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The Earlier the Better

Seven key steps to recognizing—and retaining— employees during their first year.
By Cord Himelstein
The act of recognizing employees early in their careers helps encourage engagement, retention, and a meaningful connection to organizational goals.
Retaining employees within the first five years of service can be a challenge. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average job tenure of American workers across all industries is 4.6 years, with the highest levels of retention occurring in the public sector (7.8 years) and the lowest in leisure and hospitality services (2.4 years). Millennial workers aged 25 to 34 reported the lowest overall average tenure of 3.2 years.
In light of these trends, it is surprising to find in a recent survey that while an overwhelming majority of organizations (91 percent) utilize reward and recognition programs to honor tenure-based awards, only 12 percent include an early recognition element.
It’s important for new employees to know employers are tracking their progress as soon as possible. Employers can leverage their recognition culture in many ways—and it doesn’t necessarily need to be formal. Simple ‘welcome aboard’ emails and status check-ins from senior leaders are great ways to engage on a meaningful and personal level from day one. Recognition programs can also feature printable certificates, branded merchandise, or custom awards at important milestones. Employees will take note of being recognized for completing training or onboarding surveys. Managers can leverage an achievement-based system to nominate new employees for on-the-fly rewards to call attention to key efforts and bolster early accomplishments.

While every organization’s approach will be different, all companies should consider recognizing an employee’s first year on the job. It’s a significant anniversary—it’s usually a retrospective moment for the employee, who may or may not be fully committed to the organization just yet. There should be some sort of meaningful recognition at their first year, as this first celebration can give them the right push if it’s a memorable one. Gift catalogs should present several options that take a generational workforce into account, leaving something for everyone. An online catalog where employees can choose their gift also works extremely well in this regard.

Best Practices
The impact of early recognition can be far-reaching when used strategically. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average job tenure across all industries is 3.6 years, and companies are aware of this. Recognition is a solution to improving this. Current WorldatWork data finds that nearly 90 percent of companies that offer at least four types of meaningful recognition experience lower-than-average voluntary turnover. While onboarding programs are typically short-lived and gift-centric, early recognition programs focus on the employee’s long-term growth and development, creating a deeper connection with the organization. An early recognition program simply uses common recognition tools more strategically during the beginning of an employee’s career to enhance the effects. It’s a more surgical method for improving retention that must be executed as part of a larger recognition strategy. Plus, as achievement-based recognition applications grow in popularity and make recognition easier to administer, companies have started recognizing employees earlier on.

Here are seven best practices of an early recognition program.

1. Have a long-term plan. Most onboarding initiatives that reward employees with branded gifts for participation in surveys or training only focus on the first 30 days. But a six to 12-month early recognition period provides enough time to set benchmarks that can track progress, and implement a development strategy. Benchmarks can be tied to rewards. It’s important to note the rewards don’t need to be extravagant—intangible and low- or no-cost rewards can also be used. It all depends on what the organization is willing to invest. At the end of the day, recognition is only effective if it’s meaningful and engages the employees on a personal level. So employers must design a program that strikes a healthy balance between tangible and intangible rewards, while still remaining cost-effective.

A meaningful development strategy should be benchmarked with the employee as soon as possible and revised at six-month intervals, as organizations probably won’t see reliable indicators of the employee’s progress until then. Career development should be an ongoing strategy, but an extra focus should be placed on it during the first year to let the employee know the employer is fully committed to their development.
2. Involve senior leaders. It’s no secret that a positive correlation exists between senior leaders’ support for recognition and the success of their programs. Actively involve senior leaders in the program. Have them send personal welcome emails, introduce themselves, and include them in employee celebrations. WorldatWork’s Trends in Employee Recognition 2013 report found a positive correlation between senior leaders’ support for recognition programs and employee engagement, satisfaction, and motivation levels.

3. Encourage coaching and development. Set individual goals, see the results, and continually coach the employee to develop his or her strengths and interests within the organization. Goals should be reviewed every six months to provide significant data. The new employee will be driven to grow their skill set and contributions, adding value back to the organization. The power of personal engagement cannot be understated. Showing
a sincere interest in an employee’s career backed up with meaningful action is an excellent motivator, and an excellent way to keep them engaged with a company.

4. Create a supportive environment. New employees will engage with the corporate culture much quicker when working in a supportive environment. An award certificate related to your core values or a “welcome aboard” message sent from a colleague are simple, cost- effective methods for getting new employees involved in the recognition culture. An achievement-based award system encourages employees to recognize each other early and often. If employers have an achievement-based award system, new hires should be introduced to it as soon as possible, so they can start nominating coworkers and earning recognition from peers right away. Getting them “plugged in” with the recognition culture immediately is another effective method for encouraging retention.

5. Engage on a personal level. A culture of recognition cannot persist on technology alone. New hires have questions, and often do not verbalize them. Be sure your managers are personally engaging new employees early on. The sooner their questions are answered, the sooner they become engaged in their work. A big misconception in recognition is that managers are automatically qualified to give recognition by virtue of being managers. This is not the case. According to the American Society for Training & Development, 28 percent of managers felt they were unprepared for their roles, and 58 percent report not receiving any training at all. But yes, in a perfect world all managers should receive personal engagement and communication skills training for the recognition to be effective.

6. Recognize employee as part of your culture. Sixty- seven percent of HR professionals surveyed in Accelir’s Rewards & Recognition 2014 Trends Report feel that employees should be recognized for their first year of service at the very least. Providing some form of meaningful recognition (a service award at the first year of service, career development sessions, branded gift items, personal interactions with senior leaders) early in an employee’s career acclimates them to the recognition culture quickly, and seeing it happen for every new hire has a residual positive effect on the entire workforce. Social recognition is an extremely useful tool for early recognition. It is usually low-cost and allows entire workforces to socialize no matter where they are located in the company. It’s important that new employees get involved in the culture of recognition quickly, and social recognition can give them instant access.

7. Think beyond reward. Your employees need more than tangible rewards to feel engaged and connected to the organization. Gifts only go so far—employees need to feel that their work and contributions are respected. Take every opportunity to praise your new hires for their good work in front of peers, and be sure to offer regular feedback.
Cord Himelstein is vice president of marketing and communications at Michael C. Fina.

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