How to Reward and Recognise Employees in a People-Focused Way

by Andy Davies on January 17, 2018

So, you’re in charge of a team and they are performing well. How do you say thank you to them, and how often? Is there such a thing as ‘too often’?

I was at a training seminar when the discussion got round to feedback. One senior manager said, “I don’t tell people when they have done well. I don’t have the time.” At this point, I’d like to suggest that this is not the approach to take to any managerial and leadership responsibilities.

Instead, look around your organisation for the existing reward system. You may find a formalised system that you can examine and use the full range of rewards available.

I’ve spent many years observing and utilising different types of reward system. I’ve also seen the impact of those rewards and recognitions. Here is my take on a reward continuum:

reward system frequency and tangibility

This is a simple model that considers intangible rewards to be the most frequently used. Examples of intangible rewards include letters of appreciation, public recognition at a staff party, employee of the month (I’ll cover this in more detail later on), a post on social media, or simply shaking someone’s hand and saying thanks. These rewards don’t need any kind of support from your line manager or accounts department. In fact, you should get into the habit of giving these types of rewards naturally.

I once worked for a very demanding boss, who I didn’t consider to be the type of character I wanted to become. As a result of this, I fought against everything he stood for and believed all that he did was wrong. While looking through a stack of papers and certificates recently, I found several of his hand-written notes to me, thanking me for my efforts and celebrating my successes. At the time, I hardly read these and simply put them in a box. Looking back at those notes made me realise what we achieved and that I should have learnt more from him about those notes. I have never had good handwriting and would not dare to send someone a handwritten note; however, that has not stopped me typing a letter. I agree that it’s not as personal, but it still conveys feelings.

The tangible-infrequent end of the model reflects the more formal types of reward, such as performance related pay, team bonuses or individual bonuses where application forms probably need to be submitted. Some rewards are judged after the appraisal is submitted to enable moderation to take place. This can be another source of contention as levels of reward can be changed beyond the recognition of the manager, which has a negative motivational effect from both manager and employee.

Some employers have engaged specialist reward companies to provide a range of rewards that would otherwise be unaffordable for them to operate. It can involve employees earning points to exchange, one-off bonuses in the form of ‘red letter days’, or high-street vouchers. Fizz Benefits is one such example of how this industry has grown and now offers a compelling service to many organisations.

Team rewards are often well received. This may include funding for cinema trips, meals out, paint-balling, etc. The difficulty here is choosing an event that suits everyone. Most of the teams I have worked in have an age range of 18-65, with varying levels of fitness. One friend runs a software design agency where all of his employees are under 25; his problem is keeping up during the team events, because they are always physical activities rather than the theatre!

The point of all of this is that rewards have to be suitable for the individual(s) receiving them. There is no point giving a £5 music download voucher to an executive who earns £100k. When you do want to reward someone, consider the following:

  • Are their actions within the normal remit or considerably above it?
  • Is this going to become a regular feature of their work? In which case you may need to look at this differently, possibly by increasing their base salary to prevent repeated bonuses.
  • What level of reward would reflect their performance whilst acting as a motivator to others?
  • List three options available to you and then decide on your preferred one.
  • Do I have the authority to give this reward?

Once you have completed this process, you need to learn from the reward.  What made it so good, and can we adopt this elsewhere? The point is to reward performance that goes beyond that expected in a person's normal role. A rewards and recognition system should have the sole aim of spreading high performance and encouraging others to aim for the same reward.

However, there are some rewards that will simply not get the desired result,  like the employee who is awarded a laptop and instantly sells it on the canteen notice board for a fraction of its true value. And everyone knows that the money will simply fund his Saturday night out. This is a case where an inappropriate reward is given.

Or the ‘Employee of the Month’ Award (EOTMA): some will imply that everyone else is not performing other than this person. What lessens the impact of the EOTMA more, is where the same individual receives it several times during the same year. A photo on the reception wall is often seen as an embarrassment to the employee and a source of cynicism for their colleagues. In this situation, most employees would have settled for a ‘thank you’ by a senior manager and the presentation of a certificate.

In large organisations, one main issue I have battled against is the time delay in making any type of reward. Often, the bureaucracy involved makes the managers hesitant about starting the process and, therefore, many employees will not be recognised for their exceptional contributions. If your organisation is in this mould, there are many things you can do:

  • Research all the options early on and get to know the key individuals in the process. If you have to follow a rigid structure, make it easy on yourself.
  • Where possible, task managers within your team with elements of the work.
  • Start raising your concerns about the delays you are encountering; especially if you lose a key employee.
  • Or, introduce your own ‘Certificate of Commendation’; it may not be much, but an interim award like this can help whilst you process the formal one.

Rewards need to be timely, appropriate and celebrated, otherwise their impact is lost.

Lastly, this is an important part of a leader’s role. If you get to the end of your first year in a job and you haven’t given a reward to someone, you have either been very unlucky with your employees or you have yet to see what your team does. Talk to your customers and find out who the best people are. In an under-performing team, it’s still possible to find one ray of sunshine.