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HR's Role in Employee Recognition

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Every spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives out its coveted Oscar awards. Besides Best Picture, the awards that create the most excitement and media buzz are Best Actor and Best Actress. The nominees for these awards are Hollywood's stars, but the Academy knows these people can't do it alone.

They also give out awards for director, sound, special effects, editing, and more. The winners are highly respected professionals with vitally important roles in the process of creating great movies. Without their support, the films we love would never get made, and the stars would never shine.

In the best organizations, Human Resources plays a highly important role in the recognition process, but it is a supporting rather than starring role. In these organizations, management is responsible for recognition while Human Resources guides and supports them, remaining behind the scenes.

Organizations fail when they expect Human Resources to play a starring role in the recognition process. Recognition that comes from HR lacks the personal touch and relevance necessary to make it effective.

Meaningful recognition must come from someone affected by
the recognized behavior or achievement.

Imagine yourself in the following scenario:

Some anonymous person within your organization arranges for every employee to receive a potted plant on the anniversary of his or her hire date. The computer generates a list of employees with upcoming anniversaries, and Accounts Payable creates the purchase order.

On your anniversary, a florist delivers a plant to your desk. When your manager walks by, she notices that you have received the standard anniversary plant and says, "Oh, is it your anniversary?"

At that moment, how recognized do you feel? Does it matter to you that somebody, somewhere in organization knows it's your anniversary? Probably not. For most people, this kind of recognition has about as much value as a computer-generated birthday greeting from their life-insurance company.
Recognition has meaning when it comes from people who benefit from your behavior or have a direct interest in your achievements. In other words, recognition has value when it comes from your manager, peers, or customers.

In smaller companies, that can include the employees in HR—if they know the people they are recognizing. At publisher Berrett-Koehler, there is one successful HR-driven program. With only 19 employees, HR manager Ginger Winters assists wherever there is a need and knows her colleagues well. When Winters recognizes her coworkers' anniversaries, they see value. More on this later.

In larger organizations where HR is more of an entity than a person, recognition from HR is typically impersonal and a waste of company resources. To make recognition meaningful and effective, HR needs to step out of the starring role and into a or, in non-movie language, facilitating role.

Using the anniversary plant example, HR can generate the list and order the plants, but the department's representative should deliver the plant and the name of the employee directly to the manager. HR might even take it a step further and provide an anniversary card. After that, it is up to the manager to prepare a personal note and deliver the plant. The manager's actions will determine whether the anniversary gift makes a positive impression, because it's the interaction between the employee and manager, not the plant itself, which is meaningful.

Recognition Is Not a Function of Human Resources

When the people in HR discover that job satisfaction is suffering because employees crave recognition, they can find themselves in a frustrating position. They have identified a need, and they want to satisfy it. If management ignores the problem, HR will often take the lead.

HR might survey employees on recognition preferences, create sophisticated and imaginative programs, and develop metrics to track results. While their intentions are admirable and, in many cases, they have an excellent understanding of the mechanics of recognition, inevitably, when HR takes the lead, they fail.

Even if HR has support from the organization's leaders, their recognition efforts can still fail. Consider the president who approaches the head of Human Resources and asks her to create and implement a recognition program. The president provides the budget and then leaves it in HR's capable hands.

HR designs a great program and announces it to the employees and their managers. After a few months of unenthusiastic response, the president says that either it was the wrong program or that recognition simply doesn't work. Neither would be true. The problem is the perception that it is HR's program and not the president's program. Again, HR has stepped out of its essential supporting role.

According to a former employee of a technology company, "Our company offered the Terrific Employee Award... The CEO never got involved. No one but HR took it seriously. They solicited employees for nominations and got so few responses they eventually gave up and selected someone themselves."

Programs that appear to originate with HR are rarely successful. HR can design the program, but then they need to give ownership back to management and let them announce and lead it.

Lizette O. Norton, assistant vice president of Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center, Human Resource Management, agrees. She says her people are "the ones who coordinate recognition." For the medical center's program, "Connect with Those Who Care," HR stays behind the scenes, gathering stories of valued behaviors—in this case, employees caught in the act of doing good. HR then provides these stories to the president of the organization who, in company meetings, relays the stories as recognition and inspiration for all.

What HR Does Best

So what does it mean to have a supporting role? It means doing most of the work while taking little of the credit. But it can also mean contributing in a meaningful way to a very successful program and adding considerable value to management's recognition efforts. To see how this works, let's look at it from two different perspectives.

Large Company Perspective

FedEx Freight provides many recognition opportunities for its employees. Programs include truck-driving championships, where drivers compete to be the best driver in the country, and employee-nominated awards for being "Easy To Do Business With" and generating additional revenue (the Moment of Truth Award). Managers and directors give awards for safety and performance. There is also a company-wide celebration known as Employee Appreciation Week. In each of these programs, the people in Human Resources play an active and vital—but supporting role.

One of HR's most important recognition functions is to track what works and what doesn't and use this knowledge to recommend effective changes. According to Tom Suchevits, vice president of Human Resources at FedEx Freight West, when his department looked at the Service Center of the Year Award (based on hours between injuries, miles between accidents, on-time performance, and other factors), they determined that the award didn't provide enough opportunities for recognition. Suchevits recommended they change it to the Service Center of the Quarter Award, giving four times more opportunity for recognition.

He also recommended changing the award itself from a dinner dance for everyone at the service center to a cash prize that employees use to celebrate as they choose. And what do employees at winning service centers choose? Some still choose to have a dinner. Others take a weekend trip together, raffle off large prizes, have a barbecue, or provide each employee with a gift card for a local store. Each center celebrates in a way that most appeals to them.

To figure out what is and isn't working, FedEx Freight's HR department administers two annual 24-question surveys that measure all areas of job satisfaction, including recognition. When the results are in, HR helps managers create action plans for improvement.

HR at FedEx Freight also offers manager training on all recognition programs. The executive team wants to do what they can to ensure all managers and supervisors are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the programs the company offers, so once a year HR updates managers on how each program works and what impact it has had on employees and the organization.

Through data collection and analysis, testing and adapting of programs, and the training and guidance of managers, HR supports the recognition programs of FedEx Freight's management in ways that other companies would do well to emulate.

  Seven Tips for Effective Recognition Programs

Tip #1: Make sure that the executive team supports your efforts. The executive team needs to take the leading role in promoting the value of recognition and in creating buy-in among managers.

Tip #2: Survey the managers in order to discover their knowledge and attitudes regarding recognition. The executive team can use this information to predict which managers will be most effective at recognizing employees and which will need training or coaching. Remember, HR can uncover reluctance and lack of understanding, but only the top management can act to correct them.

Tip #3: Survey employees to learn how satisfied they are. The executive team can use this information to make decisions that impact job satisfaction. If survey administrators also identify departments or divisions for each survey participant, they can pinpoint where recognition is working and where it isn't.

Tip #4: Offer training or coaching on how to provide meaningful recognition. Managers should view training and coaching as valuable resources for their use. If they will be required to attend training or receive coaching in order to correct a deficiency, the executive team, not HR, should mandate it.

Tip #5: Don't force a recognition program on reluctant managers. Focus your energy on managers and supervisors who are enthusiastic. Even with only one manager or supervisor's buy-in, you can have a successful pilot program. If you let that manager lead the program, you can demonstrate success that the executive team can then use to showcase the program to other managers.

Tip #6: Help management provide more variety. Design programs such as employee-nominated peer recognition awards. Coordinate celebratory events that improve employee interaction and job satisfaction. Provide reward ideas.

Tip #7: Track program results and provide feedback to managers. You can help managers see their progress by providing necessary metrics. Measure employee satisfaction, retention, and absentee rates—anything that is meaningful to management. You can show the value of the programs by tracking improvements in both job satisfaction and productivity.

A Smaller Company Perspective

Depending on the size of your company, you might find surveys and other forms of data collection and analysis are impractical or even counter-productive. In a small company, personal conversations between managers and employees are the best way to judge employee satisfaction with recognition. Employees can view anything else as too impersonal.

If you work for a small company, what else can you do to support the recognition process?

You might choose to help management add variety to their recognition efforts. Some companies have successfully added peer recognition programs. In those companies, HR works with management to develop specific criteria and processes for nomination. Employees nominate coworkers, giving detailed descriptions of why they should win an award. A panel of judges reviews the nominations. Then senior management makes the awards.

Other HR departments have implemented very successful Employee Appreciation Days. While HR coordinates the event, managers are the ones putting on aprons and barbequing for the employees.

As previously mentioned, Ginger Winters of Berrett-Koehler instituted a successful anniversary program. On an employee's anniversary, she sends one flower for each year the person has been with the company. In addition to the flowers, Winters sends an email to all her coworkers announcing the anniversary and telling a little about what the employee has been doing recently.

Business Development and Marketing Associate Jenny Hermann says that, for her, the value of the Berrett-Koehler anniversary program is in receiving the email and then getting replies from most of the other employees in the company. She sees the program as an extension of what her coworkers do every day anyway—thanking each other and offering congratulations and praise.

Winters's success with the anniversary program depends upon a company culture that encourages recognition. Berrett-Koehler president Steven Piersanti models effective recognition, and employees at Berrett-Koehler see the value in acknowledging coworkers. Together they have created a culture that emphasizes recognition. Because of the way employees treat each other, Hermann says, "there's never been a day when I didn't want to come to work."

If your company doesn't have a similar culture, what can you do? For the time being, forget about adding variety. Before you plan peer-recognition programs, arrange for Employee Appreciation Days, or set up friendly competitions to do the following:

  • Work with management to improve their understanding of what recognition is and why it creates a more productive and committed workforce.
  • Teach managers how to give effective recognition and how to encourage employees to recognize each other.
  • Work behind the scenes and lay the groundwork for effective recognition.
Success in a Supporting Role

As the featured companies show, Human Resources can have a very active and successful role in its organization's recognition efforts. Some of the ways HR can most appropriately facilitate the process are to help establish program structure, survey employees and managers, and provide information and guidance to the executive team. Done well, HR can play an important, even award-winning, part in providing effective employee recognition. Is your HR department "the best department in a supporting role"?

  "HR's Role in Employee Recognition" is adapted from Cindy Ventrice's new book, Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works. For more information or to contact Cindy, visit You can contact Cindy directly by writing to PO Box 3437, Santa Cruz, CA 95063; you can also call 831-476-422 or email

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Popular tags:

 publishing  management  projects  Winters  HR  management teams  job satisfaction  benefits  CEO  guides

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