One reason employee recognition programs fail – Manager

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”
–Mother Teresa

Recognition being a fundamental human need also holds immense strategic prominence  within the organizational context. When employees are recognized and valued for their good work and achievements, their morale and productivity get a boost which in turn, positively impact overall organizational culture and performance. Research further suggests that employees who receive frequent recognition are more likely to be highly engaged with their organization, maintain better relationship with their managers and peers and are more aligned with organizational goals. 

Recognition also helps employees see that their organization values them and their contributions. This is especially relevant in today’s dynamic ecosystem where organizations are continuously undergoing waves of change. Employees look forward to build some sense of security. Recognition imparts that sense by reinforcing their value to the company, encouraging them to continue their good work. Unfortunately,  research by Harvard Business School showed that more than 80 percent of employees do not feel recognized or rewarded at work. Lack of recognition may prove costly; research by Forbes established that lack of recognition by managers is one of the biggest reasons for employees quitting their organizations.  Rising number of employee resignations due to lack of recognition is compelling organizations to take employee recognition programs rather seriously.

The good part is – many organizations are realizing the direct impact of recognition on organizational performance and therefore, allocating separate budget for the same. A recent forecast report on ‘employee recognition system market analysis’ posits that the Global Employee Recognition System Market size is valued for USD 11.1 Billion in 2021 and is projected to occupy a market size of USD 34.1 Billion by 2030. In India also, there has been an increased focus on Rewards and Recognition (R&R) programs; the share in spends is expected to grow from 20% in 2016 to 35% in 2025 of overall employee rewards spent. 

Setting up a program for success

In the past couple of years, the nature of recognition program has evolved and today employees want to be recognized and rewarded in innovative ways. The onus of designing and executing impactful recognition program mostly lies with the HR heads, however, several questions come to the mind of HR heads that need to be addressed before rolling out any recognition program:

  • How will the organization respond to the rollout?  
  • Will it have buy-in from the key stakeholders?
  • Is the program well-aligned with other strategic priorities?
  • Will there be sufficient budget allocated for the program?
  • Will managers respond positively and encourage their teams to use it?
  • What are some of the innovative and novel ways to recognize employees? 
  • Will the programs have desired impact?
  • How will I measure the impact of the program?

HR heads need to work in close conjunction with the ‘managers’ to ensure the success of recognition programs. 

Ascertaining the efficacy of recognition programs- successful or failing?

However, despite all the planning, sufficient budget, it has been observed that the efficacy of recognition programs remains questionable; many programs start off well but their impact fizzles out mid-way and then these fall flat towards the end. There are myriad of reasons for the failure of recognition programs; in this article, we will mainly focus on the role of managers, one of the most important factors determining the success of these programs and also one the most cited reason of employees quitting their job. Managers are critical members of the recognition process because they are the leaders who maintain the most constant contact with their team members. Let’s delve deeper into it:

  • Manager’s lack of involvement and support: Managers hold the key to a successful planning and implementation of employee recognition programs. However, it has been observed that often line managers are not fully involved during the initial stages of the program; they are either busy handling other commitments and perceive these programs as yet another HR initiative. This scepticism and indifference cascades down to their team members and hence participation doesn’t happen whole heartedly. It is advisable that HR heads involve managers right from the conception stage till the culmination of recognition program. Also, their opinions should be sought and reservations should be addressed.
  • Manager’s dilemma- recognition vs. reward: Most of the organizations create a clear distinction between recognition and reward. While the responsibility of creating and implementing good reward system (better bonus, one-time incentives, individual and team awards, on stage/event based/ trophies from senior leadership, gift vouchers, holiday packages etc) lies with the HR team, the actual act of recognizing – who among the employees deserve the award, actually falls on the line managers. And that is where many organizations fail in recognizing the deserving performers from the pool of employees. 

One way to ensure that the good performers are actually recognized is to actually take feedback from the larger ecosystem – direct managers, indirect managers, direct and indirect reportees, clients, customers, vendors etc. Unfortunately, most of the organizations take a shortcut by delegating the recognition part only to line managers who may or may not have the full knowledge about the actual performance of their direct reportees, or in worst case might have personal biases towards a few. This paves way for the perceived lack of unfairness and dissatisfaction. Hence it is highly recommended to conduct employee performance review diligently to take an informed and well-rounded decision. Managers will also feel more accountable and objective. This will also promote the culture of fairness and equity.

  • Lack of team’s buy-in: It is often observed that employee R&R programs are conceptualized without taking any inputs from the employees, resulting in lack of enthusiasm towards the program. It is important that managers explain and clarify the need and objectives of any recognition program to its team members and conceptualize any program after a dipstick with the team members. Managers can collect team members’ inputs through pulse surveys which can then be shared with the HR team to come up with the most innovative program which sustains the interest of team members.
  • Inability to harness the power of technology: Recognition processes can get cumbersome and monotonous over a period of time. Work-force dynamics have also changed and we see younger and more tech-savvy employees entering the workplace placing different demands from the program. Manager need to put in some extra efforts to make it interesting. By leveraging technology, managers can automate and digitize the operation-heavy processes. It is critical that the process is kept simple and intuitive so that employees are willing to take part in it.
  • Lack of personalized R&R programs: Many managers think of recognition programs as one-size-fits-all solution and thus employees’ preferences are not gathered while planning the programs. Today’s gen-z generation are very vocal about what they want. Some employees like public recognition, while others may prefer to go on a short trip while others may desire gift vouchers. Managers may acknowledge this and come up with some personalized program that would involve some ‘human touch’ to make team members appreciated and deeply valued.
  • Not measuring the impact of program: You can’t fix what you can’t measure! If managers don’t know what’s working well vs. what do they need to improve upon, recognition program will become redundant and lose its fervour. Managers need to show ‘Return on Investment (ROI)’ of these programs to its key stakeholders, including team members. Gathering real time data and collecting employees’ feedback through formal pulse surveys or informal catch ups will help establish causation.

The prime objective of employee recognition programs is to facilitate a culture of appreciation and recognition, and managers are the key components of this. They need to be actively involved in the process from its inception till its culmination. With changes abound, employee recognition programs also need to evolve and adapt to the changing organizational priorities, technology, and employee preferences. HR partners as well as managers need to work in tandem to ensure the success of such programs. They should invest in processes and tools that would streamline the recognition programs and will invite more acceptance and active participation organization-wide.

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