When it Comes to Employee Recognition, No Gesture is Too Small

Jul 5, 2011

The one thing that most employees cite, over and over again, as a frustration about their employer is a lack of gratitude.

This is particularly true during the rough economic times. As the workforce is cut back, the other employees have to put in more hours, work harder and perform tasks that they aren’t necessarily experienced doing, but they are expected to stay at the same pay rate, or even take a pay cut. It’s the kind of frustration that leads to employee turnover when companies start hiring again.

That leads to the question: how much does it cost to lose an employee?

When it comes to motivation, rewards, and incentives, is cutting costs during the downtime worth the cost of losing employees just when business starts to turn around and the work starts flowing in steadily again? Is that worth the amount of time, human resources, and money you’ll need to spend recruiting, hiring and training someone new?

Of course, you may be thinking that if the economy is bad, you just cannot afford to provide employees with the kind of rewards and incentives that will truly motivate them. Employees want big rewards, right? They want huge bonuses in their checks, dream vacations, and lavish gifts that can cost a company thousands of dollars.

The truth behind what people want

Actually, while those incentives do hold some sway over employee behavior, several studies have proven that the smallest of gestures for the average employee is often enough to assuage those frustrated feelings. When employees are asked what they would like as a form of recognition from their employer, many of them say that a simple “thank you” from their boss or peers go a long way. Saying “thank you” does not cost anything, but far too many managers, lost in their own haze of work and management crises, forget to do this simple thing.

Other employees, as you might imagine, are not always satisfied with a simple thank you. Some of them do expect some kind of monetary or physical form of recognition. But again, if you are thinking of individual rewards as something that must be huge, then you are thinking along the wrong path. It doesn’t have to cost you $10,000 to reward an employee for having a particularly good year, or sticking by you during the lean times.

In fact, the reward doesn’t even have to cost you $2,000. It can be much less, but in the end, it must be something special for the employee. Rather than just handing out an impersonal check, or dumping some money into their bank account, showing that you actually know a little bit about the employee, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies and interests, will show them you took the time to find a reward that they would enjoy, which can reap greater rewards than you can imagine.

Think about the typical work life of the average American employee. They arrive in an office where the walls are mostly white or beige. They weave their way through a maze of gray or beige cubicles. They are surrounded by sameness. It is as if, some time ago, the corporate world made a decision to make employees feel more like a number and less of an individual person as possible.

Then, as a manager, you expect and demand quality work from those who report to you. There’s nothing wrong with this. It makes sense and it is essential. In order for the company to succeed, employees need to do their jobs well. However, as a manager, you have so many things to work on, so much to accomplish, and so many responsibilities, remembering to thank the people that help make you look good to your bosses can easily slip by.

The power of public and formal recognition

Now, imagine if you walked up to an employee who has done an exceptionally good job and handed them a gift card for an outdoor sporting goods supply store that you know they love. Or maybe a gift card for a bookstore that you know that one employee frequents because you see the shopping bags and the paperbacks she reads. Or maybe you know that the guy down the hall, in the cubicle on the end, is remodeling his house and you walk up and hand him a card that will let him buy much-needed supplies from a home supply store.

It shows that you care enough to know something about the people who work for you. Even if the gift card is only for $25, the fact that you publicly and formally recognized their work will be appreciated. The employee will no longer feel like another body, without a face or personality, sitting in a beige cube. Psychologically, it will feel to them as if management cares, notices the work they are doing, and is appreciative.

And don’t think that the gift card needs to be worth thousands of dollars. It doesn’t even need to be for hundreds of dollars. Just the gesture alone, shown to be tailored for the individual, will be what reaps the rewards. A card for $50 dollars to a store or restaurant that the employee frequents often will work just as well, if not better, than giving them something larger that they may not necessarily want or need.

The great thing about rewarding in smaller doses is that you can afford to spread the wealth out throughout the year. You can surprise employees with rewards on a quarterly, weekly, or monthly basis instead of once a year. It can improve morale throughout the year and especially during the lean times when it’s most important to keep your workforce engaged.

It may not be the thing that saves the company, but it can be a simple, easy, inexpensive thing that will give your employee something to brag about.