David Sturt: Nails in the coffin: 6 examples of recognition gone wrong

By David Sturt

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, April 14 2014 3:45 p.m. MDT

Stacks of research have proven that purposeful employee recognition can ignite engagement, accelerate performance and build strong cultures. But, can recognition go wrong?


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This article originally appeared on forbes.com.

Stacks of research have proven that purposeful employee recognition can ignite engagement, accelerate performance and build strong cultures. But, can recognition go wrong?

Well, what does bad recognition look like anyway? Through the years, we’ve heard stories of managers who mispronounced employee names while presenting awards for achievement. We’ve heard of managers who have recognized the wrong number of years of service for an employee. And, I even heard a story years ago about an award being presented to an employee underneath the door of a bathroom stall. Think about that. Under what circumstances could anyone think that was a good idea?

Of course, learning how to properly recognize an employee is critical to a manager’s success — to build trust, loyalty and increase engagement. But, just as critical is learning how not to recognize an employee.

A 2008, heavily publicized, global study conducted by The O.C. Tanner Institute and Towers Watson revealed key findings into how to effectively recognize employees. The study, without question, proves that purposed recognition accelerates the performance of an organization. Nevertheless, what didn’t get published in the books, articles and blogs was some of the more interesting fodder: the findings and comments that show how not to practice recognition. Here are six of the worst “nails in a manager’s coffin” culled from focus groups around the globe.

Nail 6: The manager takes credit

It’s absolutely cringe-worthy when a manager brings an employee in front of his or her team and takes credit for what the employee did by saying something like, “Susan, those long hours we worked together is why you’re receiving this award. It was as much as struggle for me as it was for you.”

Nail 5: The recognition is a mystery

Many people in the focus groups polled on this issue reported receiving a mysterious package on their desk, in their mailbox or on their chair. And, as much as people may like birthday surprises, the mystery recognition gesture not only loses its meaning, but it also marginalizes any recognition the employee receives in the future.

Nail 4: Quotas, quotas, quotas

OK, so research has proven that frequent recognition drives employee performance. But, simply filling a manager “recognition quota” is a dangerous practice. Imagine this for a second: A manager stands in front of her team and sincerely recognizes Martha for quick thinking and action last week during a trade show. The team applauds her. Then the manager says something that immediately dilutes the recognition. “Martha, thanks for doing what you did, we really appreciate it. And, because I’m sure they deserve some recognition, I’d also like to recognize Bill, and Stephen. You guys haven’t been recognized in a long time, but I’m not getting any more complaints so keep up the good work.” Bill and Stephen get the same recognition as Martha? Did anyone win?

Nail 3: The timing is bad

One of the biggest complaints employees have reported is that they receive a recognition presentation, but it’s extremely late. A quote from one focus group member: “After 13 years of employment, I just received my 5- and 10-year career achievement awards at the same time.” Well, enough said about timing.

Nail 2: Managers don’t know their audience

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