Take the time to survey employees on what kind of recognition matters to them.

A while ago I had the privilege to work with a division of Johnson & Johnson, a great company with a strong sense of values. One of its innovative ideas was to survey employees in depth about which of its recognition programs they valued most. The results of the survey were revealing.

Most surprising was that many employees did not consider years-of-service awards as a form of recognition! How can this be, when these awards are meant to be a significant honor acknowledging the tenure of long-term employees? Some where along the way, the awards became less relevant and no longer made people feel special.

This tends to happen with most well-established, formal recognition programs. It's a rare program that does not need a re-energizing tweak to keep the excitement level high.

Refresh a years-of-service program by allowing a choice of awards. Instead of giving a desk clock, for example, let a 10-year employee choose between the clock or a barbecue set. Offer an employee a getaway weekend with his or her spouse, or the opportunity to go to a conference that is of interest.

Another important finding: When Johnson & Johnson asked employees if they would like recognition to involve their families, more than half reported that they would.

How can you do that? Host an open house, send home gift baskets at the end of a successful project, or send letters of appreciation for family support during a stressful time at work. In one case, a manager wrote a letter to an employee's children, explaining why their dad had recently been away from home. “It's like he's a secret agent,” the letter read, “investigating potential companies we are considering purchasing. He'll be home soon, but I wanted to let you know we are very proud of the job he is doing and hope you are proud as well.”

The next day the employee's spouse called. “You won't believe how excited our kids are,” she said. “Dad's a secret agent!”

Take the time to ask employees about their needs and interests. You'll soon find that one size does not fit all.

Bob Nelson, PhD, is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego, and author of many books on management, including 1001 Ways to Reward Employees and Managing For Dummies. Contact him at Bob Rewards@aol.com or visit www.nelsonmotivation.com.

Take Out

Ways to tailor your recognition efforts:

  1. Evaluate what's working — and what's not. Create a “motivation baseline” that defines what your employees value in terms of recognition. Find out what programs are highly regarded and which no longer have impact. This can be done through an employee survey, focus groups, or informal discussions.

  2. Leverage recognition programs that are working. If you have a program that employees value, figure out how to gain more from it. For example, if employees cherish your formal, companywide award, encourage departments to add a similar award at a local level.

  3. Figure out what's missing. Rather than do more of the same — more formal awards or “morale” activities — try activities that have never been done: small group discussions with top management, peer-to-peer recognition activities, or informal recognition tools such as “on-the-spot” awards, for example.