View from HR: Recognize the importance of employee recognition

Think of your most satisfying workplace success. Maybe it involved great work, a new solution or a big sale. I bet it also involved recognition.

Without recognition, workplace successes are like a fast food meal. Tasty, but without a lasting, positive impact. Recognition is the difference between a new song learned on your guitar and a group session where everyone enjoys your tune. Those group sessions provide the reason to continue to achieve.

Recognition does so many good things for employees and employers:

Highlight our values. When people are recognized in front of their peers, it shows what we value as an organization. Do you recognize only sales achievements? Do you publicize the right kinds of failures that got us closer to success? Do you make a fuss over internal process achievements as much as external successes? Are the right people with the right values promoted?

Recognition is a tonic. Over-worked and over-stressed employees are more common as the economy improves. Those pockets of mentally and physically exhausted employees need to know their work matters and someone really cares. Individual and group recognition are better than a doctor’s prescription. Watch the real relief, the quickened step and the pride that comes from genuine acknowledgment of sweat and achievement.

Costs nothing. Cash rewards are always welcome and support a comprehensive total rewards strategy. Bonuses based on objective milestones or group results are great. Recognition costs less and better reinforces specific behaviors. Genuine recognition of behaviors and events supporting those milestones is more personal and tells a better “how to behave” story.

Genuine and targeted. High fives and “great job!” in the hallway are always good. Spelling out why these specific behaviors created success is much better. How they jumped a hurdle, how they solved a roadblock, how they did the hard work required when an old method was not working: recognition is at its best when it is specific and genuine.

Recognition skills come naturally to some managers. Most need new ways to recognize, communicate and sometimes publicize employee successes. It starts with acknowledging how important it is to people and how managers felt when recognized themselves.

Employees reporting to managers that undervalue recognition have some options. Start by recognizing the manager for something they did to make your work easier or the task clearer. Tell them why you are recognizing them (“as thanks and to encourage more of the same assistance”). Explain you also appreciate recognition for good work as feedback and guidance on the most valued tasks and behaviors. Recognize other members of your team in front of the manager so everyone can feel the power of recognition.

Some managers think recognition derives its power from rarity. Wrong. Genuine recognition for meaningful behaviors, impact and results cannot be overused. (Of course, fabricated kudos for coming to work on time are useless and devalue recognition.) Recognition is cross-generational and the most under-used method to reward and encourage great behaviors at all levels.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit