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Why Most Employee Recognition Programs Don’t Work

The word is out on the street — the vast majority of employee recognition programs aren’t working. In interacting with HR professionals and corporate trainers across the country, the report from both professionals and front-line workers is that employee recognition is generally not having a positive impact on employees or workplace morale.  sarcastic-young-woman

In fact, in many cases, the ways that most employee recognition programs are implemented are actually “backfiring” and creating negative reactions among team members. In many settings, the reactions from employees when they talk about “employee recognition” is sarcasm, cynicism, and even disdain.

But as we looked more closely, the reasons become clear.  Why? Because, as it is generally implemented, recognition is very different from authentic appreciation. Here is what we found:

     Recognition is largely about behavior: “Catch them doing what you want and recognize it”, the recognition books say. The sole focus is on the employee’s behavior and the manager’s behavior (observe and reinforce).

The primary emphasis of recognition is improving performance. The goal is for employees do more (or better quality) work. As a result, the focus is on what is good for the company and/or the manager (they look good when their team performs well).

The relational direction of recognition is top –> down.   Recognition comes from the administration, managers and supervisors. It is occasionally communicated peer to peer, but rarely from worker to supervisor or manager.

Recognition is really an organizational function. And, as a result, recognition at its foundation feels impersonal, contrived, and is rarely experienced as a genuine expression of appreciation for the team member as a person.

Conversely, authentic appreciation has a very different “feel” and quality to it than recognition:

Appreciation focuses on performance plus the character qualities of the team member and their intrinsic value as a person. As a result, team members can be valued and receive appreciation even when they don’t perform well. (Anyone else made a mistake lately?)

Appreciation has dual objectives: to improve performance but also to support and encourage the person.   Team members often need a word or action of encouragement especially when they aren’t performing at their best because of other issues going on in their lives.

The goal of appreciation is what is good for the organization and what is good for the person. If a colleague communicates authentic appreciation it is based in a foundational concern for the individual (which may mean helping them find a position that is a better match for them than their current role.)

Appreciation requires more than behavior, it requires “heart attitude”. This is really the difficult part of appreciation – it has to be genuine and from the heart. You can’t fake it.

Appreciation can be communicated in any direction. One of the exciting lessons I’ve learned is that colleagues want to know how to encourage and support one another. Appreciation can be expressed from anyone to anyone else in the organization.

Appreciation is based in a person-to-person relationship. We don’t believe that an organization (an entity) can truly appreciate an employee or team member – that is why so many employees react to recognition programs — they don’t feel “real”.

Employee recognition programs work well when they are used for the purpose for which they were originally designed – to recognize and reward achieving performance goals.  Recognition, however, does not work well when organizations try to use large organizational programs to make employees feel valued individually.  In fact, this creates negative backlash within the organization (sarcasm and resentment).

Authentic appreciation communicated personally in the ways that are meaningful to the recipient is what helps team members feel truly valued.  Use the correct tool for the right purpose and you will experience positive results!


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What you call appreciation, I call peer-to-peer recognition. There are lots of great resources out there both in terms of how to create a program, foster a culture of recognition, etc as well as companies to help you do it. FEMA and DOE have successful programs within their ranks. It really is one of the 4 pillars for a culture of recognition.

Paul White

Tanya, thanks for sharing your perspective.. I actually would say that peer-to-peer recognition describes the relationship direction (since most recognition is top-down), where we have found that authentic appreciation has a different quality to it (than most recognition, at least) — involving heart attitude rather than just an action completed.

Paul White

William, it truly HELPS if the desire to recognize good performance and show appreciation for employees starts at the top, but we have found that appreciation can start anywhere in the organization, since it is person-to-person, rather than organizationally driven.


In my experience, when I exercise sincere verbal appreciation to my superiors and my peers, I will eventually receive sincere appreciation. My “philosophy” is to do unto others as we would want done to us. And even if we don’t receive kudos and we are doing the best job we can, we still should continue doing the best job we can, it’s called work ethic.
We have become a society of reward conditioned employees. Our reward should be giving the best service we can for the citizens who pay our salaries.

Paul White

Nena, I agree — being kind and appreciative to our colleagues usually (although not always!) engenders a positive response from them. And hopefully, we can continue to provide quality service even when we don’t hear a ‘thank you’ (but it helps!)