3 Things You Should Never Do in Employee Recognition

Case studies provide an exceptional opportunity to learn – both the good and the “misguided.” Here are three misguided employee recognition case studies to learn from this week.

1) Limit the “winners circle” to just a few

A primary attribute of strategic recognition is its ability to convey your most important objectives and values to all employees in a personal, meaningful way. But that only works when all employees feel they are active participants – both in the giving and receiving of such recognition. Campbell’s ‘Healthy Lifestyle Award’ misses the mark on nearly every front:

“Campbell Soup Company recognized the achievements of five North American employees Friday with the company’s ‘Healthy Lifestyle Award.’ Presented annually for the past five years, the award celebrates employees who live healthy lifestyles. … Selected from 13 Campbell sites in North America, … each winner received a $500 cash award, company-wide recognition and a gift basket of Campbell’s healthy products, including Campbell’s Healthy Request soups, V8 juices and Pepperidge Farm whole grain breads.”

Not only are there only five “winners,” there isn’t even one winner from each major location. How actively engaged in the program do you think the remaining thousands of employees are? Even if some percentage were engaged prior to the winners for this year being named, how many of the “losers” do you think will choose to engage in the program in the following year.

Far better would have been to acknowledge the successes, big and small, of all participants as the advanced along the path to healthier living.

(Video bonus: Watch my CEO, Eric Mosley, discuss the benefits of creating a bigger winners’ circle.)

2) Leave recognition to “chance”

Similarly, leaving recognition up to the “lucky winners” of a drawing also communicates an inconsistent message to employees. US Airways’ “Above & Beyond” program fails to honor and appreciate the employees who make it happen every day for the airline’s passengers as well as their fellow employees.

“The ‘Above & Beyond’ program recognizes those US Airways employees who provide exceptional service to not only the airline’s customers, but to fellow employees. The program allows US Airways’ most frequent flyers (Dividend Miles Silver, Platinum, Gold and Chairman’s Preferred members) and its employees at the manager level and above to submit coupons recognizing employees for providing excellent customer service in the air and on the ground. All coupons received are entered in a drawing and each quarter US Airways awards 10 employees $10,000 each; 100 employees $1,000 each; and 250 employees $250 each.”

While I’m sure the “winners” greatly appreciate their awards, how many star performers were left with nothing when their names weren’t drawn from the bag? Shouldn’t any employee who “provides excellent customer service” be recognized and rewarded for doing so?

If a consistent, strategic recognition program were in place, those employees who regularly go above and beyond would naturally receive more recognition (and therefore, more rewards) throughout the year. But all employees who contribute to the success of the airline through excellent customer service would also receive the recognition they deserve.

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3) Turn to recognition as a last ditch effort

Though technically not a case study, this exceptional post on The 7 Deadly Sins of Recognition featured an important point I haven’t seen made elsewhere yet:

“Foul Weather Recognition: If you only trot out recognition programs in bad times, they will become harbingers of doom (low increases, no bonuses) and further deflate morale. Recognition, monetary or otherwise, should feature as a permanent part of your reward strategy.”

Since the recession first began, I’ve read countless stories of organizations turning to “no cost” or “low cost” employee recognition schemes to boost employee morale for those who took on the work of laid-off colleagues for no extra pay.

Let’s be quite clear on thisRecognition is not and should never be a replacement for proper compensation. The two are very different things. Trying to use recognition as a replacement for deserved compensation, especially when only done during bad times, communicates the wrong message to employees.

Have you experienced a misguided recognition program?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is senior vice president of client strategy and consulting at Workhuman, where he leads the company’s consulting and analytics divisions. His writing is regularly featured across major HR publications, including HR Magazine, Human Resource Executive, HR Zone, and Workspan.