WHEN IT COMES TO recognizing employees, most companies have trouble holding their managers accountable. After all, how can you make someone be nice to their employees? And if you do force them to do something that they don't want to do, won't they resent it?

Senior management at Bronson Healthcare Group in Kalamazoo, Mich., doesn't think so. For one thing, they ask all managers to write 12 thank-you notes each quarter to employees. Initially, some managers rolled their eyes at this — but now they're all doing it. Managers are asked to make copies of the notes they write to their employees to provide to their own managers as proof. The human resources department even does random “spot checks” of managers, asking to see copies of their notes.

This hard-line approach has worked: Managers got the message that the organization was serious about work-force excellence as a business objective, which made them serious about activities that led toward that goal — like writing thank-you notes.

Better yet, managers who started using the notes quickly found that they got recognized by their employees, who thanked them for the notes they wrote! (This coincides with my own research, which found that the top reinforcement for managers who use recognition comes from their own employees.) Now, new managers are trained in the practice from the start of their jobs.

The thank-you note program has since expanded so that managers now send notes to employees' families and even children (sometimes with coupons for ice cream for them to take their parents out!). Employees are writing more thank-you notes to their peers. In short, the activity is catching.

Bronson Healthcare managers are also asked to discuss with their employees how they would most like to be recognized when they do good work and to create a “toolbox” of recognition items to give out — things such as movie tickets, valet parking passes, or coupons for time off. Managers are allocated $150 to initially stock the toolbox and an additional $150 to replenish items that are used in a given year.

There's no question that these practices are working. There's a waiting list for employees who would like to work at Bronson, and the company was recently included on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For in America and Working Mother's Best Employer lists.

Bob Nelson, PhD, is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego; best-selling author of several books, including 1001 Ways to Reward Employees and Managing For Dummies; and a frequent speaker. www.nelson-motivation.com