Two Reasons Employee Recognition Programs Have Failed

It is estimated that 90 percent of all U.S. businesses and organizations have some form of employee recognition program. This trend has occurred due to companies realizing that their leaders and managers need help recognizing their team members for work well done.

But the problem is – in terms of helping employees feel truly valued and appreciated — the employee recognition programs have failed.

While these programs have proliferated, the level of employee engagement and job satisfaction has actually declined over the same time period. This is largely because most employee recognition activities are generic (everyone gets the same award, in contrast to being recognized individually and personally). Accordingly, they come across as inauthentic.

Many of these programs have failed because:

1) They have made the primary goal of appreciation to “make employees feel good”.

In today's world of encouragement and positive thinking, some well-meaning individuals have pushed the emphasis on appreciation toward a goal of “making everyone happy.” There are even (misguided) proponents for the practice of creating “chief happiness officers” in the workplace.

As a psychologist, I can assert that this will inevitably be a failed endeavor. If it ever gets off the ground, the focus of making others happy will crash and burn quickly. Why? Because no one can make anyone else happy. (We actually can’t even make ourselves happy!) Happiness is a result of other positive habits in our lives.

2) They have encouraged leaders to show appreciation in order to increase productivity.

A second mistaken belief about communicating appreciation in the workplace has grown out of a distorted view of recognition. When recognition experts and researchers began to share the positive financial benefits that occur when people feel valued, business leaders excited about the results started focusing primarily on the fiscal aspects.

There is good reason for this: Research has consistently demonstrated a strong return on investment in response to employees being recognized and feeling appreciated. That ROI includes:

  • increased daily attendance (not a small factor for retail stores and fast food restaurants)
  • decreased tardiness
  • employees following policies and procedures more faithfully
  • reduced conflict among staff
  • increased productivity (in some work settings)
  • higher customer satisfaction ratings

These benefits add up to a cost savings for companies, and make them more competitive in the marketplace. In fact, high staff turnover has been shown to be the single greatest nonproductive cost to businesses.

But when the purpose of appreciation is driven primarily (or in some cases, solely) by financial factors, the game changes. The issue moves into the arena of manipulation and the display of certain behaviors for ulterior, selfish motives.

Hence, in the world of employee recognition, a huge “push back” from employees (and some managers) is occurring. Cynicism and resentment are two of the most common responses from employees who believe employers implement recognition activities primarily to increase productivity and boost profits for the company (or bonuses for their managers).

How Recognition Programs Can Be More Effective

What then is the real purpose of communicating appreciation for those with whom you work? Ultimately, this is a personal issue for each individual: Why do I communicate a sense of appreciation to my colleagues? 

Multiple reasons exist, including some that are self-serving, but foundationally appreciation for colleagues communicates a sense of respect and value for the person.

An important factor to note is that the appreciation tendered doesn’t always have to be for the work employees do. Yes, we can appreciate their skills, talents and abilities and how they help make the company (department, or you) more effective and successful. But people are more than production units. Employees have more value than just what is measured and how much they “get done.”


The foundation of authentic appreciation is respecting and valuing employees for who they are as people, in addition to the contributions they make to the organization. When appreciation is communicated from this perspective, all stakeholders win: the employee, the supervisor, the organization, customers and clients, as well as the family and friends of the employee who get to enjoy a more positive, encouraged individual.

Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, speaker and consultant who makes work relationships work.  He is co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and Sync or Swim. 

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