Most companies do a poor job of recognizing employees. How does yours stack up?

Despite all of the research on employee motivation and the importance of recognition, most companies do a poor job of it. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association[i] found that, “Only about half of the U.S. workforce (51%) say they feel valued by their employer, more than a third (36%) haven’t received any form of recognition in the last year, and just 47% say that recognition is provided fairly.”

When companies budget money for recognition programs, they usually spend it on the wrong types of recognition. Research shows that 87% of recognition dollars are directed toward length of service rewards as opposed to specific job results and behaviors.[ii]  This is a misguided practice, since recognition and rewards for desired behaviors, specific job results and team results, rather than long service, drives superior company performance.

What should managers be doing to recognize their employees? Let’s look at the conclusions from over 40 years of research from Behaviorism, Maslow and Herzberg.  This research provides simple, straightforward guidance on how managers can recognize employees and build rapport.

Behaviorism.  This approach tells us that managers will have higher performing teams when they set specific goals, provide clarity, and offer immediate praise, recognition and feedback (both positive and constructive). These practices reinforce behaviors that are aligned with the organization’s culture and principles and motivate employees to repeat successes.

Giving immediate praise and feedback isn’t expensive, and it is easy to do:

  • Smile and look the employee straight in the eye
  • Thank them for their good work
  • Be specific about what was important about the accomplishment and its positive impact on the organization
  • Capture the moment by telling them how it makes you feel, such as, “I am glad you are a member of our team” or “You are making a significant impact here.”
  • Shake their hand

If your employee is a virtual worker, call them to give them praise. Better yet, schedule a short Skype call so that they can see your congratulatory facial expressions!  Is that expensive? Of course not!

If budget allows, provide spot bonuses to employees when their accomplishments or milestones are significant. Don’t wait for the annual salary program. Using “reward dollars” has a stronger reinforcement value for employees than service awards because a spot bonus can be specific to the company’s goals, desired behaviors and outcomes.

Use this same personal, timely approach to provide important, constructive feedback:

  • Provide it a timely manner
  • Look the employee straight in the eye
  • Use a nice even tone of voice
  • Be specific
  • Capture the moment by providing coaching on how they can improve next time
  • Tell them that you (or a subject matter expert) would like to work with them and offer additional coaching
  • Tell them you have confidence in them
  • Follow up and provide positive reinforcement when they improve so they know you have their best interests at heart

While Behaviorism offers a good underpinning for effective business communications and building rapport, it is Maslow and Herzberg’s research that provides keen insights about the most powerful behavioral motivator, intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation unleashes an employee’s best thinking, creativity, collaboration and performance.  If managers do not engage their employees’ intrinsic motivation, they leave major contributions on the table for another manager to discover.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs asserts that employees cannot work toward the highest intrinsic motivator, self-actualization, unless their lower level needs for security, safety, belonging and esteem are met. Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors distinguishes maintenance factors from motivators. Maintenance factors are employee expectations that companies meet industry standards, like base pay, perks, and safe and positive working conditions. In order to engage employees and inspire superior performance, organizations need to focus on motivators like:

  • Challenging work
  • Celebrating achievement
  • Providing growth and developmental assignments
  • Recognition (Of course!)
  • Increased responsibility

Over my career as leader of HR in several organizations, I have had leaders tell me their management philosophy is, “Do your job, and you get to keep it.”

My suggestion to them was, “Play to your employees’ strengths, recognize their achievements, and tell them, ‘If you excel at your job, you will get to work on more exciting projects, receive more pay and get a promotion.’”  The first approach maintains the status quo.  The second approach encourages employees to do their best. Big difference in motivation!  Big difference in performance!

Managers who effectively recognize their employees and build rapport can more easily align their employees’ intrinsic motivation with the purpose of the business. As a result, they see employee performance and business outcomes improve.

My advice for motivating employees: follow the research and leave employee length of service awards to the industry laggards!

Have you recently changed your approach to recognition?  What has been your experience?

Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and coach who works with key decision makers and human resources leaders on talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and other strategic initiatives, such as mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, and flexible workplace. You can learn more about employee recognition by reading his white paper, “Performance Management: Are You Aligning Employee Passion to Company Purpose? Time for an Overhaul!” from his website at

[i] “Employee Recognition Survey. (August 2014). American Psychological Association.  Retrieved from

[ii] “Josh Bersin. (June 13, 2012). “New Research Unlocks the Secret of Employee Recognition.” Forbes. Retrieved from

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