Why Is My Recognition Program Not Working?

Perhaps you got lulled in by the 1990s mantra that “if you build it, they will come” when you designed your online recognition program.

The truth is the origin of that quote is a misquotation from the movie “Field of Dreams”. In the movie it is the lead character played by Kevin Costner, who hears the whisper from the cornfield, that “if you build it, he will come”. The “it” refers to a baseball field and the “he” is a long deceased, famous baseball player idolized by the lead character. 

We all know the premise of the quote as it relates to business contradicts basic marketing principles. Establish a need for something first before you ever build it. 

Let’s examine some reasons I have seen for why recognition programs may not be working very well.

No Rational Purpose for Programs 

There must be a direct need for wanting a recognition program and a clearly articulated purpose, or the reason why. 

WorldatWork conducts a biennial survey on employee recognition trends from their member organizations. They found the top 10 objectives for recognition programs usually fell under: 

1.    Create/maintain a culture of recognition

2.    Create/maintain a positive work environment

3.    Reinforce desired behaviors

4.    Increase employee engagement

5.    Support organizational mission/values

6.    Motivate high performance

7.    Increase retention or decrease employee turnover

8.    Increase morale

9.    Emphasize organizational values

10. Improve organizational culture 

What is your specific purpose for each of your different recognition programs? Do most of your employees know why you have the programs that you do? 

No Strategic Plan for Your Programs 

Each of your recognition programs can be a driver of various strategic initiatives, whether is talent management, retention, or employee experience. Make sure you set specific measurable outcomes that you desire from your programs. Then set up doable action plans to reinforce the achievement of these goals. 

You can’t just turn the recognition programs on, so to speak, and expect them to do their magic. Determine your strategic position for each recognition program. Set and prioritize the objectives you want to achieve and put this into a plan. Then it is a matter of executing the plan and ongoing reviews and revisions as needed. 

How well do your recognition programs support the strategic initiatives of your organization? Can you show how various recognition programs reinforce aspects of your people strategy? 

No Leadership Support for Programs 

If you don’t have the strong support from a director level leader or an executive sponsor, you will always push uphill to get your recognition programs working well.

When leaders see you have aligned with the business and people strategies of the organization, they will become powerful advocates for recognition programs. You must work hard at removing the perception that recognition programs are just fluff. 

Show your leaders how to use the recognition programs. Provide tips and advice on how they can integrate the recognition programs into their regular work routine to become exemplary users. 

Do you know how well each senior leader currently uses the different recognition programs? Is there any opportunity to present to the senior leadership team or provide one-on-one coaching for improving use of recognition programs? 

No Setting of Expectations for Using Programs 

Another reason why recognition programs might not be working is because no one in leadership has set the expectation for how to use each recognition program.

Having the CEO or president of the organization invite everyone to participate with using the organizational recognition programs sends a sound message and expectation. Use all communication channels to get the message out. 

Recognition programs are only a tool to magnify the recognition that happens in person or through remote interactions. Foster the need for positive recognition practices offline in order to use recognition programs the right way.

What do the recognition statements or questions on our annual employee engagement show reveal about the state of recognition? Do we have a recognition development process in place for improving individual recognition practices? 

No Well Thought Out Business Rules 

You’ll find some managers stuck because they are questioning themselves what behavior or action merits recognition versus what they should reward. This inaction is because the programs were not designed to make these questions easily answered. 

Create your programs so they state that you recognize behaviors and reward results. Remind people that when you give recognition that you don’t have to give a reward. Spell out the specific level-based criteria that warrants a specific reward amount so there is no confusion. 

Have you answered the right way to use recognition programs, especially when they are accompanied by rewards? What problems do you see managers have with giving recognition and rewards? 

No Ongoing Communication Support 

You want people to use your recognition programs more frequently and more meaningful, but you don’t tell them how to do that.

If you can, enlist the services of your internal communications team and work with them on creating a recognition communication calendar. Set up the type of messaging that should go out at different times of the year. Indirectly teach people the importance of each of your programs. Give them tips on how to use them and how to express recognition to people the best way possible.

Spotlight employees who live the organizational values and are exemplary in their work. 

If you are the sole owner of communications and managing recognition programs, can you enlist the help of others? If you have a communications person or team, do you have a recognition communication calendar? 

No Education on Using Programs 

It is not just building a recognition program. You also need instructions on how to use each type of recognition program the best way possible.

Hold annual review meetings with each department to show each of your recognition programs. Make time to ask questions of managers and employees and ask them what works and what doesn’t. Be very open to feedback and tell them how you will act on things they have shared. 

Does your organization or recognition program vendor provide screen captured tutorials on how to use each recognition program the best way possible? How often do you seek feedback from employees on how to improve your programs? 

No Accountability for Using Programs 

Some people don’t care if they slip unnoticed and under the radar screen. But the minute someone asks why they are not using the various recognition programs, they have to sit up straight and take note. 

Too many managers get away with not being held accountable for giving recognition. Your recognition programs can display usage and the reach of the recognition given. They reveal where recognition is happening well in your organization and where it is not being done the way you expect. 

Make sure employees have a say in giving qualitative feedback on how effective and frequent their managers are in recognizing them. 

Is giving employee recognition one item measured on each manager’s performance management review? Do you talk to managers about how recognition is going throughout the year, too? 

No Management Ownership of Programs 

Make your managers responsible for representing the organization with service award anniversaries. Recognition programs are not just an HR function. Recognition is everyone’s responsibility, but especially the managers. They set the example and trend for using recognition programs.

Meet with your direct reports weekly and ask them what employee actions stood out in the last week. Acknowledge those employees yourself and tell them what you heard from their manager. Your recognition program can help make the excellent things happening more visible.  

Do your managers know they are responsible for recognizing their employees? Is there a golden standard you want managers to achieve with programmatic recognition giving? 

No Highlighting and Recognizing Exemplary Users 

Speaking of recognition, why not recognize the top users of your programs?  

You don’t just have a leaderboard that could become a negative or used as a tool to shame others. Interview the amazing program users and ask them to share how they use the programs and why. Find out what impact they have seen on their employees by using the programs often. 

And don’t forget to share the stories of the wonderful actions and contributions of employees. These are the sources of recognition that your programs should acknowledge and thank. 

What recommendations can you share with others that you learn from top program users? Can you identify program trends and communicate this out to others?

No Analytics Leading to Positive ROI 

You need proof of the pudding that your recognition programs are making a quantifiable and a qualitative difference. 

If you don’t have recognition program usage reports that don’t drill down to which managers are, and are not, using the programs, and which employees have not been recognized recently, then your programs will never work properly.

Show correlation with recognition programs used well and in moving the bar on key performance indicators. Let people see how proper usage of recognition and reward programs can improve sales, keep staff, and elevate the overall employee experience.

Turn those metrics into dollar signs and you’ll have the return-on-investment numbers you need to show recognition programs really work well.

Do your recognition programs or vendor solutions deliver the predictive and prescriptive analytic answers you need? Can your recognition programs show the ROI your leaders expect from you?

There are many other reasons and process problems that cause recognition programs not to work well. Hopefully, this short list will give you something to review with your current recognition programs. 

Recognition Reflection: Do each of your recognition programs explain their purpose and their objectives?

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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