When Showing Appreciation May Not Be Appropriate

While good things happen when employees feel appreciated, communicating appreciation to staff is not a miracle salve that cures all wounds. Sometimes well-meaning supervisors (and sometimes lazy managers who don’t want to do the hard work of dealing with problems) try to use appreciation as a “quick fix” for deeper issues that need to be addressed.

Here are five sets of circumstances when appreciation should not be the first action taken:

When employees are not getting paid regularly. Without honoring your agreement to pay your employees for their work, no amount of appreciation will matter.

When there has been a recent layoff. When an organization has just gone through the process of staff reduction, multiple issues still remain. The “surviving” employees are processing a lot of emotions:

  • Relief that they did not lose their job.
  • Guilt that they still have a job while some of their friends do not.
  • Lingering anxiety wondering if there will be more layoffs or if the organization will continue to exist.
  • Anger at how the layoff was handled (who was laid off and who wasn’t).
  • Frustrated because they believe other issues should have been dealt with (or still need to be) for the company to function well.

When employees are seriously underpaid (or cost-of-living adjustments, raises or bonuses are on hold). For most employees, receiving appropriate financial payment for their work is foundational to their sense of being treated fairly. While it is true many employees tend to overvalue their contribution and believe they should be paid more, there are clearly circumstances where it is obvious that staff is truly underpaid compared to their peers in the marketplace. Until this is rectified, appreciation will feel more like a cheap substitute since the organization is not communicating value to the employees by paying them appropriately.

When there is significant insecurity about employees maintaining their jobs. While employees may be grateful they currently have a job, if circumstances are unsettled in the overall economy, industry sector or company, there are realistic concerns about whether they will continue to be employed in the future. Communicating appreciation to them will fall on deaf ears. Trying to say, “You are valued,” while there are deliberations of letting people go is a blatant example of insincerity.

When employees have serious, reality-based questions about the trustworthiness of management. There are times when management has handled situations or communication poorly, which has resulted in distrust. If management has been caught (or perceived to have been) in actions reflecting a lack of integrity (for example, handling toxic waste issues), any form of appreciation would bring skepticism and cynicism before any positive reaction will occur.

What to do?

If an organization is in the midst of these situations (or about to be), it is best to put any plan to implement appreciation to employees on hold. Alternatively, work with the organization’s leadership and encourage them to deal with the more prominent, underlying issues first.

This includes:

  • Paying your staff regularly.
  • Allowing employees to heal after layoffs occur.
  • Taking action to create more job stability (and communicate with employees about it).
  • Tell the truth. Act with integrity.
  • Take action to rebuild trust with your employees.

Re-examine whether it is time to schedule a training on how the company can value and appreciate those who are still part of their team. If you don’t, they will be leaving on their own volition soon.

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Brady Smithsund

Thanks for the article, Paul! Excellent points all around. It’s definitely good to start thinking about other ways to show employee appreciation. Compliments and appreciation are always nice, but there are so many ways to properly reward employees for a job well done.

Paul White, PhD

Brady thanks for the encouraging note. I’m glad you found the information to be helpful . Our research with 100,000+ employees found that only 45% desire words as the primary way they want to be shown appreciation.

Megan Dotson

Great article Paul! In my office we took part in the assessment within the ‘5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace’ to better identify how we prefer to be appreciated and it was interesting to see who was driven by affirmation vs. tangible gifts, etc.

I think it’s not only important to recognize how others like the be appreciated, but more realistically understand how you yourself prefer to be appreciated.

Paul White, PhD

Thanks, Megan. I’m glad to hear you & your colleagues investigating other ways than words to communicate appreciation. Yes, sometimes the process sheds some like on ourselves, as well.

xenia palus

Would appreciate receiving links to info identifying ways of thanking non-managerial staff who deserve something “special” (outside of pay raises which we cannot offer.) e.g. quarterly lunch with the boss of those who should be show appreciation?

Paul White, PhD

Xenia, we have created an online assessment (the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory) — and a specific version for government employees — that identifies the languages of appreciation (and specific actions within their primary language) preferred by each person, regardless of their (or your) position. Go to http://www.mbainventory.com for more info.

Thanks for your interest! Dr. Paul

jacqueline farmer

Appreciation, gratitude, commitment, dedication, timely attendance and going over and beyond for your job and team members. Treat everyone with dignity and respect BUT…. most of all treat everyone fairly.. These are things that come to mind if I were to Show Appreciation for the character as well as the job performance. If I were an employee, I would aspire to work diligently and learn as much as I could about my career. If I were an Employer, I would look for these attributes and advocate that the company give a day off with pay. A different employee each year.

Paul White, PhD

Jacqueline, thanks for your input. Communicating appreciation, gratitude, respect & dignity are huge in relating to colleagues. Interestingly, “fairness” is a bit more difficult because fairness is always in the eye of the beholder — and each person’s circumstances affect their perception of what is fair. Dr. Paul

Kaitlin Moller

Most people would probably be shocked to hear that employee appreciation isn’t always a good thing, but this post really lays it out for you. I find that open communication and transparency is the best route when an issue like lay-offs are occurring, and sometimes a pat on the back can definitely seem lazy. Great insight!