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How to reward and recognize work achievements without causing disenchantment 

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Baby boomers live to work. Gen X works to live. Millennials want a rapid career.

Millennials – the largest demographic of our workforce – are often blamed for demanding more from employers. Yet, they share something with all the generations: They like rewards and recognition  – and they asked for more. So employers responded, but it hasn’t accomplished what it should have.

Reward and recognize for the times

As an HR professional, I know recognition is an important part of work life. Everyone wants to be thanked for a job well done. Being a part of Gen X, rewards were not as often when I was in school or in my early career. There were more private recognition moments and annual awards.

Eventually, companies decided to thank people more. We should have frequent feedback, and any positive reinforcement that is in order is important to pass on in a timely manner. This makes for a happier engaged culture, according to research and HR data.

So why isn’t it working?

Real-life, real-time example

My son recently graduated from high school and the weeks leading up to the ceremony were filled with awards, assemblies and all kinds of senior recognition. While many graduates go on to higher education, others like my son found their way into trades and have already secured jobs.

This could be his last graduation and significant change in life from student to adult. Looking over the program during Senior Awards night, I saw symbols by his name and felt proud. Then with my pride-filled heart, I saw him — sitting bored, air pods in his ears, sunglasses on indoors with a miserable expression. 

I scanned the other students and found his boredom was common during the ceremony. He didn’t even crack a smile accepting his award or when prompted for a photo.  He just wanted to leave. Later he confirmed my deduction that his boredom was because every award, whether earned or not, felt like a participation award.

Think about it – his generation had a moving up ceremony called graduation from kindergarten.  Then he celebrated leaving elementary school.  Not long after he graduated from middle school and now it was high school.  He got an annual award and even trophies for sports just for going. He was numb. It’s been overdone. 

From school to workplace

I see this happening in the workplace too. Some sales teams give weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual awards, and over-arching best-in-class awards. But this is not working. I’ve had people hit sales slumps because they were so upset when the recognition paused after a bad month that they could not recover, and then quit despite above-average performance.

It was just because they had not put a paper award in their binder in a few weeks. While that is extreme, the lesson is it’s important to recognize. But it’s more important to make it special without confusing it with rewards.

Make it special

Recognition for accomplishments should happen regularly, but it should make sense for the role and organization.

Here are a few suggested guidelines:

  • Busy managers want to make time for regular weekly or bi-weekly check-ins, which is where the bulk of regular recognition and even direction should happen.
  • HR and senior leadership need to ensure that weekly or bi-weekly meetings happen as they are essential to engagement and performance monitoring. Perhaps make these meetings a part of managers’ performance expectations.
  • Follow a well-structured plan for praise and recognize successful performance to keep employees engaged and eliminate the feeling of being special just like everyone else. 
  • Focus on larger awards a few times a year. Weekly, monthly and quarterly awards tend to be overkill and will de-sensitize the importance and gratitude of the company. 
  • Celebrate above-and-beyond achievements publicly. The company can make an effort to showcase that effort and provide a true honor for the employee. 
  • Reclassify rewards as “participation awards” when appropriate – perhaps for minor wins, milestones and anniversaries.  Appreciate everyone equally and regularly. Combining the two is dangerous. 

Audit programs

Awards and recognition programs should be audited regularly to make sure they are working properly and rewarding the right people.  How that achievement is marketed and celebrated also has an effect on staff. 

Exceptional performance awards are great, but do they overlook your everyday hard workers?  Are employees able to recognize each other for a job well done and their gratitude?  It’s time to see what is in place and take a pulse check against it.  Make sure the people whom you value feel valued in return.  Millennials were right, we should have more recognition, but ineffectively communicating gratitude and appreciation may happen unless you find the right balance.

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