Stemming the Great Resignation

Recognition programs can be an effective employee-retention tool

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Record-breaking numbers of employees continue to quit their jobs. As this so-called Great Resignation ripples through the workplace, it underscores the need for organizations to make employee recognition a staple of their cultures.

Why? Studies have shown that lack of recognition at work leads to higher employee turnover and, conversely, receiving recognition increases employee engagement and job satisfaction. In fact, in one study, 54% of respondents said they’d rather work for a company with a recognition-oriented culture than one where they’d get a higher salary increase, but no recognition.

The bottom line: If your organization doesn’t already have an employee recognition program, it’s a great time to start one. And if it already does, it’s a great time to re-evaluate it and determine if it’s accomplishing what a good reward program should do: Align with a company’s mission and values and drive employee performance.

“Rewards and recognition are valuable tools for managers, but they often overlook them or don’t recognize their value,” says Carol Hacker, the owner of Carol A. Hacker & Associates and a nationally known business consultant, keynote speaker and author. “To employees, rewards and recognition are comparable to oxygen — everybody needs it to survive. If you’re not willing to reward and recognize people, you’d better look around because a lot of other companies already are … and your employees are going to jump ship and go to where they can find those things.”

It’s not always about monetary rewards, either. In fact, some studies show that employees would gladly forego monetary bonuses for more freedom and decision-making power. As such, delegating more responsibility to employees who want it, or giving them the power to make decisions about things that impact them directly, are both powerful motivators, Hacker says.

When considering rewards and recognition, managers also must consider the individuals involved. Older baby boomers, for instance, would appreciate certain rewards that Gen Xers or Yers would disdain, and vice versa. The bottom line: To make sure you’re hitting the right reward-and-recognition buttons, there’s nothing wrong with asking employees what rewards they find meaningful.

Tailored rewards

A generic approach to recognition isn’t a good strategy, says Kathie Sorensen, co-owner of the Coffman Organization, an employee- and management-development consulting firm.

“According to our research, an employee wants to be known as a unique human being, not copy writer number three or accountant number four,” says Sorensen, who co-authored the book, Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch: The Secret of Extraordinary Results. “One size doesn’t fit all. That kind of recognition rarely gives you the kind of lift that you’re after. People connect to their local work team and immediate supervisor and experience the company through that connection. And in that local work unit lies the chance for that immediate supervisor to figure out what you do best — what your goals are and what you believe in. I like recognition programs that are flexible enough and adaptable enough that the local manager can use them in a way that fits each person — gives them a lot of different ways to recognize people.”

Individual insights

To do so, however, requires managers to develop good relationships with employees — even delve a little into their interests and personal goals.

“It’s one of the simplest and most powerful tools managers have,” Sorensen says. “Have you ever been in a restaurant and the waiter knows who you are and brings your favorite drink before you even ask for it? That’s what I’m talking about.”

That’s not to say that managers should start rewarding employees with martinis and margaritas. But managers who know their employees well can develop keen insights into things that they find valuable.

For example, a good manager would never “reward” a harried, time-pressed worker with four children by taking them on a business trip, for instance. A gift certificate to a family restaurant, tickets to a nice entertainment event or an unexpected day off might be far more appreciated. On the other hand, a business trip might really resonate with a young, single employee that the manager knows is very interested in developing broader work experience and getting promoted.

Purposeful recognition

It’s also critical that rewards mesh well with company values and mission statement, says Debra Corey, a former executive at Reward Gateway and now the chief pay-it-forward officer at DebCo HR. Ltd.

“Over the years, I’ve seen too many employee-recognition programs that aren’t strategic enough and don’t align closely enough with a company’s mission, purpose and values,” says Corey, who co-wrote Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement. “Companies that are getting it are moving toward being true business partners (with employees) and driving business performance through human resources programs, including reward and recognition. Recognition needs to be strategic … aimed at motivating the type of behaviors you’re trying to encourage so that your business can succeed.”

Corey recommends continuous, peer-to-peer recognition, in which employees have access to digital technology that allows them — not just managers — to send out digital pats on the back to colleagues. Social media platforms and other technologies provide effective channels for raising the visibility of these digital recognitions, she says.

Virtual high-fives

Reward Gateway, for instance, developed a recognition program called MORE (Moments of Recognition Everyday) that drives employees to embrace its eight core values: love your job, be human, work hard, own it, push the boundaries, delight your customers, speak up and think global. They all emanate from the company’s mission statement: Make the world a better place to work.

Using the company’s intranet platform for instance, employees can send out digital e-cards. Known internally as “high-fives,” the cards are “continuous” because they can be sent at any time; they recognize things like positive attitude, volunteering, proposing a new idea or demonstrating reward gateway values. Employees can even send rewards via their cellphones.

Of course, moderation is critical; there can be such a thing as too much recognition — a flood of digital high-fives dilutes the value of the sentiment. That’s why it’s important to train employees and emphasize that recognition must be meaningful in order to be effective.

Simple but effective

The hardest part of developing an effective recognition program is deciding why people should be recognized — what strategic goals and values should serve as the criteria — and what they should receive for that recognition.

But in the end, Hacker says there’s always this old, tried-and-true approach: Just personally thank employees for what they’ve done. All employees simply want to be treated with dignity and respect, and few things resonate more with employees than a manager who takes them aside and personally expresses appreciation for a job well done.

“There’s no substitute for the words, ‘Thank you,’” Hacker says. “And most employees don’t hear it often enough. And what does that take to do that? Not a whole lot.” 


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