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The Power of Personal Recognition

July 1, 1999
Related Topics: Recognition, Featured Article
Just when you thought enough had beensaid on the subject, along comes another article to remind you of the obvious:Recognition increases employee satisfaction. It’s an ubiquitous message thatafter a while starts to sound like an endorsement from the surgeon generalhimself: Exercise reduces the risk of heart disease.

    Of course you knowemployee recognition is important; you’re in HR, you’ve listened to theexperts and heard their stories, and you’re probably already doing a lot toshow your employees you care. So all right, already - hasn’t enough been saidabout employees’ wants and needs? You’d think so, but the answer is no. Whenit comes to employee recognition, many companies still don’t get it. So forthat reason alone, the discussion must go on.

   What’s really worth talking about is that all forms of recognitionaren’t created equal - in fact, some are believed to be far more effectivethan others. Personal and public forms of recognition appear to be at the top ofthe list. Like it or not, employees want you to make a fuss over them. Most wantrecognition to be public, personal and done with sincerity and effort. Thepayoff? When it’s done the right way, personal and public forms of recognitioncan bring employee satisfaction, commitment and loyalty to new heights.

    So what does it taketo get to “Wow” with employees today? What experience or reward can youprovide that will move them in a way that makes them stop, think and feel“Wow, I really make a difference here. This company really appreciates what Ido”? Some believe it’s as easy as paying top dollar in the market, othersclaim it calls for stock options and bonuses, and many still insist it’sthings like onsite concierge services, exercise facilities and total flexibilityin planning work schedules that satisfy employees and make them take notice.

    Though few wouldargue the value of any or all of these benefits, it’s hard to say if theyreally do more than inspire a modest nod of approval from today’s ceaselesslypursued worker. In fact, many employees no longer consider these to be special“perks” or unique benefits. Rather, those are standard expectations they’dlook for from any employer.

    What does appear tobe a truly effective form of recognition is the type that’s based on personalattention and public celebration. You’ve probably experienced this at one timeor another yourself. Think back to a time when you were on the receiving end ofemployee recognition. What was most meaningful to you - what made you say,“Wow”? Was it the big check you used to pay off your charge cards? The giftcertificate you “re-gifted” to a friend? No, my guess is it was somethingfar more personal. It could’ve been something as simple as a handwritten notefrom the president of your company, or as grand as an airplane pulling a bannerwith a thank-you message from your manager. If it was memorable, it likelyevoked emotion and made you feel that your individual effort had made adifference.


Personal forms of recognition can bea powerful motivator
    Disney is one organization thatunderstands the power and value of personal recognition. Next time you visitDisneyland in Anaheim, California, check out the windows of the shops on MainStreet, U.S.A. Those decorative windows do more than add an attractive elementto the overall Main Street theme. They serve a dual purpose of honoring Disneycast members who made significant contributions to the Disneyland organization.

    Having your name painted on one of theMain Street windows is the highest and rarest honor afforded to a Disneylandcast member. Cast members are actually given a replica of the window during aformal ceremony, something that Renié Bardeau says marked the highlight of hiscareer (second only to having coffee with Walt himself). Bardeau, whose name wasimmortalized last year on an upper-story window that reads “Kingdom PhotoServices - Magic Eye to the World,” served as photographer and photo archivistat Disneyland for nearly 40 years.

    When asked how he felt about receivingsuch a rare and distinguished honor, Bardeau responded “I was elated, awed,dumbstruck - and it was completely unexpected. At Disney, no job is menial. Andthe great thing about Disney is that, sure, they’re a big company and a bigprofit machine, but they still take time out to recognize their people. Itreally shows they have their values in the right place.” Bardeau, who’s nowretired from Disney, displays his replica window on the wall of his home officein Arizona. He says it serves as a constant reminder of his rewarding years withDisney and has value that money could never replace.

    Why are personal and public forms ofrecognition more meaningful than monetary rewards and traditional“off-the-shelf” programs? According to Dee Hansford, an Orlando,Florida-based recognition consultant and founding board member of theChicago-based National Association for Employee Recognition, “The powerfulimpact of peer recognition is greatly underestimated by organizations. We allneed and want to know the work we do is important, and to have that validated[publicly] is one of the greatest sources of satisfaction we can have. Public orpeer recognition that’s personal in nature answers those deep needs we allhave of belonging and contributing to something worthwhile.”

    Bob Nelson, author of the best-selling1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing, 1994) and 1001 Ways toEnergize Employees (Workman Publishing, 1997), says that each form ofrecognition has value to it, and therefore, it’s important to use a variety ofapproaches rather than just one or two. And although cash is nice, and fewpeople will deny the opportunity to get more, Nelson says that it doesn’t havethe same impact as personal recognition that’s public in nature, something hebelieves addresses the human requirements for security, belonging and status -all of which are at the heart of motivational theory. “Cash has no trophyvalue and is quickly forgotten, whereas a public or social form of recognitioncan create a feeling and memory that may last for a long time. A gift or mementocan be symbolic and help extend a memory of achievement.”

    Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is alsoknown for taking personal and public forms of recognition to new heights. WhenSouthwest earned the “Triple Crown” award for the fifth consecutive year in1997 for best on-time performance, best baggage handling and fewest customercomplaints, CEO Herb Kelleher honored Southwest’s 24,000 workers in a verypersonal way. Kelleher had each of their names engraved onto the overhead binsinside the “Triple Crown One,” a specially designed Boeing 737-300 plane hededicated to the workers in recognition of their outstanding contributions tothe airline’s success.

    According to Ed Stewart, Southwest’spublic relations director, it’s celebrations like this that make Southwest anemployer of choice. “We like to celebrate as many victories as possible aroundhere,” says Stewart. “We have the lowest turnover rate of any airline - onceyou’re here you never want to leave.” Stewart boasts that [the companytreats employees so well that] one family actually has 12 family membersemployed by the airline.

    You may be thinking that’s all welland good, especially for companies that have unlimited resources. But where doesthat leave the average organization that doesn’t own a Main Street and can’tafford to dedicate planes to their employees? Should you just stick to theone-size-fits-all method of recognition and hope it’s enough to get the jobdone? Definitely not - meaningful recognition doesn’t have to be costly orextravagant.


Personalizing recognition is easierthan you think
    The HR team at Sacramento-basedCalifornia Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) gives testimony tothe fact that making recognition meaningful is possible for any organization,regardless of size or budget. Their story shows it takes little more thanputting time and effort into some creative planning, and personalizing the eventso that the recipient feels special. Heidi Evans, labor relations analyst forCalPERS, tells what she refers to as the “Dennis Andrade Story.”

    Andrade, an associate analyst in HR forCalPERS, was responsible for developing HR’s Web page on the company’s newintranet. Evans says the project was a huge undertaking, calling for lots ofevening and weekend work, and many personal sacrifices on Andrade’s part.

    According to Evans, “Dennis managedan incredible workload during that two to three month period, but you’d neverknow it from his attitude - he just kept plugging away until he got the jobdone. He was never short with anyone, even though he was in a big crunch to meethis deadline and was also managing the duties of his regular job.” The HRstaff wanted to do something special for Andrade at the end of the project. Theyput their heads together and came up with the idea of “Dennis Andrade Day,”a special recognition day devoted to Andrade who, during the course of theproject, had affectionately been dubbed “Laptop Man” because he was neverwithout his computer.

    Evans and the HR team organized theevent so that staff from each of their 8 functional departments signed up for acertain hour during the day when they’d take time out to recognize Andrade. AsEvans tells it, “We all knew Dennis was an avid fisherman, so the day had afishing theme to it. People did everything from writing and singing specialsongs for Dennis, to giving him personal cards, pictures for his desk, and onegroup even got creative with a special fishbowl display. It was really touchingbecause you could see that everyone put a concerted effort into honoring him.”

    How did Andrade feel about theirefforts? “It was overwhelming, I knew they were planning something, but Ididn’t know the details,” he says. “It was really a once-in-a-lifetimekind of thing that I’ll never forget, and it really changed my attitude aboutrecognition. I never felt I really needed it before, but it’s made me abeliever - I think it really makes a person feel appreciated and supported.”Andrade says his family also appreciated the company’s efforts. “Theysacrificed a lot of time with me during the project, and it made them feel goodthat the company went out of their way to show their gratitude.”

    Evans said other employees got almostas much out of planning Dennis Andrade Day as he did. “I’ve never seenpeople get so revved up over planning a celebration for someone else - theenergy was incredible. One of our co-workers who’s been around for severalyears said it was the most fun he’s ever had at work.”


Giving personal recognition is alearned skill
    If giving employees personalrecognition is so easy and fun, why don’t more companies do it? Authors JamesM. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner cite statistics in their book Encouraging theHeart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others (Jossey-BassPublishers, 1999), which suggest that only 50 percent of managers actually giverecognition for high performance. Equally concerning are data that indicate upto 40 percent of the nation’s workers feel they never get recognized foroutstanding performance. The explanation for this, according to Kouzes andPosner, has a lot to do with fear and emotions.

    In their book, Kouzes and Posnerexplain, “Expressing genuine appreciation for the efforts and success ofothers means we have to show our emotions. We have to talk about our feelings inpublic. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to others.” And that’ssomething the authors claim is difficult for many people, and to some it’seven terrifying.

    Hansford echoes these sentiments: “Ihear all the excuses why people don’t give employees personal recognition -some say they don’t have the time, others claim they pay employees and feelthat’s recognition enough, and quite a few say past recognition effortsdidn’t work. I think the biggest reason people don’t give recognition isfear. When we put ourselves on the line to share how we feel about someone’sperformance or actions, we take a risk - and we’re not always confident in ourown skills as recognizers.”

    According to Hansford and others,giving personal praise is a learned skill. It isn’t something that comesnaturally for everyone because it requires people to make a human connection ona very personal level. “These are basic skills we can all learn, just like welearned to surf the Net. We need to view them as critical skills that will helpus motivate our people, keep our top performers and grow our businesses.”


Personal recognition increases employeeloyalty
    Apparently, employees substantiate theargument for perfecting the skill of personal recognition. Their commentssuggest that when they feel valued and personally appreciated, they’re not aslikely to see if the grass is greener somewhere else. Of course, that’sproviding they feel they’re being treated fairly overall, and that has a lotto do with how they view their compensation.

    John Reimnitz, a senior statisticalanalyst for The Gallup Organization, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based research companythat’s best known for conducting the Gallup Poll, believes the company’scommitment to personal recognition has increased his loyalty as an employee.Reimnitz was this year’s recipient of the prestigious “Mountain TopAward,” a designation given to an elite few viewed as the highest performersin Gallup’s worldwide organization of 3,000 employees. Reimnitz was recognizedfor successfully managing a large programming project that called for extendedhours and time away from his family.

    Earning the award also entitledReimnitz to a trip to Los Angeles to attend the prestigious “People’s ChoiceAwards,” an annual celebrity event that Gallup sponsors. Although Reimnitzsaid he had fun hobnobbing with stars from the cast of “ER” and celebritieslike Barbara Mandrel, he got the most satisfaction from receiving the awarditself and setting a new standard of performance within The Gallup Organization.

    “Receiving an award like this helpsmake the sacrifices worthwhile - it’s nice to know that you’re valued. Whatwas even more meaningful was the fact that my performance was responsible forthe company adding a senior level to the statistical analyst position; I was thefirst person to receive that title. It made me feel like I had raised the bar ofperformance for the company.” Reimnitz adds that his name has become a companysynonym for solid performance. “When managers want to hire an analyst, I’veheard that they tell recruiters to find them a ‘John Reimnitz’ - it’sreally nice to know you’re making a difference.”

    How much loyalty does this type ofrecognition buy? Reimnitz admits he’s had other offers - some that haveincluded more money - but in his words, “Money can only go so far.” Reimnitzalso feels he’s fairly compensated at Gallup, and says because he’s beentreated so well, it’s unlikely he could be wooed away by a competitor,regardless of their offer. However, Reimnitz says that his loyalty probablywouldn’t be so strong if he felt he wasn’t paid competitively. “I thinkthat would be frustrating,” he explains. “If I didn’t feel I was paidfairly, I’d question the sincerity of the recognition. It would probably tendto make me want to test the waters.”


Hold managers accountable for employeerecognition
   One way HR can reinforce the value andimportance of personal employee recognition is to build it into theperformance-management system and make managers and others in the organizationaccountable for supporting this behavior.

    Lisa Marks, director ofspecialty-product sales for Gallup, says that managers in the organization areresponsible for giving frequent recognition to employees. “We measureeverything at Gallup, and our employee surveys actually measure how wellmanagers are doing in the area of employee recognition. One of the questionsasks the employee whether or not they’ve received recognition or praise withinthe last seven days - we take this stuff very seriously.”    

    Stew Leonard’s, the world’s largestdairy store, located in Norwalk and Danbury, Connecticut, is known for itsoutstanding customer service. They also hold managers accountable for personallyrecognizing employees’ efforts. Jill Tavello, vice president and daughter ofStew Leonard Sr., says employee recognition is tied into the managers’performance review. “We can’t have happy customers without happy employees,so we go out of our way to recognize their efforts on a daily basis. We believethat a handwritten note from the manager is very meaningful to our employees, sowe actually track how often they send these out.” Tavello says that turnoveramong their full-time regular staff is among the lowest in the area, and wellbelow the industry average.

    Creating a culture that embraces thepower of personal recognition may take time, effort and a lot of reinforcement.And although you might be facing an uphill battle, the rewards will more thanpay off over time. Getting employees to “Wow” is about fostering the humanconnection, encouraging others to put a personal touch on their recognitionefforts, and modeling the right behavior in your own day to day activities. Sowho’s at the top of your list today?

Workforce, July 1999, Vol.78, No. 7, pp. 44-49  SubscribeNow!

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