employee recognition

Employee recognition: Here’s how to do it right.

Being a boss is a job, an actual job. Being a manager means you need to learn how to do employee recognition well for your direct reports as part of your duties and responsibilities… even if it’s not explicitly listed in your job description.

Employee recognition = acknowledgement + reward.

If you know how to acknowledge and reward people well, you will see upsides that are pretty commonly cited: employee loyalty and satisfaction, for example. But there is a list of upsides that are not so commonly discussed, and that has to do with trust. If you want to be a trusted manager, then you’ll need to master employee recognition.

I have no script for you; this simply isn’t something that can be done well with scripts. It requires a high degree of emotional intelligence.

And it requires that you pay attention.

Let’s start with acknowledgement. There are a few required characteristics of employee recognition that will help you ensure that the acknowledgement part lands well with people.

  1. The acknowledgement is contextualized. You can describe exactly why your team member’s action was a valuable one.
  2. The acknowledgement is specific. You can describe the detail of their contribution. The more general the acknowledgement is, the less it feels genuine.
  3. The acknowledgement is personal. You are calling out people by name, not calling out teams or departments as a whole.

Let’s review some examples.

Contrast these two emails from different managers upon employee departures.

Paul’s last day is Friday. He has been a really great contributor to this department and this company. Help me wish him well in his future endeavors!


Elaine has been with the company for 5 years, 3 of those in [X] department. In that time, she has completely revamped our SOPs for a 33% increase in efficiency over 2 years, single-handedly managed one of our tougher clients and actually converted them for $25,000 of additional business, and has been a fantastic trainer and mentor for all of our new recruits in Q4 of 2016 and 2017.

We will miss Elaine, but she is moving on to a very exciting opportunity in another field that is sure to benefit from her attention to detail, her incredible people skills, and her intellectual curiosity and problem solving.

Elaine, we’ll miss you, but you will be a huge contributor wherever you go. Keep in touch, and best of luck to you!

The context, specifics, and personalization is crystal clear in the latter example.

Use acknowledgement as a great teaching moment.

Here is an example from a staff meeting.

I’d like to take a minute to call out Janeen for her work on the [X] account. [X] experienced some turnover in leadership last quarter, as many of you know, and Janeen recognized the turmoil this was causing with her contacts there and how this could threaten our ongoing projects. Janeen coordinated all the team leaders here to get organized on communications with [X] going forward, resulting in an incredible reinforcement of trust and comfort with our contacts there. As a result, we are the first firm meeting with the new leadership next week.

We had a great outcome here. I’d like to talk about having more regularly scheduled team coordination calls for our top 25 accounts. Let’s discuss how we can replicate this as a best practice.

When someone does something well, the acknowledgement allows you to consider whether it might make sense to leverage the context and specifics into wider-reaching benefits.

Not everyone is comfortable with acknowledgements in front of the whole company.

If you are a manager who is paying attention, you might realize that the employee recognition in group environments needs to be brief, and then expanded in a 1:1 setting.

Briefly, I just want to say great job to Czarek for navigating that tough customer call. He handled it with both grace in the communication and with conviction in our policies.

Then privately:

Czarek, you accomplished a great feat by threading the needle on the phone. It’s a high volume account, I read the notes on the call, and I’m not sure I could have handled it better. I’m going to use it as an anonymized case study in our training. Would you like to help draft up that case study, since you are the one most familiar with the account?

Even if you as a manager would like group acknowledgements, recognize that this isn’t about you and focus on what would make the employee feel best. If you are not sure, just ask them.

That last example nicely transitions us to the second part of employee recognition: rewards.

I’ve seen a lot of rewards that are quid pro quo in nature – meaning, you added some special sauce to this responsibility, so I will give you something extra (bonus, gift card, etc) in return. There is nothing wrong with this approach per se, but I think the greater opportunity to increase employee satisfaction and loyalty are what we could call growth rewards.

Rather than a quid pro quo approach to rewarding employees for jobs well done, consider how you might create a growth reward and elevate performance and outcome.

The question you need to ask yourself is: Is there a way to give the employee ownership of this somehow?

Here are some ideas:

  • Name the method after the employee. As in the example above, the manager could have called the “all hands” tactic to internal team coordination on top accounts the Janeen Approach. Why not? It creates a feeling of ownership and legacy. This can happen organically within a team or organization, but there’s no reason it can’t happen more proactively.
  • Have the employee lead training. As above, having Czarek create the case study for training is a great move. You can find other ways to give the employee a way to expand the impact of their great work. It also sets up the culture well, as in, “Here, this is how we do things excellently.”
  • Create opportunities for greater visibility for the employee. This is my personal favorite. In larger organizations, or even in companies that are small to medium sized but where the work tends to be heavily siloed, creating an opportunity for the employee to present their work as a case study to others outside their team or department increases their personal cache beyond their immediate colleagues.

There may be other ideas; these are just off the top of my head. The bottom line is to think of rewards in ways that further or extend the benefit for the employee (and the team on the side!). That’s a growth approach.

When considering a growth reward, allow the employee to have final say. Do not turn a growth reward into a burden.

Growth rewards have the potential to create a trickle-down effect of a positive outcome. However, because growth rewards often place additional burden on the employee, managers should defer to the employee in actual execution. If the acknowledgement landed well, and the employee would prefer to get back to stellar performance on their day to day tasks, let them. However, if the employee wouldn’t mind putting in more effort in order to realize extra professional development and growth as a result, go for it!

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