Today’s employees seek meaningful and personalized appreciation. Leverage these five strategies to get it right.
Since the millennial generation first surpassed the baby boomers as the largest age group in the workforce last year, HR practitioners have become more and more interested in accommodating the needs and preferences of each generation. This is especially true when it comes to recognizing and rewarding employees. In fact, Aon Hewitt’s 2015 Trends in Employee Engagement Survey found that globally, rewards and recognition ranked third among the top drivers of employee engagement. Likewise, successful recognition programs also contribute to employee retention and talent acquisition.
“I think the persona that a company has in the marketplace—being known for being a great place to work, giving back to their community, their reputation— drives their ability to attract talent,” says Theresa Harkins, vice president of client success and engagement solutions at Inspirus. “It’s not just ‘I want to have a job because I need a paycheck. I want to do something that’s meaningful to me and know that the work that I’m doing means something to the company.’”
Despite apparent differences in communication styles and other workplace behaviors between Generation Y, Generation X, and the Baby Boomers, this sentiment— and by extension the very desire to be valued and acknowledged for a job well done—seems to be ubiquitous, regardless of generation. David Sturt, executive vice president of OC Tanner, finds that perceived differences between these individuals have very little to do with the time period in which they were born.
“There’s a lot that has been written and actually a lot of debate about whether the generational cohorts, specifically Gen-Xers, Millennials, and Boomers who make up 95 percent of the current working population, are really significantly different or if it’s more of a reflection of where they are in their life stage,” he says. “There are some differences when it comes to generations, but I think of it more as younger employees versus older employees because when you actually test for people who are Millennials now and compare them to, for example, X-ers when they were at that same life stage, we don’t find a lot of big differences in that regard.”
Sturt explains that in general, younger employees prefer more casual, peer-to-peer recognition while older employees like more formal rewards that are tied to a specific achievement. But because recognition is so personal, these preferences are not mutually exclusive, and that a strong program should be trans-generational. When it comes recognizing employees in the workplace, age should not be the primary driver when building a program. Organizations should focus on showing an employee that their work matters to the company. In today’s workplace—where 90 percent of companies have recognition programs yet 60 percent of employees report that they do not feel recognized or valued— effective programs are more crucial than ever.
“People don’t want to be a number,” Harkins explains. “They want to know that you know their name, you know what they stand for, what they enjoy doing, what their family is like. So companies that take that genuine personal interest are able to shape rewards for employees that are more meaningful.”
How can organizations do this? Here are a few strategies for developing strong recognition programs that appeal to the entire workforce.
Personalize. Rather than focusing on generation, experts recommend creating programs that pay attention to the individual and personalize rewards and recognition as much as possible. After all, a reward without a personal touch is nothing more than an object and unlikely to make an employee feel valued.
What does this personalization look like practically? Whether it’s commending an employee for completing a project and adding to their paid time off, or supporting an employee during a challenging life event such as an illness, many organizations are finding creative ways to show employees that they appreciate their contributions.
Southwest is a good example of this. The airline has a program that recognizes employee life events—not just company anniversaries but also personal events such as a marriage or the birth of a child. They employ a care team to keep track of these personal milestones and send personalized recognition items to employees. An expectant mother might receive a baby blanket with the Southwest logo on it while an employee battling a longterm illness might receive a company-branded sweater or other wearable item. Each item is accompanied by a hand-written note from a company executive. This strategy allows the company to maintain a personal connection with their employees through an awareness of their lives outside of work.
“We had a client who had an employee who completed a project, and one of the exercises that her project manager had done to get people to know each other during their team-building activities was sharing something on everyone’s bucket list,” Harkins says. “For that employee, it was having a hot air balloon ride, and so at the completion of this project, instead of rewarding her solely in cash for project completion, the executive gave her the experience of getting to go on a hot air balloon ride.”
Memorialize. Effective rewards can also serve as a lasting emblem of an employee’s hard work.
“There’s another dimension of personalization that serves as a way to memorialize what that accomplishment was that [the employee] had…They want [the reward] to carry what it stands for as opposed to just being given some cash that they’re just going to go spend on their bills or a tank of gas and suddenly it’s gone. It’s evaporated, and there’s no lasting memory of that project or that accomplishment. If it’s something meaningful, they want to have…some symbol that represents that accomplishment and that they can put on their desk or put on a wall or put in their home,” Sturt says.
OC Tanner takes this approach with their president’s award. The trophy itself unique to the company and inscribed with the recipient’s name, the date, and the accomplishment. In addition to receiving the physical award, which by itself carries significant prestige, recipients are also given their choice from a variety of merchandise, gift cards, experiences, etc. Through this two-pronged approach, OC Tanner gives awardees a choice in their reward, demonstrates appreciation for their accomplishments, and provides a lasting symbol of their achievement.
Know thy employee. Personalization translates to paying attention not only to the type of reward that an individual employee prefers, but also the way they’d prefer to receive it.
“We have this concept of ‘come on down, we’re going to recognize you’, but research shows that 20 to 25 percent of employees are petrified of that. They just don’t want that, and I really believe that the personalization of how people want to be recognized and rewarded is a huge part of where our industry needs to go,” says Peter Hart, CEO of Rideau.
Get everyone involved. Hart also emphasizes the importance of social recognition programs— approaches that encourage employees to take part in recognizing their coworkers via social media or internal communications.
“If I was to start with a blank page and said, ‘we have no recognition and reward programs, what should we do?’ The first thing that I would do is put in a social recognition program, where it’s just about the words because if you can’t recognize somebody with words, no amount of rewards is going to make a difference,” he says. “Teach people to recognize one another with words first and then overlay that with the actual rewards.”
In addition to spreading awareness about an organization’s appreciation efforts, social recognition has the added benefit of getting employees at all levels engaged in the process. This approach also lets employees know that the organization values not only their accomplishments and work ethic, but also their feedback about the great work that their coworkers are doing.
Why is this community aspect important? Because it allows many individuals to feel valued and appreciated across all generations and with little cost to the organization and provides recognition in all of the less obvious places where recognition is due.
“[If] only a manager can give recognition to people on their team for example…then even if an employee sees someone doing a great job, they need to go to the manager and the manager needs to initiate and complete that recognition experience,” Sturt says. “Those [programs]tend to be less effective than involving peers because peers see way more than managers will ever see when it comes to noticing great work.”
Put in reach. A program that is amenable to all ages and demographics must also put rewards and recognition within reach for everyone from brand new and entry-level employees to public-facing and tenured employees. When employees are only recognized once every five or 10 years for years of service, an entire sector of employees is completely excluded from the picture— at least for their first few years of employment when engagement is most critical.
“In terms of a length-of-service program, the timeline for receiving your first recognition moment is usually too long,” says Anthony Luciano, senior vice president of Engage2Excel, Inc. “One thing we’re seeing right now is a shift from people putting a lot of dollars toward the high-level years and reallocating them to the early years, beginning at onboarding—hitting them [with rewards] before they even start or every month of their first year. It’s critical to recognize their efforts early and often.”
Likewise, if rewards only go to a handful of individuals on an annual basis, that program might be doing more harm than good. For example, Sturt explains that employee of the month or quarter approaches are well-intentioned but can become excluding.
“Less inclusive programs tend to be quite polarizing. That individual who gets the award is pretty thrilled, but you just turned off a lot of other people. Employees in those restrictive programs also tend to feel like ‘what do I have to do, work 90-hour weeks in order to be noticed? How do I ever qualify for something like that?’” says Sturt. Employees maybe opt out since they feel they will never be honored.
According to Sturt, even when all employees have the potential to be recognized, a program can become restrictive if managers have to jump through too many hoops to recognize someone.
“You want to capitalize on that instinct [to recognize an employee], but if that person thinks ‘oh, I’ve got to go in, and I have to fill out some big old form and spend all of this time trying to convince whoever is going to review that that the employee is “worthy” of that level of recognition or reward,’ then they won’t. They’ll get busy and then it’s gone.”
It goes without saying that for personalization to work, managers and organizational leaders alike must commit time and resources to getting to know their workforce and their needs. In the end, the goal of recognition programs is to make employees excited to come to work and contribute to the organization.
“Recognition is an emotion,” Hart says. “You either feel it or you don’t. Only you can determine how much you feel valued or how much you feel appreciated. That’s a perception, and it’s intangible. I think for recognition and rewards to work, you really have to have that emotional transference where the employee can say ‘yes, I really feel valued, I feel appreciated.’”
90% of companies have recognition programs yet 60 percent of employees report that they do not feel recognized or valued.