Universal Power

Recognition programs can help drive employee engagement worldwide, but HR must attend to certain specifics, according to this special advertising section on rewards and recognition.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
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What can global employers do to engage their employees around the world? Pay high salaries? Provide a robust benefits package? Offer career-development opportunities?

While all of these are certainly drivers of motivation, there's one universal practice that is sometimes overlooked when trying to energize an overseas workforce: reward and recognition programs.

Even though such programs positively impact American workers, some employers aren't totally convinced that they have the same effectiveness beyond the border. They point to differences in cultures, traditions and lifestyles as potential reasons why they may not succeed. Would a manager's thank-you note engage employees in Brazil the same way it does in London or Tokyo?

O.C. Tanner is now answering this question with concrete data. Last year, the Salt Lake City-based company specializing in employee appreciation tried to remove the guesswork by commissioning Towers Perrin (which is in the midst of finalizing merger plans with Watson Wyatt Worldwide to become Towers Watson) to conduct an e-mail survey, called the 2008 Global Recognition Study, to find out what employees thought about their company's rewards and recognition program, what types of awards they preferred and how they wanted to be recognized for work accomplishments.

Administered through Harris Interactive and translated into each employee's native language, more than 10,300 employees were surveyed in 13 countries (including the United States) on six continents. The results echoed what O.C. Tanner and others have been saying for some time -- that appreciation has a big impact on employee retention and engagement anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, organizations worldwide received a failing grade on how well they actually do just that -- i.e., appreciate their workforce, says Christina Chau, senior market research analyst at O.C. Tanner. She says only 7 percent of survey participants stated that their employer does an excellent job of appreciating their efforts.

"We were able to validate a lot of things that we had always preached about," Chau says. "Now we have actual data to prove it."

One surprising survey result was that an employer's brand or logo on awards proved to be a big driver of engagement for those who take pride in their job or company. Beforehand, she says, company logos weren't really considered to have much influence on employee motivation.

In addition, there were both subtle and stark differences across countries and cultures.

In China and India, says Chau, 80 percent of respondents stated that they valued a certificate of achievement, lapel pins or other trinkets that commemorated years of service and pointed to public events -- where they were formally recognized in front of their peers and family -- as their best recognition experience.

However, it was just the opposite in Japan, where half of those surveyed preferred to be praised by their boss in private.

Responses also varied for top work motivators -- what motivated people to get up each morning and go to work. While the reason isn't yet clear, she says, the top response in Germany was the ability to work independently. But in most countries, top work motivators involved performing exciting, challenging and varied work. Employer appreciation fell somewhere in the middle, except in Japan, where it was ranked No. 1.

What's more, survey participants in China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates wanted more formal recognition programs than those in other countries.

Scott Christopher has noticed other differences. For example, he says, Belgian and Romanian employees prefer formal types of recognition, such as e-mailing thank-you notes.

"They said, 'We are not the type of people who, on a day-to-day basis, will pat someone on the back and say, 'Thanks for working on the project last night,' " adds Christopher, director of speaking and training at the Carrot Culture Group, O.C. Tanner's training arm. "They say, 'We're just not wired that way, we're not one-on-one relationship builders.' "

According to Christopher, many of the employees who recently attended his training session on recognition were reluctant to participate, believing his techniques would be "too folksy" or too Americanized. But after showing them the survey data that demonstrated the large, global role that appreciation plays in driving employee engagement, he says, they were ready to listen.

Still, employees in the United Kingdom have been his toughest audience and, by far, the most skeptical of American "touchy-feely" recognition programs, he says. Now, however, the poor global economy is slowly changing their minds. With more British companies merging or being bought out, he says, U.K. employers are considering recognition programs as inexpensive, yet effective, ways to unite the disparate cultures throughout their organization.

Meanwhile, Christopher says, the survey helps prove that recognition programs are no longer a "Yankee thing." He'll continue using its data to explain how and why such programs are critical to not only employee engagement, but a company's bottom line.

"My job has gotten easier because of the survey," he says, explaining that it helps employers become more amenable to Western ideas.

"Little by little," he adds, "you convince their heart and soul and they internalize it. It starts to become more organic. But it takes time."

Focus on "How"

For some multinational employers, the survey's results simply reinforce what they already knew and have been practicing for years.

This past year, The Nielsen Co., based in New York, rolled out a new global-recognition program called Excellence.

"We put a task force in place to create this," says Eric Lange, senior vice president of HR at the research firm, which employs 35,000 employees in approximately 100 different countries. "We had people from around the world -- mostly HR people and some management -- explain what mattered in their part of the world, then rolled out the program that acknowledged differences based on where you are."

Employees receive a bronze, silver, gold or platinum award along with a gift they choose from an online catalog. To determine which award to hand out, managers complete a form, which asks a series of questions, such as, "Is the employee's accomplishment outside the normal scope of his or her job?" or "Did the impact of the employee's accomplishment affect his or her individual business unit, the region or country, or Nielsen as a whole?"

Lange says the questions help level the playing field and ensure consistent recognition of the company's values across the globe. So do the rewards offered in online catalogs, which are based on each country's standard of living. For instance, someone receiving a gold award in the United States may choose a flat-screen TV as a gift. But in underdeveloped or developing countries, that same TV would not be available to gold-award recipients. It would be a disproportionate reward, he says, because the TV would be the equivalent of three months' pay in those countries.

"For us, it's more about how we do it than what we do," says Lange, adding that local managers decide how to express appreciation. "You can't dictate that from here. It is a very individual thing. We don't want to embarrass employees or make them feel uncomfortable."

Lange, who recently worked in Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, says employees react in similar ways no matter where they work. Everyone wants to be recognized or appreciated for specific accomplishments.

He believes that's where some global companies go wrong. While it's nice to hear, "Thank you, you've done a great job," he says, employees want their peers to hear the details about what they've accomplished that set an example for their department or company.

Another best practice is expanding recognition programs to more employees. Nine months after Symantec Corp. changed and expanded its global rewards-and-recognition program, employee-engagement-survey scores shot up by 14 percent, says Jennifer Reimert, senior director for global compensation at the security, storage and systems management solutions headquartered in Mountain View, Calif.

In the past, the company -- with 17,500 employees in more than 40 countries -- supported six recognition programs that excluded commissioned employees such as those in sales. Each program had its own eligibility criteria and was layered with approval steps. Although many employees would get nominated, only 5 percent to 10 percent would receive a reward on a quarterly basis. Reimert says people fell into a "black hole," never knowing what happened to their nomination.

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So Symantec's HR did away with all of the stipulations, rules and layers of approvals. It created one global program on one platform and expanded its reach.

Any employee can now nominate another regardless of location. Rewards are handed out within 48 hours. HR can also track quarterly results and display them on an executive dashboard. "It's leaps and bounds ahead of where we were," Reimert says.

Nine months after the program was implemented, 60 percent of employees have received some type of recognition or reward that ranges from a thank-you e-card to $1,000. She says employees can also send $25 rewards to co-workers in other countries without manager approval. While all cash rewards are converted into local currency, higher amounts -- $100, $250, $500 and $1,000 -- are approved by the nominee's manager.

From July 2008 to March 2009, the company handed out 29,000 rewards or recognitions, averaging more than 700 each week. Five percent are at the $1,000 level, referred to as standing-ovation rewards. Overall, Reimert says, the company spends roughly 1 percent of its payroll on rewards, which is a good industry benchmark to observe.

The program's hidden benefit, however, is that HR no longer has to worry about cultural norms or traditions. It partnered with Globoforce, co-headquartered in Southborough, Mass., which developed a network of more than 2,000 merchants worldwide, ranging from local stores to national chains and global online retailers, such as

Employees simply redeem their cash for products from the network's stores. The only exceptions are countries with unstable economies or few participating merchants. In Korea, Taiwan and Russia, for instance, she says, employees receive cash.

"As a truly global company, that was one of the hurdles we wanted to overcome," she says, adding that, early on, she didn't believe the program would work across borders. "But the program enabled us to meet all [employee] needs and challenges that we had in one fell swoop."

More Alike than Different

For the past three years, HR at Schlumberger, an oilfield services company based in Paris, conducted annual motivation surveys. No matter how the data was sliced -- by gender, nationality or geography -- recognition usually ranked among the top three motivators of employee engagement.

Other top drivers included compensation, career development and a good manager, says Janice Hyslip, HR communications manager at Schlumberger, which supports 75,000 employees in more than 90 countries.

The company operates as a matrix organization, organizing itself into 32 different regions with various operating units. Worldwide, it supports roughly 25 different recognition programs, but each program reinforces the same set of company values and principles, such as service quality.

Back in 2004, Schlumberger Information Solutions, one of the company's operating units, implemented Rewards of Excellence, a global, peer-nomination recognition program. Similar to other peer programs, managers approve the nominations and award winners then select online gifts. According to Hyslip, HR quickly discovered that this formula worked well across various cultures and continents.

Looking back, she says, what proved interesting was the development process. Roughly eight vice presidents, each from a different world region, served on a global team and were asked to solicit feedback from their employees about how the program should operate.

When they later came together as a group, says Hyslip, their suggestions were consistent. Unlike in the past, no one wanted a traditional or high-level program in which employees were either nominated by their manager or recognized by the company's president.

Instead, they each preferred a flexible peer-recognition program that was open to all employees who could choose their own rewards.

She believes peer-recognition programs have become a global trend. Meanwhile, the company supports both varieties -- formal (or hierarchal) and peer.

"We monitored the use of this [peer] program around the world," she says, explaining that the only key differences were whether employees preferred to be recognized publicly -- in front of their peers -- or privately -- behind closed doors. "Things are more universal when it comes to recognition than different."

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