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How to Fail at Employee Recognition

"Flattery is from the teeth out. Sincere appreciation is from the heart out."
Dale Carnegie

employee praise failJust as there are best practices that can contribute to the success of an employee recognition program (see our article "How to Succeed at Employee Recognition"), there are also some very important pitfalls that should be avoided, as they can cause an employee recognition program to fail. Here are several of the most common problems and some recommendations on how to address them:

  1. Failing to establish employee expectations - if an employee recognition program is poorly designed, constructed or communicated, it should not come as a surprise that employees don't understand when and how they will be recognized. We've seen examples where a bonus program is a complete "black hole" - employees participating in the program had no idea how their bonuses were calculated. The answer is to make your program very clear and unambiguous and ensure that all employees know what it is and how it works.

  2. Unnecessary red tape - in some cases, a recognition program can be so full of rules and regulations that employees simply view it as another example of organizational bureaucracy. The solution? Keep your program simple and easy to follow.

  3. Lack of follow-up - nothing is more likely to demotivate employees than to expect to receive a reward or recognition for a job well done but not get it. Too often, employee recognition programs make commitments that aren't kept, at least not in a reasonable timeframe. The answer is to design a program that promises only what it can deliver and then delivers on those promises, every time, rather than establishing expectations that cannot be met.

  4. Constant change - when the "rules of the game" within your employee recognition program are changed frequently and arbitrarily, employees get discouraged with the program. We've heard employees comment that employee recognition program changes are made for the sole purpose of benefiting the organization, such as making it more difficult for employees to meet the current recognition levels. Sometimes employees tell us these changes are made at the last minute - just before they qualify for a reward that they are expecting to receive. When you change your program, always make an effort to improve it for employees, such as adding new opportunities for recognition and reward. If you do need to address "recognition inflation", tell them why you have to change the program, consult with them on how best to revamp it and introduce the changes in a timely manner.

  5. Unfair implementation - if employees believe that your employee recognition program is applied unfairly or inconsistently, your entire program is probably in serious jeopardy. If recognition criteria vary substantially between divisions or departments, your employees likely know that. Quite often, the same people are consistently recognized or rewarded because the program is inherently unfair, recognizing and rewarding only certain positions, such as sales. To address this weakness, keep fairness and equality top-of-mind when designing the program and ask yourself if your employee recognition program is open to all of your employees, not just a select few.

  6. Hypocrisy - many employee recognition initiatives have been sabotaged by major inconsistencies between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk". Be alert to any indications that employees view your recognition program as a 'good ole boys' network or believe that certain employees get recognized more because of who they know than what they do. There is no quick fix to this kind of hypocrisy, as it tends to be embedded in the culture of the organization, but the solution has to start with realization that the problem exists.

  7. Rewarding poor performance - employee recognition programs that allow poor performers to be recognized will quickly lose credibility with your top performers. Poor performance should be addressed and employee recognition should always be earned and never taken for granted.

  8. Lack of management participation - too often, senior management introduce the employee recognition program to great fanfare but then disappear and never become active participants in the program. This makes employees believe that the program is not really important to the organization and, as result, not deserving of their efforts or attention. Keeping a recognition program vital requires continual management visibility. Senior management should have specific roles to play so that they remain an integral part of the program and should encourage and model employee recognition for all levels of leadership.

If you have concerns about the value and effectiveness of your employee recognition program - such as low satisfaction with employee reward and recognition on your latest employee survey - look for signs of these problems and make a commitment to address the weaknesses head on.


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