A few years ago, the Walt Disney Co. launched a Twitter hashtag, #CastCompliment, for the express purpose of promoting the good work their employees do. The millions of visitors to Disney parks are encouraged to tweet about their positive experiences with performers who embody the company’s movie and TV characters across the grounds.
“The employee’s supervisor retweets the compliment, along with a picture of the employee,” according to Inc.com. Bruce Jones, a senior programming director at Disney who blogged about the program, called it “an opportunity to create some magic with the positive tweets.”
That kind of recognition—praise for good work that fellow employees and even the public can see—may be a surprisingly effective way to help address a disturbing trend in business today. Though unemployment in the U.S. is at about its lowest point in 50 years, worker satisfaction remains alarmingly low. Gallup, the polling organization, "reminds us every couple of years that nearly 70% of employees are actively disengaged” at work, reported Forbes. The Conference Board, a business think tank, found that only 51% of American workers report overall satisfaction with their job, according to its recent poll.
Companies have strong business reasons for keeping employees happy, since it reduces employee turnover and boosts productivity. Many factors play into worker satisfaction, including compensation and benefits, but "the No. 1 factor in job satisfaction is not the amount of pay but whether or not the individual feels appreciated and valued for the work they do," wrote psychologists Gary Chapman and Paul White in The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.
Recognition can be a big part of showing appreciation, according to a study in the Harvard Business Review. Among the 512 U.S. employees surveyed who said their company has strong recognition practices, 87% reported feeling “a strong relationship with their direct manager.” That number tumbles to 51% out of those workers who reported “a lack of such practices at their companies.”
“Recognition’s frequency also plays a role,” the report continued. “For those who say they receive some form of appreciation more than once a month, 82% describe a strong bond with their bosses. When that occurrence drops to less than once a month, only 63% feel those strong ties.” The study also found that public recognition in the workplace not only has “a powerful effect on those being called out, it also has a significant impact on peers who see great work being rewarded.”
If idea of public praise has proven merit, then what methods are best? The execution needs to be tailored to the organization and the worker. It can range in style from ostentatious to subtle—and even silly.
Red Velvet Events, an Austin-based company, awards a small plastic troll doll, reports Entrepreneur. During weekly staff meetings, a Red Velvet team member hands over the doll “to another employee and describes the recipient’s work efforts during the previous week. Each person who receives the doll gives it another accessory (earrings, a tattoo, a bow tie, etc.) and presents it to another team member the following week.” The “quirky tradition” reflects the company’s “fun-loving culture” and “ensures employees are consistently being recognized for their hard work by the people who see it first hand: their team.”
The team at Nooklyn, a Brooklyn-based real-estate firm focusing on apartment rentals, collectively participates in employee recognition on its digital platform. Because all the company's stakeholders are plugged in to the platform—the agents, the accountants, the legal team—they all can see how a potential closing is progressing.
Harley Courts, Nooklyn’s cofounder and CEO, says the company has incentivized teamwork by increasing commissions for members of a group who collaborate in getting a deal done. Those efforts can be seen by all. (Courts, a lifelong skateboarder, says he wanted to generate the sense of community typically found in that world, in contrast to the often individualistic nature of the real-estate trade.) When a closing is on the books at Nooklyn, it sparks a gif- and emoji-fueled celebration on the company’s Slack feed, with employees customizing the artwork to reflect certain details of the deal, including its players.
“Everyone cheers everyone on,” Courts says of the time when a closing at Nooklyn is finalized. “Everyone is psyched. … It’s so embedded in our culture that when you join, you’re like, ‘Wow, I really just went to Mars; this completely is not normal,’ especially people who come from the real-estate industry.”
Yet in giving shout-outs, managers need to be sensitive to the personalities of the recipients. Management consultant Ted Boyce says worker recognition in general is a good way for executives to get engagement out of its team members, but not everyone welcomes it. “There are some people who just don’t like that kind of attention, so something that is intended as a positive becomes a negative,” Boyce says. “They get a little embarrassed.”
At the same time, he cautions against a phenomenon he calls the “Awards-Show Syndrome,” where “those that feel that they are worthy of recognition feel left out,” he said. “So you may be recognizing one person at the expense of others who are feeling … undervalued,” Boyce observes. It takes a certain level of knowhow to carry out employee recognition successfully, he added. “What I worry about is you’ve got folks who may not have expertise in human behavior that may be going about it the wrong way.”
The right way to do it, said Joe Robinson, a noted work-life balance trainer and speaker, is to personalize the praise, offering "not just off-the-shelf ‘Way to go!’ Or ‘Great job!,’” he wrote in an email. “The key is recognition that goes to the competence, a core psychological need, of the employee.” A better way is something along the lines of “I like the way you did that job.” Such a framing “speaks to the talent and effectiveness of an employee,” Robinson said, “and that lasts, unlike the generic ‘nice work’ kind of recognition.”
The leaders at Geocaching HQ, a Seattle-based company that produces a GPS-powered, outdoor treasure-hunting game, are certainly mindful about how they recognize employees. Their managers are encouraged to ask employees how they would most like to be recognized as part of a questionnaire called a “fire starter.”
The fire starter is filled out during periodic reviews to generate expectations and “set the manager and employee up for direct success,” according to Eileen Kim, a human-resources manager at Geocaching. Other fire starter questions, according to Kim, include “What do you feel passionate about developing this year?” and “What do we need to ramp up in your role?”
The collected data about how their workers might want to be recognized has led to what Kim describes as “a public kudos system” where employees can write “Beyond the Everyday” nomination notecards for peers of their choice. “These notes are posted publicly throughout the month in our community kitchen,” Kim says, “and during our monthly company meetings, three cards are randomly selected. They are each read aloud, and the nominee and nominator get a coffee gift card to spend together.”
The methods of employee recognition at Geocaching HQ don’t stop there, and aren’t limited to direct responses to a job well done either.
When Kim recently lost her dog, the company’s pet-bereavement policy allowed her to take a week off from work. When she returned to the office, she says, her desk was covered with cards, flowers and cakes.
“My CEO actually planted a tree in my dog’s honor,” Kim says, and recounts that another employee started a GoFundMe campaign in Kim’s dog’s name to raise funds for a senior-dog rescue house. The coworker raised more than $400.
“How do you encapsulate that feeling?” Kim says, her emotions palpable in her voice. “The whole team just rallied and swarmed [around me] to make me feel supported.” Kim says that experience contributed to her feeling more like she was part of a family, as opposed to any old corporation.
Employee experiences like Kim’s may be one of the reasons Geocaching HQ has been recognized each of the last eight years by Outside magazine as one of the best places to work in the U.S.
They seem to be doing something right.
Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, The Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside and other publications.