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Employee Recognition: Try It, You’ll Like It


Virtually every organization has employees, possibly many, like Bob, the focus of a brief story I read recently. The author and storyteller is David Novak, the CEO of Yum! Brands.

In his book Taking People With You, Novak writes: “I asked [a group of employees] what I thought was a straightforward question about merchandising . . . I wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t. Right away someone piped up, ‘Bob is the expert in that area. He can tell you how it’s done.’ Someone else added, ‘Bob taught me more in one day than I’d learned in two years on the job.’ Every single person the room agreed: Bob was best there was. I looked over at Bob, thinking he must be thrilled by this praise. Instead, I saw that he had tears running down his face. When I asked him what was wrong, Bob, who had been with the company for over forty years, and was about to retire in just two weeks, said, ‘I never knew anyone felt that way about me.’”

Looking back there have been times in my career when I felt good about an accomplishment, but it was ignored or worse. My guess is it has happened to everyone more than once.

It would be interesting to know how many federal employees feel their accomplishments have not been adequately recognized. OPM’s annual employee survey suggests it’s a high percentage. The positive responses on a number of questions related to recognition are low and dropping: awards (35 percent), promotions (32 percent), performance differences (31 percent), creativity and innovation (35 percent).

Employers in the private sector have similar problems. A recent employee survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 36 percent reported not having received any form of recognition in the past year. Only 31 percent said that direct supervisors express verbal or written appreciation for their efforts. Bob’s experience is unfortunately far from unique.

In contrast, when recognition is seen as fair and supervisors provide it effectively, employees report:

  1. Higher levels of job satisfaction
  2. They are likely to work more diligently—that is to say, steady, earnest and energetic
  3. A stronger motivation to do their best
  4. A greater sense of feeling valued

The bottom line is effective recognition supports better performance.

Recognition is best understood as an element of a reward strategy. It can take many forms, from the informal (e.g., an ‘atta boy’ comment from a manager or co-worker) to the formal meeting or ceremony where awards are presented. The book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees is a great resource.

It’s a win-win for everyone. As with Bob’s co-workers, those who share the occasion generally enjoy it if they believe the recognition is deserved. To borrow a phrase: Try it, you’ll like it.

This is preaching, I admit. Every manager can and should commit to finding opportunities to recognize employee accomplishments. Websites and journals even tangentially related to management have featured recent blogs and articles on employee engagement and happiness. The business media focus on those issues for one reason: it’s good for business. Recognition contributes to a culture in which employees perform at their best.

Equally important is the sense of satisfaction and well-being that employees experience when they are valued and feel appreciated. Work is central to the lives of many people, and their experience carries over into their life satisfaction. Employees who find their jobs rewarding report fewer stress symptoms, are unlikely to experience burnout, and have better relationships with co-workers. All of that at little or no cost.

The world of work has had a wakeup call. That old phrase “employees are our most important asset” now has real meaning. It’s widely acknowledged that how employees feel about their jobs and the way they are managed is a key to their performance and to an organization’s success.

Government starts with an advantage. Few organizations can argue their business goals and strategy are important to an individual’s career choice. But public service in its various forms provides a sense of purpose that is a source of motivation for many. The enthusiasm of new graduates, however, gets harder and harder to sustain with continued fed bashing, budget cuts, and pay freezes.

Individual managers can make a difference. Gallup’s engagement research highlights the manager’s role. Managers are both the primary reason people quit their jobs as well as the catalyst for high performance.

But recognition is far more powerful when it becomes an accepted element of the culture and broadly practiced across an organization. It starts with leaders. They need to make effective workforce management a priority. The best make employees feel important.

It is also important to help employees understand how their efforts contribute to the organization’s success. People find greater satisfaction when they feel they are part of the success. That’s an alignment issue that starts with performance planning and must be reconfirmed throughout the year. The recognition of their accomplishments confirms their value to the organization.

Some other steps agencies should consider:

  • Build an understanding of the importance of recognition, intrinsic motivation and employee engagement into supervisor and management development programs.
  • Conduct periodic employee surveys and focus groups to identify the more-effective managers and their practices. Involve the best as coaches for less-effective managers. Move ineffective managers back to nonsupervisory roles.
  • Have focus groups review the credibility of performance ratings. If there are problems, introduce calibration committees of peer level managers as a “quality” step prior to final approval of ratings.
  • Introduce a policy to allow employees to recognize the accomplishments of co-workers with nominal rewards. Experience should be reviewed periodically to ensure rewards are justified.
  • Form committees of employees to develop recognition policies. Their co-workers are very likely to support their recommendations.

Employee surveys provide evidence for needed change. Recognition policies do not require costly systems. There are no constraints. Improving those survey responses will create better places to work.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via Brt/

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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