Research Suggests Recognition Divide

A large majority of senior leaders recently surveyed believe their employees are recognized for their efforts on a monthly basis, but less than a quarter of workers surveyed say their peers are recognized that often. How can HR bridge this recognition divide?

Monday, July 23, 2012
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Few business leaders would say there isn't a strong connection between employee recognition and organizational performance and effectiveness.

Indeed, there has been no shortage of studies supporting the bottom-line impact of a strong recognition culture, including a just-released study by Bersin & Associates revealing companies with recognition programs have 31 percent lower voluntary turnover than their peers with ineffective programs in place.

But, while most people agree there's a solid return on investment connected to recognition, the study of 834 organizations suggests a considerable disconnect in the way leaders and employees perceive how it's being carried out in their respective organizations.

Nearly 80 percent of senior leaders, Bersin & Associates reports, believe employees are recognized at least on a monthly basis, with 43 percent of senior leaders stating employees are recognized weekly or more often. In contrast, 40 percent of managers and only 22 percent of individual contributors report that their peers are recognized monthly or more often.

Stacia Sherman Garr, principal analyst of the talent-management practice at Oakland, Calif.-based Bersin & Associates, suggests the disconnect may be the result of senior leaders "taking their own experiences and reflecting them" on their employees.

"There's a different dynamic going on at the top," says Garr. "We found in our research that senior leaders themselves were recognized far more often."

Experts also point to the tendency of leaders to become less aware of what's going on at lower levels the higher in the organization they climb.

In its research, Bersin & Associates also found evidence of other disconnects.

Only 58 percent of employees responding to the survey believe their organizations had a program in place, even though three out of four employers indicated they did. "Many employees simply don't know they exist," Garr says.

Further, the study found the programs failed to have much of an impact on many organizations' cultures; only 17 percent of respondents report that their organization's culture supports recognition.

Garr believes employers need to do a better job communicating their initiatives. "There's a huge need to increase awareness," she says. "Senior leaders have to talk about the value of recognition in their organizations."

The most effective programs are those in companies with a culture that supports recognition, Garr says. "Recognition isn't something that gets started on its own," she says. "Programs help to create a culture [that values recognition]."

When employees were asked in the study why recognition doesn't happen in their organizations, the No.- 1 response they gave was "There's no established way to do it."

Experts agree with Garr that employers need to do a better job making recognition visible in their organizations.

Specifically, employers shouldn't underestimate the crucial role that managers play in the process, says Paul Hebert, managing director of i2i, a Greenville, S.C.-based incentive-design consultancy. He describes managers as the "lynchpin."

"Do I really need better systems or do I need managers who can go out and meet with their direct reports and tell them here's what I saw you do correctly last week?" Hebert asks. "I think it's a cop-out in many companies to say, 'We'd get it done [if only I] had a system to do that.' No system in the world is going to do that if you don't have managers who believe in it."

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Hebert believes this is where HR needs to step in. "They need to teach managers that skill," he says.

What's more, he adds, employers have to do a better job measuring recognition in their organizations.

"We typically measure managers on the functional output of their departments," he says. "If you're in sales, did you sell a lot? If you're in marketing, did you get more leads? If you're in operations, did your costs go down and quality go up? Recognition, however, is typically something that's not part of the manager's job description."

"If you start to measure the interactions managers are having with their employees," Hebert says, "you'll start to see more of those interactions occur and, as a result, much less of a gap between what we think is happening and what actually is happening."

Others concur.

Marc Drizin, founder & chief instigator of Employee Hold'em in Indianapolis, believes HR's ability to generate data demonstrating ROI is crucial.

 "You have to be able to talk about the importance of any reward and recognition program in terms of ROI," Drizin says. "What does [recognizing someone] for tenure get you? If you're buying a person a cappaccino machine or sending them on trips because they've been there 15 years -- and you've [thereby] pushed $300,000 in replacement costs into the future -- then I'd say that's a good ROI."

Drizin also believes employers need to do a better job distinguishing between their recognition and reward programs. Sure, he says, you want to emphasize effort, but it's far more important to reward success.

"Recognizing effort has an important place in organizations," he says. "But rewarding success can have a huge impact on the business in terms of engagement and customer satisfaction," especially when it focuses on the 20 percent of the workforce that's influencing 80 percent of your organization's success.


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