Article (December-2016)


Recognition: the forgotten component of Reward programs

Sameer Nagrajan

Designation : -   Senior HR Professional

Organization : -  Dubai, UAE


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The concept of recognition is as old as time itself. In the corporate world, almost every organisation has a formal recognition program (and every organisation has a program of some sort). The program would seek to energise, motivate and enthuse for extraordinary acts. The program outlines an approach to identifying one-off instances of performance or activity beyond the call of duty, or demonstrating imagination, enthusiasm or customer orientation; the design would involve a small cash award, a hefty dose of ego-gratification (meet the CEO, get your photo and a write-up in the company magazine of e-zine and accolades from your peers, and so on). In most cases, these programs are launched with fanfare, have a great initial burst of energy, publicity and solemn speeches about how important people and their motivation are to the entire business and then …

Almost every organisation reports that the program gasps for breath after a while. It doesn't deliver the desired results.

Why? There are some reasons in my view why such programs fail, and understanding and addressing these dynamics is critical to ensuring that the program is a success.

1. Incorrect program design choices
The first choice to be made is whether such a program is to be structured comprehensively - in terms of award choices, recognition options and timing - or kept entirely spontaneous. These are some of the questions that need to be answered at the design stage:

a.Should we offer a range of options, or a single tool? Can you give INR 500-5000 or exactly and only INR 1000? Is cash better, or are shopping vouchers better? Should the high point be a meeting with the CEO, or a dinner out with the family at a five star hotel? And so on. Careful attention has to be paid to what employee values, and this may well differ based on the life stage of employees. The needs of a millennial will indeed are different from those of a young parent, or an older employee with working children. Too often HR gets caught up in issues of what is 'acceptable' from an organisation perspective (e.g. we don't give cash rewards here), rather than starting from the customer's point of view - in this case, the employee.

b.Should we do this once a month? Quarter? Leave it entirely spontaneous?

c.Who decides whether the action performed by an employee is worthy of recognition? Is it a select team of top managers? HR team? Combination of HR and line? Only the immediate line manager? The culture of the organisation can provide a clue. When charismatic leaders make choices, they send out a signal about worth. When task-focussed leaders make choices, they are indicating what actions are worth emulating. A balance should be struck in the design stage itself.

d.What is the role of peers? Can they nominate fellow employees? Can they decide? Can they input into the decision?

2. Organisation Culture
Does the culture support recognition programs, and if so, in what forms? It is not a coincidence that most international banks do not have structured recognition programs, especially on the deal side. A high-stress, competitive environment that rewards solo players is not going to make for great informal recognition programs. Conversely an environment where performance depends on team work lends itself to informal recognition quicker, as employees often realise quickly that their own success depends on the motivation of others. Talk to a typical employee at a fast food restaurant (think pizza, burgers). Their commitment to quality and speed means that the entire value chain must be aligned and therefore superlative service is quickly recognised.

3. Linkage to formal reward programs
This is a minefield and needs to be thought through carefully. How is the program going to align to year-end performance appraisals? Is it possible that someone does well in a one-off manner, and the year-end appraisal shows poor performance or attitude? Are HR and line managers equipped to explain this to the employee, his or her peers and before that, to themselves? Conversely, is it possible that an employee does not gain recognition in the manner the program envisages, yet appears to have turned in superlative performance via appraisal methodologies?

4. There is a linkage to discipline that needs to be articulated in advance
An unspoken fear of some line managers is that employees will slack if they receive recognition too early. There is some recognition that supports this contention - mainly saying that giving feedback too early makes the individual dependent on positive reinforcement and extrinsic motivation. This can be handled through carefully objective management of criteria and data. It is however equally important to understand how to articulate the criteria to ensure that the recognition does not become a license to slack.

5. Individual employee dynamics
To some extent this might be linked to overall organisational culture as well. The reality is that rewards often evoke envy and jealousy. While this can act as a spur to performance (if it is viewed in a manner that creates healthy competition) the situation can very quickly deteriorate to a point where criteria are viewed as inadequate, the decision-makers are criticised and team cohesion deteriorates. Important to ensure that the criteria assess both the delivery and the means employed, so that there is not an implicit endorsement of bad behaviour.

6. Top management commitment
This is too often ignored, leaving the recognition program to be managed by HR as a local departmental initiative. Top management needs to be reminded to endorse the program visibly and continually, until it gets ingrained into the ways of working. When the process starts from the top, it will flow all the way down; however the converse is not true. If it starts at the middle, chances are that it will drown in the rush of 'important' and 'urgent' work that is prioritised by the leadership.

Incorporating all of the above elements into the program will greatly enhance the chances of program visibility and success.

(Views expressed are personal to the author anddo not reflect the employers' point of view).