If you give an employee a pat on the back in the forest and nobody hears it, does it count?

But if you strategically trumpet a person's exemplary work and sterling behavior on the company's behalf, does it make for happier workers? You bet, according to the National Association for Employee Recognition (www.recognition.org). That was the goal of its first-ever Best Practices Awards program. The winners, CalPERS and TELUS, were honored for their day-to-day employee recognition and for implementing recognition as a corporate strategy aimed at “motivating, encouraging, and retaining valued employees.”

CalPERS: a Sacramento, Calif.-based state agency, has 1,700 employees and manages $160 billion for employee benefit and retirement programs for California government agencies. CEO Jim Burton came on board in 1996, at a time when an employee survey showed that his workers were stymied by a lack of positive feedback. “We decided to implement a full-blown staff recognition program as a way of reinforcing where the organization wanted to be,” says Heidi Evans, CalPERS' recognition program coordinator.

First, a CalPERS project team dubbed C-STARS came up with a platform for day-to-day recognition. The program's theme is “You are the Rock,” and anyone in the organization can give recognition gifts such as rock-shaped note pads and rock-theme e-cards to anybody else in the organization.

With that came development of a specialized Web site with links to sites where employees give day-to-day performance recognition, such as sending e-greeting cards.

CalPERS then added a second level, providing a tangible memento for workers. That's where it got a little tricky. “We're a government organization,” says Evans. “Our program is based on low-cost, no-cost. We can't do what some companies can.”

Evans says CalPERS “really stretches” the definition of recognition. “We say to our people, ‘Tie it to something meaningful,’ like take an afternoon off and spend it with your sick mom. Or take off early Friday and get an early start on that camping trip. These are rewards that are not hard on our books.”

CalPERS also offers a formal level of recognition, The Apex. Once a year, a peer-driven nomination process gives the entire organization a chance to recognize co-workers as individuals or teams at luncheon celebrations. Recipients are given a crystal trophy and a cash award. The whole organization is invited; those who can't attend can watch a live Web feed.

Employee surveys showed almost immediate results. “In 1999, after introducing the first two recognition levels, our employees' satisfaction rose 19 percent. In 2001, we stayed even with the previous survey. And our turnover rate is between 7 [percent] and 8 percent, whereas the rest of California is between 14 [percent] and 15 percent.”

As Evans puts it: “We've built CalPERS as a destination employer.”

TELUS (http://telus.ca/cgiebs/jsp/homepage.jsp) is one of Canada's leading telecommunications firms. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, the company has grown in the past two years into a national organization in data, IP, and wireless operations, with 30,000 employees.

NAER concluded that TELUS employees show exceptional enthusiasm for recognition.

“We had a strategic imperative, which was investing in our people,” says Kendra Innes, director of performance enhancement. “We committed to training, developing, and coaching our people in recognition.”

Innes says developing a recognition program takes more than a desire by management to feel good about itself. “You need to understand why you're doing it and what the business strategy behind it is.”

TELUS got the ball rolling with a program dubbed “Recognize the Opportunity.” A presentation showed vice presidents how recognition supported the company's recruitment and retention strategy and TELUS' performance management model. Innes and her team then helped the VPs strategize.

“We tried to leverage our technical capabilities,” Innes says, “presenting ongoing information on the Web. Our strategy is to attract and retain customers to our Web site. We've made a commitment that communications to our employees will be ongoing and timely. And we will listen and take action, but we will also communicate the action back to our employees.”

Darren Entwistle, president and CEO of TELUS, understands how recognition affects the company's high-performance culture. NAER describes him as “a recognition manager's dream boss.” Every week he sends an e-letter to all 30,000 employees to communicate what's new in the recognition program and on the recognition Web site. Every week, he personally recognizes an average of 10 people and their accomplishments.

In its new mode as a company with a passion for growth, TELUS has acquired a series of companies. The sprawling organization needed its own technology to develop internal solutions and came up with “Team Machine,” a Web-enabled recognition tool. Via the Internet, someone in Vancouver could go online and recognize someone in Québec.

Team Machine supports formal and informal recognition. Level 1, Spark Plug, is informal and spontaneous. Level 2 is represented by Accelerator and Turbo Charge awards. Anyone can nominate anyone else who demonstrates one of the company's four values: embrace change and initiate opportunity; have a passion for growth; believe in spirited teamwork; and have the courage to innovate. Recipients must also demonstrate behaviors above and beyond the scope of their job. Rewards include 1,000 Team Machine points (approximate value: $100) that can be spent in an online gift catalog that includes golf clubs, weekend trips, and kids' stuff.

The Turbo award has the same basic criteria, but recipients must demonstrate all four corporate values and exceed job expectations. The reward is 3,000 points ($300). Finally, Pacesetter awards represent the organization's highest level of recognition. They are formal awards, of moderate cost, and require substantial administrative effort to achieve.