UK: THE REWARDS OF RECOGNITION. - Having shrugged off the feeling that employee recognition programmes are just not British, increasing numbers of companies are following the US example and establishing formal, public schemes. Hashi Syedain finds out why

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Having shrugged off the feeling that employee recognition programmes are just not British, increasing numbers of companies are following the US example and establishing formal, public schemes. Hashi Syedain finds out why.

Last year, Geraldine Manning, a senior customer services assistant with Abbey National, was working late on a regular basis. Three or four nights a week, she would stay back for a couple of hours a night, reading course notes to one of her colleagues, Graham Salmon, a blind mortgage adviser, who was working towards a promotion. It was an extraordinary act of service both to Salmon and to the company, and she didn't expect anything in return. 'I did it because he's a friend,' she says.

But Manning's efforts did not go unnoticed. A year ago Abbey National introduced an employee recognition scheme called 'Bravo' and Manning was put up for - and won - its top-level gold award. 'I was really surprised,' she says modestly. 'It's a brilliant award-you get 20,000 air miles enough for one return trip to Australia, or two to the Seychelles and a certificate.' Winners are made a fuss of and presented with their awards at a special ceremony in a hotel. 'I had to go up on stage; it was a bit embarrassing but I did like it,' she says. 'You do feel really special.'

Manning is not alone in appreciating recognition. According to International Survey Research (ISR), a company specialising in employee attitude surveys, 'recognition for good performance' is the third job priority for UK workers after 'being treated with fairness and respect' and 'job security'. Interestingly, observes ISR managing director Roger Maitland, while 70% of people say recognition is 'very important', just 37% are satisfied with the recognition they are getting - the widest discrepancy among the 12 job priorities polled.

Though the research does not distinguish between private and public recognition - a quiet thank you or a pat on the back versus a formal recognition scheme - more and more UK companies are adopting the latter approach. The notion that it just isn't 'British' is outmoded, they argue. Public recognition inspires loyalty and commitment, as well as encouraging better standards of service. We can learn from the experiences of our transatlantic cousins, they say, who've been recognising employees' achievements for years, and have a tangibly better service culture to show for it.

Manning certainly believes Bravo works for Abbey National. 'It does motivate people,' she says. 'If they see someone they know who has won, it makes them think that they can win, too.'

Motivation, moreover, is becoming increasingly important. The introduction of such concepts as total quality management, the prevalence of flatter management structures and corresponding employee empowerment, have all meant that companies are demanding more from employees, while at the same time being unable to offer them what most took for granted - job security. 'How do you attract better staff and keep them committed when you can't offer them a long-term job?' asks Shaun Tyson, professor of human resources management at Cranfield Business School. As for the notion that public recognition just isn't in the British culture, Tyson has this to say: 'Companies are more up-front about what they're demanding of employees, so there's no reason not to be explicit about rewarding people who show they can do it.'

So what should companies do about recognition? There are two schools of thought, explains Tyson. One is that you just need to say 'thank you' in some sort of formal way, maybe by awarding a certificate or badge. The other is that it's important to have a concrete reward to create an impact.

Peter Stephenson, managing director of Forte Posthouse hotels, believes that reward and recognition should be kept separate. The group runs a recognition scheme whereby staff get 'stars' for achieving certain standards and can be made employee of the week or month, without any further prize or reward. 'It's all about being better than your peers. You see it in people's eyes when they win. It's highly motivating,' he says.

Others disagree. 'I don't think saying "thank you" is enough,' says Nick Edmans, communications manager at Abbey National. 'When people do things beyond the call of duty they are giving more of their time and effort and at the end of the day it's a commercial arrangement we have with our employees. You have to show that the company is prepared to give them something, too.'

Prizes don't necessarily have to be very expensive, especially at the lowest end of a graduated scheme - maybe just taking the employee of the month to dinner or, for greater achievements, giving them a gift, rather than money. However, just as dangerous as being too stingy is being too generous with incentives. 'It can get out of hand,' cautions Charles Grimaldi, initiator of an incentive scheme, called 'Be Proud' at Rentokil. You start by taking people for a weekend away in the UK, then the south of France and just get into upgrading forever, he says. Not only does it become too expensive, but actually it's the little details that people appreciate most - like the stamped postcard Rentokil has waiting in everybody's room on the incentive trip. Furthermore, observes Andy Norman, sales and marketing manager at direct-selling household chemicals company Amway: 'If you recognise too early or on too grand a scale, people might feel "I've arrived", when they've only reached mid-way.' Striking the right balance, therefore, is very important to the success of a scheme.

The network marketing industry - where people sell products directly to friends, family and local contacts - has long been at the forefront of recognition and incentives. Apart from rewarding top sales achievers with high-value incentives such as foreign trips (a common practice in all sales industries) just naming and praising people is an important part of the culture. Norman at Amway, which has its UK headquarters in Milton Keynes, explains: 'New distributors join Amway as a way of earning money. But after two or three months the recognition element is very important. They want to cross stage.' What he is referring to is the practice of calling out the names of distributors who have reached certain targets and applauding them as they walk across the stage at one of the regular Amway functions. At the lower levels, all the distributors get is a little pin and a moment of glory. But, says Norman, 'public recognition is a very powerful motivator'. As distributors move up the hierarchy, and the financial and other tangible benefits increase, so does the public acclaim. The most successful are invited to speak at ever larger meetings to receptive audiences keen to learn from their experiences. That element of the recognition programme is not expensive, points out Norman, but it's essential to the culture of the company - and works just as well in the UK as the US.

Paul Rutherford, communications and development manager at Rank Xerox UK, agrees. Rank Xerox has a series of recognition programmes, with graduated gifts and rewards, certificates and ceremonies. Although the company had been rewarding sales staff for years, three years ago it set up schemes to cover non-sales employees. 'We want to engender a culture of recognition. You have to put in a formal mechanism for that. But hopefully it helps people realise that it's the simple things that people appreciate most. At the most basic level a note to say, "thank you, that was a job well done", is often enough,' says Rutherford.

He feels that there are two forces at work in the company's schemes - national culture and company culture. 'We do have very strong links to our US parent. Much of the way we manage is influenced by that,' he says. But at the same time, when it comes to presenting awards under the recognition schemes, individual departments have a certain amount of discretion. 'I have to be aware of the fact that while all people like recognition, some don't like public recognition. What you don't want is to make people feel embarrassed or exposed.'

Indeed, creating a scheme that fits in with the company culture is essential if any formalised programme is to be taken seriously by employees. Equally, a recognition scheme is unlikely to work in isolation with a disgruntled or demotivated workforce - it has to be part of a whole culture of valuing employees.

Jenny Davenport, a national campaigns leader at the Industrial Society, cites the example of a company which introduced an employee-of-the-month scheme, with disastrous results. Employees were asked to nominate and vote for one person each month. 'Everyone thought it was so tacky that they would award it to the worst person - someone who was well-known for going off sick when they weren't, or for hanging around in the canteen when they should have been working. The company was surprised at the choices but it didn't dawn on them what was going on,' she says.

It's obvious from such experiences that credibility in the judging criteria is crucial. Abbey National took advice from other non-competing organisations about how best to run a recognition scheme, before it created the Bravo programme. Bravo covers all employees and is judged by panels of around 12 people, from all levels of the company. The panels meet once a month and decide whether to make an award and at what level - 'customer service', 'silver' or 'gold'. 'It's very important to have people judging who know what's happening on the ground,' says Edmans. Even with the current system, the panels have learned from experience. 'They would make an award and then other people would say "we do that kind of thing all the time". But that's to be expected. The panel starts to realise and gradually standards get upgraded.'

At Harvester restaurants, meanwhile, fairness is ensured by picking winning establishments via reports from a team of independent assessors who travel around the country testing the restaurants. Part of the prize for the winning restaurant is an evening off for all the staff with the top management running the restaurant. 'I was the grill chef last year,' says managing director Stephen Evans. 'The human resources director was a hostess and the commercial director was a pot washer.' Since the introduction of the scheme two years ago, customer complaints have fallen and staff turnover has more than halved.

It is, however, not always easy to measure the success of a scheme. Rank Xerox says employee surveys have shown that people feel better with recognition and the company's score on recognition is 8% above the national norm. There is anecdotal evidence, too, that people appreciate awards. 'You can see the awards adorning people's offices,' says Rutherford. 'There are little telltale signs; the excellence award will be standing on the bookcase just slightly tilted towards the door.'

Despite the difficulty of judging whether a scheme is working, most companies running them claim they are effective. It's not a cheap exercise, either in terms of management time or in the certificates and prizes. But most feel it is money well spent. 'How do you put a value on happy employees?' asks Edmans. Or in Evans's words: 'Can you ever put a cost on getting it right?'.

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