538BC called, they want their ‘Employee of the Month’ back!



It’s been almost 2600 years since the first recorded act of motivating employees through recognition. The ‘employer’ was Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who used recognition (a ceremony involving a shoulder pat, a beverage, and a coin featuring Cyrus’ head) to motivate construction workers to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in 538 B.C.

Flash forward 26 centuries, to last weekend when I was at McDonalds (yes, I’ll admit it). While standing in line waiting patiently for my turn to order, I spied a plaque displaying their Employee of the Month’s photo. He was at a ceremony, being handed a certificate. He looked pretty unimpressed and about as excited as someone who’d just been handed a ten-year jail sentence.

Could it be that in 26 centuries we’ve created the internet and driverless cars, we’ve gone to space, we all witnessed Felix Baumgartner plummet through the stratosphere and yet have done very little to evolve recognition?


Has recognition in fact turned into something that has a negative impact?

Is there a special place on earth where ‘Employee of the Month’ certificates go to die?

Every year companies around the world spend $46 billion on rewards and recognition. What does $46 billion buy? You’d hope it would be lavish celebrations and luxury rewards. The reality is mostly office printed certificates, vouchers that go unused and uncomfortable lunches with the boss. Organisations are wasting money. Josh Bersin, Chief Executive Officer and President of Bersin & Associates agrees, “Today’s $46 billion market for recognition, with its focus on tenure-based programmes, clearly is failing, and is out of sync with modern employment practices.”

Despite this, recognition is still a good thing. Companies where recognition occurs enjoy 14% better employee engagement, productivity and customer service than those without. But what’s not being realized is the potential impact that really exceptional employee recognition programmes can have. They can reduce turnover by 31%.

Unfortunately for the state of recognition right now, certificates, vouchers and lunch with the boss don’t go a long way towards achieving that exceptional recognition status.

We’ve been working with one of the world’s leading global luxury retailers to create the next practice recognition programme. The research that we’ve done has revealed a few key insights that we hope can help you as you start to re-think your own recognition programme.

1. ‘Employee of the Month’ doesn’t mean anything.

Neither does ‘above and beyond’. Or ‘the extra mile’. The fluffy words that we use to frame awards don’t give people actual behaviours to map their own actions to. And so the definition of awards are different in each persons’ mind. They lack collective meaning. Winners don’t really understand what they should be proud of. And the awards lose their impact and prestige. Awards need to be as specific as possible and linked to specific behaviours and results.

2. Recognition has become an ‘event’ and our programmes suggest there is a specific time and place for recognition.

In reality, anytime is good. Anywhere works. By making recognition something that can only happen once a month in a specific place as nominated by a small group of senior people, recognition turns in to an ‘event’, not a habit. This can actually have a negative effect and work against creating a culture of recognition as most people don’t feel empowered to recognise others. If they do happen to have that power they are bound by a specific timeframe and so acts worthy of recognition are forgotten as they wait for the right time of the month to roll around.

Dave Sumner Smith elaborates here in a recent post on LinkedIn: “Most employees viewed traditional employee recognition programmes as just another “top-down” management scheme. They see it as a public judgment, by management, of a small handful of employees, without peer input or opinion. Unrewarded employees often feel the system is bias or unfair. In the end, rewarded employees feel manipulated or targeted (by management) and the whole process creates an “Us versus Them” environment. Very counterproductive!”

3. Lunch with the boss is not a reward!

Most people in fact, don’t like having lunch with the boss. Just like we have different customer segments that we know very intimately and for whom we tailor our products and services to, so to are there very different employee personas. Some will crave the limelight, others would rather curl up under a rock than go on stage. And the same goes for rewards, some people will be happiest with cash and others would much rather an experience or a very simple handwritten note. Much like beauty, reward is in the eye of the beholder, so knowing the employee audience intimately is the only way that we can guarantee that our rewards are actually rewarding.

4. Peer to peer recognition means more than top-down praise

It’s a common misconception that only top-down recognition and praise has an impact. In our research we identified that recognition means more coming from peers. Why? They are closer to the daily reality, they know what you have to deal with day in, day out. They see your actions and so when they say thank you, it really means something. Managers and leaders however are mostly operating at 35,000 feet and somewhat disconnected from the daily reality. At times it comes across as inauthentic.

Add to this the fact that most programmes are not transparent, so the integrity of the programme is compromised when winners are revealed. People start to question why winners were chosen and this makes the winners feel uncomfortable. Social voting and platforms that allow for total transparency and peer to peer nominations are the way forward.

5. “Recognition is important, but not for HR or Managers or Leaders or the CEO!”

Read through any policy and procedures manual relating to rewards and recognition and we guarantee you will find that HR is excluded, Managers are excluded, Leaders certainly couldn’t win an award and forget about the CEO. Our policies and procedures are so hypocritical its amusing. Why do we alienate certain functions, grades or roles? Why don’t managers or leaders deserve recognition? Why can’t anyone and everyone be publicly nominated for their hard work and dedication to the cause?

So, what can we do?

Here are five guiding principles for a ‘next-practice’ reward and recognition programme:

1. Generic awards are no longer relevant: recognise people based on specific results and behaviours. 

2. Go Social or Go Home: implement a peer to peer recognition platform or nothing at all. Total transparency is crucial. Everyone can vote, everyone can nominate. Anyone can win. And that includes HR, Managers, Leaders, the cleaners and the CEO. 

3. The ultimate goal is that recognition becomes a habit, not an event: don’t forget informal initiatives like thank-you cards, $5 coffee vouchers and out-of-the-spotlight recognition. Timely recognition is key. Don’t wait a month to recognise great work. Empower everyone in your organisation to recognise others. It’s not just the work of a manager or leader to say thank-you. Everyone can play a role in cultivating a culture of recognition. 

4. Reduce your policies to one sentence: Open to all. Anyone can be nominated, anyone can nominate, self-nomination is welcome. 

5. Tailor your programme and your rewards to your audiences: We have identified eight different personas in our research, how many can you? From ‘Red-carpet Rick’ to ‘Embarrased Erin’ everyone reacts differently to the limelight and everyone has different tastes when it comes to rewards. Make sure people have choice. 

Go forth and recognise!