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Employee Recognition Bad for Productivity? Not If You Do It Right.

There has been a widely shared article going around for the past week about a study that supposedly shows that employee recognition is bad for productivity. The study involved field data from an awards program used at an industrial laundry plant. Employees who came to work on time and didn’t have any unexcused absences each month were recognized, and one lucky winner got a $75 gift card through a random drawing.

By comparing behavioral data from this plant as well as four others before and after the award was implemented, researchers discovered that while the awards initially worked, that workers reverted to their old behavior once they lost eligibility each month. Those who were already coming in consistently and on time also experienced a decrease in motivation because they felt that it was unfair to reward people to do something they should have already been doing.

The study makes total sense and I’m not surprised at all about the findings. However, there are several problems with the conclusions from this study and what it’s being used to prove:

The study was actually on an incentive program, not a recognition program.
There was a well-defined task that needed to be completed within a certain timeframe: get to work on time from the first of the month to the last day of the month. Then there was a well-defined reward for that task: a non-monetary attendance award with the chance to win $75.

The results of this study show exactly why we tell our sales incentive clients that they have to include more in their program than just “do x; get y” incentives if they want to keep participation up. When not everybody can win, interest wanes quickly among those who know they can’t and behaviors slide back. That’s why we encourage social recognition, communications, and training alongside these short-term incentives, which only go so far in promoting lasting behaviors.

No good recognition program has a single, narrowly-defined award type.
Nobody is going to be eligible to win every award in your recognition program. Every job is different, and everyone works with a different set of people. There are going to be some employees who never speak to customers and therefore will never win your “Customer Service Superstar” award. There are going to be some employees who don’t work in large teams and therefore have fewer opportunities to be socially recognized by their peers. That’s where the manager needs to step up and hand out a discretionary “Great job” award when it’s deserved. A well-rounded program includes everybody and never leaves any participant feeling that their positive actions will go unnoticed.

True recognition is discretionary and unlimited in nature.
This point relates back to my first one, but a true recognition program is one in which managers and/or peers decide that someone did a great job and send them an award based on that opinion. There absolutely should be criteria, and they should align with the company’s core values and goals, but it’s up to the sender to determine that. If the award is so well-defined that it’s entirely objective, again, it’s an incentive program! So there is never a feeling that “it’s useless” to continue to try to deliver great customer service, go above and beyond to do great work on a project, or help out a co-worker because some finite award for those activities has already been given out.

If you have to reward for attendance, employee engagement at your company is already low.
If we’re trying to get people to just physically show up to work, there are deeper problems. Perhaps the work environment is unpleasant, the job isn’t challenging enough, they are being poorly managed, or all of the above. But if you do recognition right and engage your employees in these other areas, people will come to work regardless of any rewards offered.

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