Recognition Preferences Are Never Static So Be Sure To Check In First

I sat in an employee recognition session at the IMA Summit last week at the Snowbird, Utah resort. A participant I know shared their experience with the group that opened my eyes to a very important point of view.

You can sit down with each of your employees and ask them questions about their recognition preferences. Your online recognition and reward programs may automate the entry of recognition choices and how they prefer to be recognized. You can do this with onboarding or any time during their career.

However, what this individual raised was a critical point. Employees’ recognition preferences are not static. 

This recognition practitioner who heads their organization’s recognition programs shared an interesting scenario. A particular employee was receiving a recognition award. Normally, based on the self-identified recognition preferences and what she knew of this employee, she would normally not have acknowledged this employee publicly. However, this recognition manager checked in with this employee. Seems this employee now wanted to be celebrated publicly. 

What happened?

Anticipating Recognition Preference Changes

No one asked this employee directly to find out the reasoning for their change. What I can do is help guide you to expect changes in personal preferences.

Whether conducted face-to-face or online through checking off boxes, when you ask employees for the first time about their recognition preferences, they have a limited perspective. The employee heard their manager asking preference questions, and the choices given. But perhaps they did not really listen to all their manager was saying. Those online boxes to check off were a limited set of options at a specific point in time when they responded.

Preferences Should Be Evaluated Frequently

As employees experience life on the job, they learn more about employee recognition through their own experiences and through their colleagues. How do their peers acknowledge one another for help given? Do they recognize each other’s contributions?   

They discover if their immediate supervisor or manager is effective at giving meaningful recognition. Does the manager take time to recognize each employee’s work anniversary? Are they sincerely acknowledging positive effort on the job? Was specific feedback obtained on how their effort, actions and results made a difference?

By encountering these experiences, and many others, their perspective on how they would like to be recognized will change. Remember, the extent of an employee’s exposure to different forms of recognition will shift their preferences during different stages of their career. 

If you don’t adapt to the changing recognition preference of employees, then the recognition you give will not always resonate with them. 

Perhaps an annual survey allowing staff to review their previously identified preferences as being still valid, fluctuating, or changed will be helpful. You can have your survey rank the importance of their preferences rather than just listing them. This might simply be an email notification to review their preference profile on the recognition and reward program and accept as is or make adjustments.

Once reviewed, you at least have the last date checked by to know how current the recognition preference list is.

Become Proactive with Preference Checking

Work on conducting research into your employees’ preferences for recognition. 

While it is one thing to learn from employees who have complaints about the lack of recognition or the lousy attempts at recognition, make sure you’re proactive and preventative. Sure, your unhappiest employees will tell you much of what is wrong. Your goal is to find out what is meaningful and improve upon it. Learn how to become proactive instead of reactive to the changing needs of employees. 

Find out through 1-1 meetings, interviews, surveys, focus groups and periodic pulse-check surveys, whether your staff are happy with the recognition your organization provides. Does the recognition they receive from their immediate supervisor/manager absolutely meet their expectations?

Do you provide opportunities for employees to give feedback or express comments on the kind of recognition they prefer?

Keep in mind that the greater the expectations that employees have, the more preferences for recognition they will have, too.

Preferences Change Over Time and With Time

For a long time, people believed that preferences of any kind never changed. However, the study of psychology provides evidence that there is preference instability. Meaning recognition preferences are not stable. 

You find that certain preferences for receiving public recognition can change over time. There will be specific moments in time when an employee wants to accept public recognition. It might be an opportunity to gain greater status. The presenter giving them their award may be a key person in their lives. Or it might be a chance to see and be with peers.

Be mindful that recognition preferences will evolve.

A preference for desired recognition expresses a relational value judgment. The act of choosing one’s recognition preference is a value concept. You say that one selection of preference is better than something else or equal in value to something.

Keep in mind that if you start presenting alternative concepts, then an individual’s preferences can change, too.

Instead of a simple checklist of recognition preferences, you might occasionally present scenarios of recognition situations. Then you might ask from the situational analysis, what type of recognition would you prefer if you were in Jane or John’s shoes? 

How often do you revisit the list of recognition preferences? Perhaps a checklist is not the best way to find out current preferences. However, a simple change in the display of preference options could revise how people feel about types of recognition.

And as the participant in the recognition presentation, who I referred to earlier, found out, it was a current award situation for an employee that caused them to rethink their desired preference. Going by what they did online and, in the past, did not reflect their current state.

Something I found interesting in my research of preferences is that our preferences induce behavior. We all know that behavior determines our success. But did you know that our success regulates the evolution of preferences?

The role of a manager is to have open dialogue with everyone to gain a better understanding of employee preferences, as our recognition preferences will always be evolving.


Recognition preferences are never a click and done outcome. They just might change during one’s working lifetime. 

1. Our initial stated recognition preferences are not static and will develop over time as we receive recognition and observe the recognition experiences of others.

2. The more significant a recognition experience is, such as receiving a major award, it is best to recheck how the employee recipient wants to handle this presentation.

3. Build in processes for in-person meetings and online recognition preference checklists to be reviewed at least annually to stay current.

Recognition Reflection: How often do you revisit an employee’s recognition preferences with 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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