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A Changing Workforce Requires a New Perspective on Recognition

By Cindy Mielke, VP Marketing, Marketing Innovators

The workforce is changing drastically, becoming even more diverse and multi-generational. As Boomers hang on longer and even forego retirement as an end goal – and up to four more generations squeeze in behind them – creating appropriate rewards and recognition programs is becoming increasingly complex.

Until recently, employee recognition has been associated with rewarding years of service or outstanding performance. But the time has come for a more nuanced approach that takes into account vastly different expectations and aligns those expectations with recognition programs that engage and motivate employees regardless of their cultural or generational differences.

The Impact of Millennials

Of particular interest to organizations today are Millennials. As Millennials become an increasing presence in the workforce, now comprising approximately 36% of all employees and projected to reach 50% by 2020, their impact on organizations will grow as well. 

One of the hallmarks of Millennials is that they thrive on—and expect—praise. And why not? They were raised with a stream of constant praise and encouragement, from “trophies for all” team sports to parenting styles that used every opportunity to provide positive feedback. A colleague even reported hearing a parent say “Thank you for saying ‘thank you’,” to a child who had just thanked another adult.

Among the many questions that will need to be resolved when recognizing Millennials: How do you create a meaningful recognition program for employees who view praise as a given? Or who, in the extreme, might expect praise simply for showing up?

By the way, forget that old standby, the “years of service” award that usually kicks in at five-year milestones: According to a 2011 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, just 18% of recent college graduates expect to stay with their current employer for very long.

Shifting Your Perspective

Here are some tips that could shift your perspective on recognition for today’s employee:

  • Treat employees like a valued asset. Yes, they are…but do they know it? Employees, and especially Millennials, need to feel their work matters. Recognition needs to acknowledge the impact of that work, as well as convey thanks and praise. Take the time to explain to the employee why his/her achievement is valuable to the company. Understanding the big picture can help give perspective and value to an employee’s efforts no matter where they are on the organizational chart.
  • Be authentic. If you’re giving praise, say it like you mean it – or don’t say it at all. Consider the context and the scale. Over-praise for a minor accomplishment can come off as phony and even be de-motivating. And make sure the handwritten note has a place in your recognition efforts. What could be more authentic, or more personal, than pen to paper? However you convey it, find a meaningful way to tie reward and recognition to those achievements that are worthy and extraordinary.
  • Get Creative. This ties to authenticity. Recognition doesn’t have to take concrete form, like a plaque or points or gift card. It can deliver an experience. For example, if you’ve taken the time to really get to know your employees, you also know what their passions are. Why not connect the recognition and reward to that passion? For example, the gift of a cooking class for a serious cook, or a tennis lesson for your organization’s aspiring Novak Djokovic or Venus Williams?
  • Broadcast achievements. Use your organization’s Intranet, email, meetings, newsletters and bulletin boards to spread the word. Be sure to note why the employee is being recognized and remember to focus on recognizing results versus activities.
  • Go social. Social channels support manager-to-peer, peer-to-peer, and peer-to-manager recognition. They offer the further advantages of immediacy (what has greater impact than real-time recognition?), increased employees involvement and cost-savings. And younger employees love them. If you don’t have a social recognition program in place yet, be sure to design a program that fits with your organization’s culture and maps to its values and goals.

Social Recognition Fundamentals

Once that’s in place, here are some fundamentals of an effective social recognition program:

  1. Create a collaborative environment. This allows employees to extend and contribute to recognition by adding comments and reinforcing recognition.
  2. Enable recognition to come from different viewpoints. Social recognition shouldn’t be limited to top-down recognition. And it shouldn’t be confined to departments or other formal structures. In fact, any of that would defeat the whole intention of social recognition.
  3. Make it searchable. Be sure that your social recognition platform offers this feature, which expands it from a recognition channel to a talent management resource. The search function makes it possible to find employees who have contributed to certain milestones, produces an historical database of activity by name and position, and helps to make visible previously unidentified talent.
  4. Tell stories on social. Think about using the channel to share stories about co-workers. “Telling the story” makes employee recognition more personal and social. With proper guidelines in place, sharing stories about employee achievements can maximize recognition impact.

Are you ready to approach recognition in a new way? If not, you can bet that your employees are ready and waiting for recognition that’s attuned to today’s realities rather than yesterday’s.

Cindy Mielke is Vice President of Marketing at Marketing Innovators. She has 18 years of experience in the incentive and recognition industry, with a strong record of leadership and service including her roles as President of the Incentive Marketing Association in 2005 and as President of the Incentive Gift Card Council in 2007. For more information on Marketing Innovators, go to

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