How To Make Recognition a Great Gift

Recognition is something special that connects the giver with the recipient uniquely by their expression of recognition or the gift of recognition they give.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School Professor, nicely delineated the difference between compensation and recognition, when she said that, “Compensation is a right; recognition is a gift.” 

What can you do to make the recognition you give to people a great gift? 

1. Brown paper packages tied up with strings. Great gifts always come in special wrapping or unique packaging versus plain brown paper.

I recall a small utility company in Eastern Canada that called me up to ask how they could make their service awards presentations more special. 

Most organizations celebrating service milestone anniversaries give their employees the chance to choose a gift from an online catalogue from their specific milestone level. When the award ceremony comes along, everyone else gets excited for them as they open up the gift that they already know what it is. 

Most companies use the same-colored wrapping paper if they do it themselves. And vendor run programs do a similar thing, but with perhaps some form of branding on the paper used. 

Since the number of service award recipients was fairly small, I suggested they work with people who know the employee well and customize the wrapping paper. For example, if a man enjoyed fishing, they would hunt for wrapping paper showing a man fly-fishing. If a female recipient and they learned she quilted, the task was to find a paper that might have quilting patterns all over it. 

The outcome? Recipients and guests were talking more about the paper than the gift they unwrapped. Their chosen gift became a great gift because of extra care and interest in the individual. 

2. A person’s name is like music to their ears. Never mess up a person’s name, whether spoken or in writing.  

I have a colleague who has a name I have never seen before, and I heard other people say her name differently than what I thought I had heard. While she allowed anyone to call her by either spoken version of her name, I have opted to using the version her parents call her by. 

If the name is from another language, make sure you get a phonetically correct version of how you should speak the name. Everyone loved seeing Saoirse Ronan in the 2019 remake of “Little Women.” But few knew this very Irish actor’s first name is pronounced like, “Sur-Sha.” Write out a person’s phonetic name as it sounds and say it the right way. 

Find out each of your employee’s preferred name versus their legal name. Ask them which version (or both) they would like to appear on anything that is printed, engraved, or spoken. Discover the origin of their preferred name, so the story cements their name in your mind. 

3. Personalized gifts make things unique. When you personalize a tangible gift with the person’s name, you make the item truly unique to them.  

Or perhaps you could work with very close family members or friends and capture photos of family, friends, or pets, and personalize a special item with those pictures. I have seen all kinds of gifts given, like throw blankets, soup bowls, and mugs, emblazoned with photos of children, grandchildren, and even a man’s best friend, his dog. 

4. Build upon personal connections you have. Not all recognition has to be as a tangible gift. Some of the most meaningful items cannot be purchased and are made with tender loving care. 

I have a framed picture with 60 statements reflecting my children and their spouses’ meaningful, fun, and loving reflective statements of things they love about me. The print of these sentences is each in a unique color representing each of our five children and once color all for the in-law children (I could still figure out who said what!).  

And my wife made a print listing single words that described me, and all the words are in a different font.  

These took a lot of time and effort to make. You can understand why these are keepers are up on the walls of my office where I can see them. 

5. Exceptional gifts of recognition make people feel something. They magically recreate an experience, a memory, a reflection of understanding. They make us feel loved and appreciated and bring us more closely connected to the giver.  

The funny thing about great gifts is that they don’t need to be something the recipient has on their wish list or something they absolutely need. These special gifts of recognition simply build the connection and relationship you have with the person.

I have a photograph that the company photographer caught of me at my last milestone recognition award ceremony with our former CEO. They caught both of us in cheek bursting laughter. This photo is a memorable keepsake that now sits on one of my bookcases. 

6. And great recognition gifts are the one’s employees want. To express the true recognition feelings you want to convey, find the perfect gift.

How do you do that? Here are some ways to unearth the gifts that a recipient will like the most. Keep in mind that researchers found that recipients are more appreciative of gifts they ask for than those they did not.

In your one-on-one meetings, you can ask general interest questions. Pick up insights in conversations at lunch, in the hallways, or on conference calls. Include the involvement of significant others in their lives and ask for suggestions to narrow down on things they really want and which fit your budget. 

I once called up an assistant for someone who had helped me who lived in the States and learned of my new contact’s love for golf. She even gave me the name of the local golf club he frequented. They knew him well and suggested they make up a gift certificate that they would honor for him. It worked like a charm and generated a call back as soon as they received it. 

7. Create an experience for them to remember. Line up a unique experience for them to enjoy that may be time bound or endless.

We recently enjoyed a virtual performance that my son and daughter-in-law on the West coast shared with us via Zoom, so we could make comments periodically and converse together prior to and afterward.

Use your online recognition program to create a collage of greetings, photographs of the senders and special recognition messages from leaders and peers, for the employee’s major achievements or career milestone. These can be memorable pictures with recognition comments or lots of mini videos with everyone giving their message.

Have a well-known author or celebrity that the individual admires send them a special video recorded message acknowledging the employee’s contributions and the difference they have made to others. You’ll be amazed how accommodating famous people can be if you plan well in advance and don’t ask too much of them. 

8. Work hard on expressing more meaningful recognition. Learn how to give better and more meaningful recognition to people every day.

Work on being more specific with your recognition by identifying the action you are recognizing them for. And then tell them the meaningfulness of their action by sharing who they made a difference to. Tell them who benefited from what they did so well. 

Remove “good job” and “well done” from your vocabulary. It is lousy recognition. 

Make sure you give great recognition by having a positive smile on your face when giving recognition and using more upbeat inflection in your voice when speaking. 

9. Please remember to respect people’s recognition preferences. Don’t call someone up to the stage to receive an award when they have stage fright or are embarrassed that they might trip on the way up, or don’t have a clue what they would say once up there.

All you need to do is have one sit down meeting with each of your employees to learn what their recognition preferences are. Then when they tell you they don’t like public recognition, honor that. Dig deeper to see if they’re okay receiving recognition with their team or department versus in front of the entire company of employees.

On average, 25 percent of employees refrain from or dislike public recognition experiences. 

I have seen an executive assistant warmly receive their length of service anniversary gift in her boss’s office with a few close colleagues, which meant the world to her, instead of at the annual company event. 

Great recognition comes in all kinds of ways, but all have care and concern for the employee at the heart of their meaningfulness. 

Recognition Reflection: How do you plan to make the recognition you give to people a great gift for them?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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