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Praise and Thanks - You Can't Give Enough

April 1, 1999
Related Topics: Recognition, Featured Article
Have you ever received a round ofapplause? Or can you recall the last time you praised someone else for a jobwell done? As simple as they may seem, praise and thanks still are the mostneglected social gestures in the workplace.

    According to theChicago-based National Association for Employee Recognition (NAER), humanresources professionals and managers still underestimate how recognitionprograms can better motivate employees to achieve business goals. “Employeeappreciation doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive,” says Karen Rubin,CEO of Elk Grove, California-based FutureWork Partners Inc., a human resourcesconsulting firm. “There’s nothing mysterious about it.”

    If that’s thecase, why the dinky servings? Some say it’s simply a matter of time. Otherssay it’s because managers are putting out 20 fires at a time. If they’realready clocking in 15 hours a day, how could they possibly find the time to patsomeone on the back?

    But when youconsider the consequences of low morale - low productivity and decreasingloyalty - isn’t it worth demonstrating positive reinforcement to accelerateemployee output and better customer service? Each company, based on its ownunique history, culture and personality, can do whatever seems appropriate. Thekey is to make recognition timely, creative and consistent.


What’s the difference betweenrecognition and rewards, practically speaking?
    According to BobNelson, author of 1001Ways to Reward Employees, recognition and rewards are distinct, but related:“The former reinforces progress toward desired performance or behavior, whilethe latter is given after the results are achieved - although I often find thetwo words interchangeable.

    “For example,”he continues, “you can reward someone for reaching a milestone along the wayor recognize a project team once their work is finished. I usually think ofrecognition as more of an activity (a social occasion), while reward is more ofa thing (travel, money, merchandise).”

    Assuming you operatewithin this framework, HR can find myriad examples of companies thatincreasingly recognize employees as part of their social fabric. Greg Nakanishi,president of Houston-based GN Resources, a management consulting firm, worksclosely with many high-performing organizations. Whenever he and his clientstalk about recognition programs, it’s always in the context of corporateculture.

    “When you startwith culture, you get into a dialogue about what’s meaningful,” saysNakanishi. For example, if a company is a global player and values culturaldiversity, then its recognition program might reflect that dimension.

    Suppose an expat isjust returning from a three-year stint in Brazil. Upon the employee’s return,HR can encourage a timely gathering for the expat to share his or herexperiences with an oral presentation, color slides or a video. In this way, theexpat is given public recognition, and the co-workers enhance their culturalliteracy about their company’s global programs.

    At Nakanishi’soffice, his staff often recognizes each other by posting notes onto a masklocated in a public area. It doesn’t cost a dime, he says. All it takes is forsomeone to post his or her praise onto the decorative symbol.

    Of course, when hisemployees are too wrapped up in their work, the notes disappear. But someoneeventually jumpstarts the praise wagon. Every once in a while, I say ‘Hey,where are the notes?’” By encouraging these visible forms of praise,Nakanishi says he’s creating an environment of positive feedback and rolemodeling.


Look to nonprofit organizations forways to handle motivation
    When talking toleaders about motivation, Nakanishi often uses nonprofit organizations as agroup role model. Power, he says, manifests on three levels: the physical, inwhich the dominant party relies on threats; the relational, in which a bossmandates rules; and the collaborative, in which members function like a team.

    Nonprofitorganizations operate like the latter. With less money and resources than largecorporations, nonprofit groups depend on the passion, commitment and socialconscience of their employees. And that’s precisely what they reinforce intheir recognition programs.

    United Way,Nakanishi says, is one example. As a nonprofit agency, its core value is toserve community-based programs. Therefore, performance isn’t just based on howmuch money is raised and distributed, but how the agency’s relationship withcommunity organizations have been cultivated over time.

    At nonprofitorganization events, staff often is recognized publicly. Nakanishi explains,“When you don’t have lots of money, the head of an organization usually getsup and says, ‘Let’s give a round of applause to Betty, Jane and Larry.’”

    Making a big dealover individual achievements can go a long way in lifting morale. Nakanishirecalls once receiving a standing ovation that initially embarrassed him. Later,he thought, “Wow, I’m really pumped up. I feel like a kid again.”

    In addition totimely and public forms of recognition, HR also can develop creative recognitionprograms that improve customer service. Retail and transportation companies aresuch examples.


Recognition can reinforce customerservice
    At Dierbergs FamilyMarket, managers regularly spice up the oldest continuing business in the stateof Missouri.

    A supermarket chainwith 16 stores in the St. Louis area, Dierbergs has received industry praise forits customer-focused stores. Its culture is one that encourages all of its 4,000associates’ efforts and activities to have a positive impact directly orindirectly on its mission of customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. “Wetry to make our company one that people love to work for,” explains FredMartels, senior human resources executive.

    Its most innovativepractice for exceeding customer satisfaction is the “Extra Step” philosophy.In short, associates are encouraged to be proactive in meeting customer needs.The program also is a forum to recognize associates who do so.

    “A customer lefther Eskimo Pies at one of our stores during a snowstorm,” says Martels.“The store director didn’t want associates out in that weather, so he calleda cab to get the family their ice cream.”

    In another case, anassociate was crossing the parking lot on his way to work, when he saw acustomer trying to change a flat tire. The associate changed the tire. SaysMartels: “No one asked him, he just did it.”

    For every “extrastep” taken, associates are given gift certificates, balloons, candy, moviepasses - even lunch with CEO Bob Dierberg. Based on the number of “ExtraStep” actions, associates become members of Dierberg’s Silver, Gold,President’s or Chairman’s Club, which entitles associates to the variouslevels of free gifts.

    The practicedefinitely has achieved results. In an independent survey of retailers in largemarket areas throughout the United States, Dierbergs was rated number one incustomer satisfaction.

    Says Martel: “Wewant to be a place where customers love to [shop].” More than 80 percent ofits customer feedback - via phone calls, e-mail and letters - are complimentarytoward Dierberg associates. In addition, Dierbergs won the 1997 Arthur AndersenAward for Best Business Practices for Motivating and Retaining Employees.Turnover, he says, has been reduced from 47 percent to 25 percent over the lastfive years.


Give creative affirmations
    What Martel andothers have learned is that recognizing employees should be upbeat and creative.

    For example, whenRubin provides consultations to her corporate clients, she often begins with anemployee survey. One of the questions they’re asked is: What form of feedbackfrom managers means most to you? Inevitably, the majority agrees that it’s ahandwritten note, she says.

    But don’t stopthere. HR managers can  develop alist of creative ways to give employees the boost they deserve. Rubin makes thefollowing suggestions:

  • Have employees teach a short courseor lead a workshop at work.
  • Use face mail instead of voice-mail.
  • Avoid layoffs at all costs.
  • Create an environment full ofsunlight, fresh air and lovely art to view.
  • Encourage laughter.

    Some organizationsalso encourage revolving recognition by peers. For example, the U.S. Office ofPersonnel Management in Washington, D.C., bestows the Wingspread Award toemployees. A beautifully engraved plaque was given first to a person named as a“special performer” by the department head. Later that person passes theaward to another person who is believed to truly deserve it.

    The award has cometo take on a great value and prestige because it comes from one’s peers. Arecipient can keep it as long as he or she wants, or until he or she discoversanother special performer. In other words, pass around the praise.

    What Martel andothers have learned is a simple truth: “Treating people with respect isrecognition.”

Workforce, April 1999, Vol.78, No. 4, pp. 56-60   SubscribeNow!

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