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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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

The examples I’ve heard of this deadly mistake can sound funny at first, but they’re not. When a person who hates coffee gets gift cards to the coffee chain as a reward or a remote worker receives a gift card to a store that doesn’t exist in their state (or country), the message being sent by a manager is not “I appreciate you,” but instead its, “I don’t have the time to get to know you.” What if your employees took as little time to know the company as you did to know them?

Nail 1: It’s all a song and dance

The No. 1 complaint from focus groups around the world about recognition is that it wasn’t sincere. Nobody wants to receive an obligatory recognition gesture. They actually want to be appreciated. They want to feel that their efforts are making an impact that people love. But, if employees feel that they’re being patronized, their effort, attitude and commitment to a manager and a company will fizzle fast. Being fake with employees can seal any manager's fate.

Employees typically forgive simple mistakes in any recognition presentation because they still appreciate the intention — the sincerity behind the effort. However, it’s easy to see in these six sins how recognition done wrong could quickly be the death of a manager’s influence.

How do you properly recognize your people?

Appreciation should be timely.

It should be specific to the great work performed.

It should adequately express how the employee’s work impacted the organization’s goals, values or purposes.

More than anything else, appreciation should be sincere.

Look around at the people making your company tick every day. They’re either building your future as an employee manager, or they’re ready to seal your fate. Don’t hand them the nails.

David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit