Sally Field will never live it down. Accepting her second Oscar, she blurted, “You like me! You really like me!” She’s been teased and parodied ever since, but it was an unguarded response to a moment she had worked her whole life to achieve: the acclaim of her peers before family, friends, colleagues, and a few million strangers.
Few of us get moments quite like that, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t long for and deserve public recognition. True, you don’t want to throw a party every time one of your employees straightens up his desk, but your company, your department, your teams, and your individual employees all achieve milestones worthy of star-studded recognition:
• New product or service launches
• New patents
• Personal development (earning a graduate degree, for example)
• Opening an overseas market or office
• Meeting earnings or profit goals that were a stretch
• An IPO
• Outside recognition (winning a national award, for instance)
• Maintaining a safety record for an extended period
• Meeting specific long-term business goals (increasing the percentage of flights to arrive on time, for example)
Take advantage of these milestones to create formal recognition ceremonies. These ceremonies can recognize individuals, teams, or entire departments. They can be lavish, whole-company affairs or small staff meeting presentations. The important thing is to make the recognition sincere, appropriate, and public. Here’s how:
• Make the reward reflect the winner. Recognize personal milestones with trophies, plaques, or merchandise. (Cash is usually a poor choice because it is quickly spent or banked and therefore has a short afterlife. Trophies, on the other hand, are kept, and remind employees of their accomplishments.) It’s OK to reward individuals during other events, such as staff meetings. When recognizing teams or groups of employees, create events that allow the team to celebrate together (such as a chili cook-off or a party).
• Tell employees how to win. Although informal recognition is actually enhanced if it’s a surprise, formal recognition is another matter. If something in your company is important enough to merit formal recognition, employees need to know ahead of time what that thing is and what they have to do to earn it. Create and share a structure for achieving the recognition:
• What must one do to be recognized?
• Who decides who gets recognized?
• When will the recognition be made?
• What are the rules? (For example, are employees on disciplinary probation eligible?)
• What form will the recognition take? (A trophy? Money? A new car?)
• Is it a one-time event, or will it be annual?
Make sure the recognition is fair and objective; don’t play favorites.
• Remember presentation counts. One employee was startled to see his award slid under the stall partition in the men’s room because that’s where he happened to be when his boss decided it was time to present it. Somehow, the presentation undercut the impact of the award.
Employees should feel that the recognition is something special, not an afterthought. You can’t always bust the budget with a lobster dinner for 500, but do what you can to make the occasion memorable. Even cheap trimmings (balloons and streamers) can turn a presentation at a staff meeting into a ceremony. If you can afford more, do it. (One CEO flew his entire staff and their families to the Caribbean for a week.)
As you plan, keep your efforts in scale. Don’t make an event to honor a single employee splashier than the ceremony recognizing the company-wide milestone.
• Reflect your culture. Events work best when they mirror the prevailing culture. If you’re in a freewheeling start-up company, a black-tie dinner may not be what gets employees most excited. On the other hand, swing night at the roller rink might not be the best choice for commercial bankers. Events should feel like a natural (albeit special) extension of the workplace. If you’re unsure what would most appeal to employees, ask.
• Don’t attach strings. One boss complained that employees never thanked her when she recognized them. She likened the recognition to Christmas or birthday gifts and said she expected comparable thank-yous. She decided to solve the “problem” when she recognized employees who worked on a new product launch. She sent them all notes letting them know they would be recognized at a staff event and instructed them to prepare a thank-you speech. She included a list of elements each speech should include. “I didn’t feel like I got an award,” one employee said. “I felt like I got punished.”
Recognition is not a gift—it’s something that’s been earned. Recognition is about them, not you.
• Make it personal. Occasionally, employees may win an award or otherwise be recognized outside the company (by a national trade association in your industry, for example). That kind of recognition is priceless, but employees want to know that it mattered to you, too. Send them flowers or a gift certificate to express your congratulations.
Real Life Examples
• Only a handful of employees ever earn one of the highest honors the company bestows. Colleagues nominate recipients for exemplifying the company’s values the best. A panel reviews the nominations, and the employees’ managers are consulted. Mike was lucky enough to win one, and his co-workers were thrilled; no one deserved it more. But when the day came to present the award, Mike’s manager was out. Rather than wait for her to return, the company asked another manager to make the presentation—a manager Mike barely knew. Not only was Mike disappointed, the manager missed her chance to publicly recognize her star employee, his co-workers missed the chance to have a group celebration, and the company missed an opportunity to make a coveted award mean all that it might have.
• Because of changes in the company, the team had had five managers in nine months. Understandably, many things fell through the cracks, including Carla’s 10-year pin. Several of her co-workers, who had started at the company just weeks earlier than she had, had been invited to an elegant luncheon, but Carla had missed the cutoff date. The next 10-year luncheon never happened, and so neither did the presentation of her pin. Months had passed by the time someone noticed the oversight. No one offered a luncheon, but they did tell Carla she would get her pin. When the moment came, one of the managers making the presentation looked at the other and said, “Now, what trick should we make her do to get this?” Carla had had enough. “Never mind,” she shouted. “Keep your damn pin!”