Employee rewards and recognition is a $45 billion dollar industry. And with companies like Google shelling out millions on employee awards and trips to Hawaii, even window shopping down recognition lane can be a stressful experience.
But great employee recognition doesn't have to include an expensive overhaul of your entire culture. And there's no need to wait until the "right time" to get started. These ten real-life stories and examples from actual managers, executives, and brilliant HR thinkers will show you just how simple and straightforward employee recognition can be.
#1 - Josh Bersin - Walking the walk
One of Deloitte’s premier HR minds and one of the industry's leading voices, Josh Bersin definitely talks the talk. Among many other gems of HR wisdom, Josh tells us that, “[w]hen you recognize the right things in the right way, people work harder.”
But he also walks the walk. In 2012, Deloitte launched their employee recognition program using gratitude as a simple yet powerful foundation. And even in his article announcing the program, Josh gives thanks.“PS, I would like to thank Stacia Garr, our Principal Analyst in talent management, for this amazing work and all the value it will provide to our clients. We have already implemented many of the practices in this research in our company and the results have been fantastic.”
This example shows how a simple two-sentence P.S. at the end of a blog post can bridge the gap between a company's leaders and their employees, while showing a little love for the people who make it all possible.
#2 - Lars Schmidt - Taking it to Twitter
Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify Talent and HR Open Source. Lars is all about transformative hiring and spreading next-level HR knowledge. One day in 2014, he found himself in a reflective mood. So he sat in front of his twitter for nearly 20 hours, tweeting out kind words to friends, coworkers, and even strangers.
His 'Random Tweets of Kindness' went viral and #RTOK was soon trending on Twitter with over 4,000 tweets from 35 countries expressing love and appreciation for their friends and teams.
And while you might not be able to spend twenty hours tweeting, the fundamentals of Lars’s Twitter recognition spree can apply to any kind of recognition program. His tweets were powerful because they were public, openly accessible declarations of genuine praise — almost like a tiny heartfelt recommendation letter.
#3 - Laszlo Bock - Making rewards personal
Laszlo Bock is a big name in the HR world because of all the awesome work he did at Google—work that has inspired even more amazing HR policies at Google, and pretty much everywhere else.
In an interview with SHRM, Laszlo tells us what he learned while working under another legendary businessman, Jack Welch. Among other things, Laszlo learned, “how important it is to know your people” explaining that Jack spent half his time getting to know his workforce.
Laszlo points to how much better and more relevant an award can be when you actually know the person and what it is that they like. Laszlo makes a practice of personalizing employee recognition rewards as a way of showing, not only that you recognize an employee's awesome work, but also that you respect and celebrate their personal interests—an undeniable part of who they are on the whole.
#4 - David Novak - Getting weirdly specific
Like Laszlo, business author and former CEO of Yum! Brands, David Novak believes awards must be specific to the individual you're recognizing. Even if that means getting a little weird with it sometimes.
During David's tenure at Yum!, employees were given some pretty strange gifts, such as rubber chickens, cheese heads, and those crazy wind-up walking teeth toys (to show that the person walked the talk, get it?).
David not only took out-of-the-box employee recognition to a whole new level, he also personalized his awards to recognize employees in a way that never felt shallow or routine. And come on, there’s no doubt a rubber chicken is a way more memorable than a gold plaque.
#5 - Ally Bunin - Keeping it human
Ally Bunin is as an HR expert and leader in the medical industry. Passionate about creating an awesome employee experience, one of the first things Ally did when she joined Brighton Health Plan Solutions was create an employee recognition program.
She used a points-based system with built-in peer-to-peer recognition where employees could redeem points for any reward of their choice. What's great about Ally's approach isn't just that it uses the same principles that make gamified perks and recognition a hit with employees, but that she kept the program human and authentic by giving a handwritten card along with each reward.
In these days of all tech all the time, Ally’s story rocks because it shows how to launch a recognition program that keeps those small touches that can make every award feel sincere, personal and undeniably human.
#6 - Marcus Buckingham - Accepting your people for who they are
Marcus Buckingham is a world-renowned work researcher for Gallup and a best-selling author on HR and leadership. He can tell you plenty of stories that make a clear case against a one-size-fits-all approach to employee recognition.
Marcus uses one of his own coworkers, Larry, as an example. Larry is a pretty unempathetic manager and can be a bit too direct. And while most HR managers would rush to get Larry enrolled in some kind of EQ training program, Marcus says stressing out about an employees perceived 'weakness' is a waste of time and money.
The way for Gallup to get the most out of Larry — and for Larry to get the most out of Gallup — is to focus on the strengths that set Larry apart, namely his strategic thinking and confidence. By Gallup letting Larry be Larry, they also let everyone else know they're free to be themselves at work without being "punished" for it. Accepting your people for who they are makes the entire workplace feel more natural, without ever having to force it.
#7 - Ben Eubanks - Letting everyone chime in
Ben Eubanks is the cofounder of HR Revolution, a regular writer on all topics HR, and a BIG believer in innovation. In fact, Ben believes innovation is the master key to business success and when you read what he has to say about it, it's hard to disagree. But Ben also believes that innovation and recognition can easily go hand-in-hand.
In other words, to really recognize your employees, start by recognizing their innovations.
Ben shares one story that gets at the simple power of the suggestion box. In one of the companies where Ben worked, the employer actively encouraged employees to submit ideas well outside of the confines of their job. So one employee took the initiative and suggested they make one of their products open to licensing. That little folded up piece of paper in the suggestion box ended up being a “million dollar product line for the business.”
A truly epic employee recognition program lets the employee feel a sense of pride and ownership, and gives the business awesome new sources of revenue in the process. Talk about a win-win!
#8 - Tammy Bjelland - Using your in-house experts
Tammy Bjelland is an education and talent development expert and the founder of Learning In Bloom. Tammy suggests bringing your employees into the training process by having a top salesperson write the sales script for new hire onboarding. “That practice,” she writes for FitSmallBusiness, “fulfills two functions: recognizing the employee for their strengths and developing valuable assets to compile in a company-wide training program.”
Tammy’s example shows how recognition done right can often kill two birds with one stone.
It also shows how recognition can be a growth opportunity, both for the individual employee and the organization as a whole. By giving the top salesperson a small, non-intrusive training task, you might just open them up to other opportunities in the company later, like leadership or management.
#9 - Tawni Cranz - Recognizing the struggles
If you’ve done your reading on company culture, you’ve heard all about the awesome perks and policies of working at Netflix. Tawni Cranz was the head of HR at Netflix from 2007 to 2017, where she helped come up with some of the companies best ideas, including the widely hailed unlimited parental leave.
Tawni recognized the difficulty new parents face and made sure work wouldn’t be one of them. Employees who have recently adopted or given birth can come back part-time, full-time work, and take time off as they need.
This policy is great because it recognizes an age-old struggle many employers still ignore, while extending an unparalleled level of trust and autonomy to Netflix's employees.
#10 - Lucy Adams - Respecting each other's humanity
Lucy Adams founded her own HR consultancy firm after slugging it out in the field and finding so much wrong with the way things were done. And one of Lucy’s biggest frustrations came from a blatant lack of humanity in the office.
Lucy shares two stories about humanity in the workplace, one good and one bad. In the good story, Adams witnessed a partner at a law firm spend his afternoon going desk to desk, after announcing their restructuring, to talk out frustrations directly with his people.
The bad one involved Lucy during her time working in HR at the BBC. Lucy received feedback that a company-wide email she sent out was “crap.” Rather than getting defensive, she tried to understand why she was getting this feedback. Lucy quickly realized that by the time her email had passed through all the different departments and compliance hurdles, any friendly, human language had been completely stripped out, leaving only stale corporate jargon. It was crap.
The workplace can sometimes leave little room for the basic humanity we should all be able to extend to each other. The stiff, overly formal nature of business can even commandeer the words we use to connect with each other. Whether it's binge-tweeting your love for your people, or simply saying "thank you" like you mean it, these stories are great because they show how simple employee recognition can be.