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How recognition can construct your company culture

7 min read

How recognition can construct your company culture

How you recognize your colleagues (and what you reward them for) impacts company culture. Tori Fica of BambooHR provides insights.

Have you ever considered what your organization communicates to employees with its recognition program? You hope, of course, that rewards inspire employees to engage and perform at a higher level. But, what else are you encouraging within your organization?

Each time you reward or recognize an employee, you’re showing the rest of your workforce the values and behaviors they should embrace. As a result, every instance of recognition adds a little more to (or takes away from) your company culture.

Reinforcing the culture you want

Think of your organization’s culture as a garden. It’s nearly impossible to grow a healthy, beautiful garden without a few weeds sprouting up during the season. A vigilant gardener is quick to pluck these out. A single weed might not be threatening by itself but, when left to grow, it can quickly multiply and take over the garden.

Perverse incentives

The weeds within your culture are called “perverse incentives”—that is, incentives that have unintended and undesirable results, which work against what you’re actually trying to incentivize.

Let me give you an example from Forbes. A father and mother wanted their children to clean up the playroom, so they decided to offer candy as an incentive for the chore. As you might imagine, the kids responded immediately by cleaning the room.

However, after the children received their pieces of candy for cleaning the room, one of the boys insisted to his brother, ‘Tomorrow we have to make another mess so that we can get another one of these.’ The parents accidentally created a perverse incentive.

Now, you probably aren’t handing out lollipops to motivate your employees to complete their assignments, but perverse incentives can come in many forms. For example, rewarding for quantity and efficiency could lead to a decline in quality. Or, acknowledging only highly visible wins could demotivate employees with less visible successes.

A poorly executed reward and recognition program can spread weeds throughout your company culture if you aren’t deliberate and thoughtful. You need to have more than financial goals in mind. Certainly, you want to bring in revenue, but if you want to create a positive, engaging culture along the way, you need to expand your view.

In other words, how your employees achieve business goals can be just as important as what they achieve.

Connecting recognition and core values

One way to motivate employees to embrace the culture you’re trying to reinforce is to link employee appreciation to a set of core values.

Going back to our garden metaphor, it takes a lot more than just weeding to grow a great garden. You have to pick the right environment, prepare the soil, fertilize, and more, to encourage the kind of plants you want to grow. It’s an active effort.

Similarly, fostering the right kinds of behaviors in your organization requires attention and action on your part. Don’t expect that by hanging core value posters on the walls of your office, you’re cultivating culture.

If you want employees to embrace something—whether it’s values, performance, or any other goal—you need to do more than throw money at cosmetic solutions. You have to lead by example and invest in integrating those goals into the very fabric of your organization. In other words, the posters come last.

Here at BambooHR, our core values have always been very important to our executive team, and therefore the entire organization.

At our year-end holiday party, we give out a handful of non-monetary awards to stand-out employees in front of the whole company. One of these awards is the Culture Champion award; it’s given to an employee who embodies the Bamboo values (such as being open, leading from where you are, and growing from good to great).

An award like this sends a clear message about what’s important to us at BambooHR: an employee-focused culture. We’ve found that employee loyalty and engagement come from a mutual understanding between organization and employee, where both recognize the role they play, and understand the results of their efforts. While we also offer monetary rewards, promoting our culture and values go further in changing attitudes. And that lasts longer than gift cards that end up in the trash.

The WorkHuman 2017 Survey Report also illustrates the impact of values-based recognition. In the graph below, we see that when an organization uses a values-based recognition program, employees are much more likely to embrace the core values and behave accordingly. On the other hand, when there’s no recognition program at all, employees are much more likely to not even be aware of the core values.

Special considerations

Your organization’s culture is unique—which means you need to find a recognition system that supports your culture. At the same time, you need to figure out what clicks with your unique workforce.

Remote employees 

When members of your workforce are not in the office regularly, it can be tough to maintain your organization's culture and foster engagement. Sean Graber, cofounder and CEO of Virtuali, writes:

“Since these folks rarely meet with their teammates face-to-face, they tend to focus on tasks and ignore the team. This may work for a while, but you must develop a culture in order to foster engagement and sustain their performance over the long term.”

In a conference talk from 2014, Cody Chapple, an employee of GitHub, talked about what his organization does to keep their remote workforce united. New GitHub employees are required to work on-site for the first week to get a grasp of the culture. The organization also uses chat and collaboration tools to keep everyone on the same page.

Social recognition also factors into their strategy. The company uses an online forum where employees can post big accomplishments and virtually raise a toast to their teammates. They compile all of the toasting pictures into a short video and share it with the entire company for everyone to watch.

While this tradition isn’t for every organization, it helps GitHub communicate its culture across locations. And ultimately it’s this kind of informal recognition that will keep your remote workforce connected to the culture and engaged in their work.

Collaborative vs. individual recognition

You should also consider the pros and cons of individual rewards versus collaborative rewards. If you only use individual recognition, some people can learn to game the system and it breaks down into a popularity contest. You don’t have to look too far to see badly designed programs that lead to perverse incentives.

For example, let’s say your company has an employee excellence award, where you give out $250 once a quarter to a deserving employee. You go over the nominations, and you select a kind, reliable, driven employee who had a big win last week.

Now, when you hand this award out, the winner is ecstatic. But what about the kind, reliable, and driven employees who didn’t have any publicly visible wins when you sent out the nomination email? What about the other members of the winning employee’s successful team who made the win possible?

If collaboration is a big part of your company culture, then you need to demonstrate that with collaborative awards. Instead of singling someone out, maybe the better strategy is to gift smaller items to each team member.

The kind of culture that inspires 

You can raise salaries, rearrange your office plan, and even put a beer tap in the break room—but nothing can make up for a toxic culture in the workplace.

Likewise, nothing empowers your people more than an incredible culture in the workplace.

But, building the culture you want for your organization is a slow, deliberate process. You can’t scatter the seeds and expect fruit and flowers to spring up overnight. Instead, use strategic recognition to weed out the negative and foster the positive. In time, you’ll have a thriving culture that attracts top talent, creates a positive employer brand, inspires high performance, and boosts engagement across the board.

About the author

Tori Fica is an HR Insights Specialist for BambooHR (@bamboohr), the leading HR software solution for small and medium businesses. Through research, analysis, and writing, she creates content to help HR professionals think and plan more strategically. Her focus is providing actionable ideas based on the latest trends in HR.

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