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Retaining and Engaging your employees through recognition – Roundtable Report

21 July 2016     London
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Jason Spiller.

Cairene Gilbert, Head of HR – BNP Paribas
Karyn Mccomiskie-Wood, Head of HR – Ocado Technology
Joanna Oakley, Head of Colleague Engagement – Sainsburys Plc
Ronnie Clawson, Executive Director of Corporate Services – Riverside Group
Sheila Edmund, Reward Director – Sheila Edmund Ltd
Nikky Sanwo, VP General Affairs – JRI Europe Ltd
Jennifer Smith, CMO – Globoforce
Jana Watkins, Head of HR UK – Live Nation Entertainment
Sharon Williams, Director of Employee Engagement – Bright Horizons Family Solutions
James McNeil, Senior Sales Manager – International, Globoforce


Developing a culture of gratitude and an environment where recognition takes place naturally across the workplace, peer-to-peer, is not only appropriate for the flatter workplace or work framework but also results in improved levels of engagement. Employee recognition can provide HR teams with a unique tool to examine and analyse performance at all times with real time data that is critical to business intelligence.

How has workplace recognition evolved and how does recognition differ today from the past?

Sheila Edmund: Financial reward is not as prevalent as it was, there is much more recognition, a simple “thank you”. Most organisations I have worked for have an established recognition scheme – it’s the actual implementation of them that’s the challenge. Schemes can appear set in stone if they’ve been around for a long time. As a result, organisations are not optimising the value of recognition in driving the behaviours and culture you want today, rather they may reflect what was important several years ago. So most recognition schemes could be reinvigorated to improve impact, but it remains a challenge to get people to make this change.

Nikky Sanwo: A Recognition programme was introduced in our organisation a few years ago where individuals were nominated on a quarterly basis detailing justification of the nomination. The nomination was by Managers, not peer-to-peer, and what happened was, it was always the same people who were recognised, so inevitably it stopped being an engaging, motivational tool. The real issue for me is, how do you manage expectations in a recognition programme, which does not necessarily have to end up with a financial reward?

Sheila Edmund: The worst programmes that I have seen are the ones that are process driven rather than spontaneous. It would also help if organisations were better at thinking about recognition at the inception of a new project or when an organisation changes focus. This would help to clarify norms on the desired behaviours and values and support any recognition budgets required, rather than needing to justify something at the end. Recognition should be more focused, spontaneous and responsive to new activities.

Sharon Williams: It needs to be part of the organisations’ DNA, a natural thought/action process. Actually, what we hear from our employees about, recognition is that it’s not the big stuff; it’s the little things. It’s the ‘in the moment’, the real time recognition, and it has to be authentic.

Ronnie Clawson: It comes down to managers, and their behaviours, that really drives engagement. The survey we run called MC3 which provides individual managers assessment with the data from the people that they manage. The MC3 looks at how a manager Motivates, Cares, Considers and Converses with their team. This allows you to look across teams and identify from the scores whether individual managers are showing recognition of their individual members of staff on an on-going basis. Sharing this information with managers is important as it’s their own staff that are saying whether they feel they are being given appropriate recognition.

Jennifer Smith: We refer a lot to work/life balance, the likes of Google and the ‘perks’ they give their staff; the ping pong tables and free food that makes them ‘hang out’ at work for longer. But more companies are focusing on connecting with the hearts and minds of employees, ensuring they are recognising their employees regularly. Recognition doesn’t need to be pre-determined or rigidly timed. Just like the performance review; these practices need to be more organic in nature and they need to be more peer-to-peer.

Joanna Oakley: And it is also about understanding what motivates colleagues individually, with a change in the demographics of the workforce, this will become even more important for businesses. We do also have a recognition scheme which includes peerto-peer as well as customer nominations.

Jennifer Smith: How do you recognise those individuals who earn the minimum wage or work in a store? What is the recognition process for them?

Jana Watkins: We used to have an annual appraisal, annual bonuses dependant on company performance. So if the company doesn’t perform, individuals didn’t get a bonus. That’s got nothing to do with how much effort or how productive people have been so I don’t think that’s a fantastic way to reflect recognition of performance. Now we’ve built a recognition programme called the Rock Star programme and you’re given a Rock Star as your recognition. It can be manager to individual or peer-to-peer recognition, a gift card, anything up to £325, an on the spot award that says “you’ve done this job really well”.

James McNeil: Would you consider it to be a strategic recognition programme? So have you got goals and ambitions for the programme? Are you trying to change the company culture? Are you trying to improve certain metrics around employee engagement? Do you measure the success of it?

Jana Watkins: It’s one universal programme, across both parts of the business, but one part of the business has linked the recognition scheme to our values. So whoever is making the award has to identify what value the individual is being awarded in connection to.

Karyn McComiskie-Wood: We are very science driven so we have a team of catalysts who are organisational psychologists that work with the teams to help them collaborate and communicate. One of the initiatives that we have rolled out is a 360 to get managers to give positive and negative feedback/recognition to each other and to their teams but we don’t share the results with the manager. I am currently working on how we can best measure the effectiveness of the initiative to demonstrate return on investment to the business.

Jennifer Smith: We have to show senior level business leaders that this is not just about a recognition programme it goes far deeper into how you can motivate individuals, engage them to further business outcomes. And don’t forget the insight you get from those recognition moments that can then be fed into performance management and feedback.

Cairene Gilbert: I would like to see it in our culture; managers having a recognition conversation that isn’t linked to money or a voucher. There is a requirement to do something around recognition, especially with bonuses and salary reviews coming up and they are looking quite limited. So how are we going to recognise people in the right way that’s not linked to monetary value?

Sheila Edmund: Managers need to get to know their people and what recognition really works well and what doesn’t. I think a lot of the things that we do as HR professionals is to make it too structured, too mechanistic, and it just feels too constrained. So managers avoid ownership and don’t want to do it. Our professional challenge is how to make recognition simple enough, and trust them to do it.

Sharon Williams: Not all recognition has to be done through the line manager, they play their part of course, but I think it’s also about peer-to-peer recognition.

Nikky Sanwo: Agreed, that is key to engagement and retention, people working collaboratively and improving retention which is key to our business, particularly with the current skills shortages.

How do you make sure reward and recognition is fair and equitable?

James McNeil: You need to have a portfolio of awards that take into account the effort that you are recognising. You can have zero value “thank you” awards and graduate up depending on the effort or the impact that someone has achieved. The focus is on the praise rather than on the prize.

How, and what, is being measured in strategic recognition in terms of ROI and how can the impact be quantified in it’s contribution to improved personal and business performance?

Ronnie Clawson: The bottom line is ROI; are you getting positive feedback on recognition, on employee engagement, and can you demonstrate it in context with improved performance? Often too, is the reality of having to drive down costs; the financials. So HR needs to be able to demonstrate the longer term correlation between performance and recognition and engagement, where you can demonstrate that return on investment.

Jennifer Smith: Typically, for measuring the return on the recognition investment, most common is the engagement score, and often the recognition programme is instigated because of a poor engagement score. Many organisations are trying to drive cultural changes maybe as a result of Mergers and Acquisitions, or as a focus on key strategic initiatives. So engagement is usually at the top, and that’s being measured pre and post implementation and then on a regular basis thereafter. Measurement and ROI can be done in many different ways, for example, one company that I have worked with, an airline, measures customer satisfaction or WOW moments, and they correlate employee recognition with the impact on customer service and satisfaction.

Sharon Williams: That neatly demonstrates that if you have valued, trusted, happy employees it’s going to impact your bottom line. They are, after all, interacting with your customers on a day-today basis.

Sheila Edmund: Another challenge is to get the engagement of senior managers on the measurement of the KPIs for the ROI. So executives can directly relate to potential cost saving, higher productivity with improved discretionary effort, and performance linked to recognition and employee engagement.

Sharon Williams: You have to keep reinforcing the return on investment directly, correlated with the anecdotal data. HR should be thinking about it as an HR measure, getting leaders to see employee feedback is powerfully compelling.

Jana Watkins: You cannot say with absolute fact that we have introduced a recognition scheme and therefore this has increased retention. What we do try and say is turnover has improved and we think it’s because we have introduced a recognition scheme.

James McNeil: Getting more detailed, granular data is useful, but let us not forget, we are talking about people here so the human stories are compelling and important too.

HR has got to get better at telling that story, doesn’t it?

Jennifer Smith: Yes, but I think that HR is the place that generates revenue, because it’s “the people” in the business that generate revenue that achieve customer satisfaction. We talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy, you’ve got to satisfy the basic needs and generally that’s where HR spends the bulk of its budget. If you want to get up to that self-actualisation for individuals, where they are truly going to give their best and release discretionary energy, then you need to focus on more than basic compensation. Usually we will see companies invest around one percent of payroll on strategic recognition. Think about that, one percent to satisfy all other levels of the human motivation system.

Joanna Oakley: An element of our corporate strategy is ‘our colleagues making the difference’ and we see a direct link between store performance and how engaged our colleagues are. Great customer service also differentiates us from our competitors and we monitor the progress we make in enabling our colleagues to be the best they can be.

Why despite best efforts is employee engagement at just 39 percent? That’s according to CIPD’s employee outlook survey 2015. Is engagement being monitored effectively and how can recognition be better utilised to connect employees effectively to Business values and objectives?

Cairene Gilbert: Am I surprised with 39 percent? I guess it’s how they are measuring it.

Sheila Edmund: This is just hypothesis. There has been a big change in the employee value proposition, and some organisations are causing the negativity and the lower engagement, because things have shifted from what people originally signed up for. I don’t think that organisations have necessarily been good at repositioning and realising that what’s always been offered remains reasonable. These days, “the good old days” were last week.

Sharon Williams: You can’t just wave a magic wand or introduce a programme that will necessarily improve/fix employee engagement. You need to understand what drives engagement in your business, as well as in your industry. It’s how you link your mission, your purpose to the work of the employees and how you recognise the right behaviours that make your organisation unique.

Sheila Edmund: Does this cover all the public and private sectors? The private sector organisations that I have worked in would be much more like 60 or 70 percent. The last organisation I worked for it was 70 percent and they were trying to build on that!

Nikky Sanwo: Over the past few years, organisations have been cost saving, doing more with less, so against that backdrop, 39 percent engagement is no great surprise.

Ronnie Clawson: There is something too about the workplace shifts from the nine-to-five working environment to the fact that we are all far more accessible, not necessarily because we choose to be but because you are contactable.

What is social recognition and how can recognition be trusted as truly inclusive across the multigenerational workforce as well as across departments and ranks?

James McNeil: Social recognition, certainly the peer-to-peer element, is about opening up, making it inclusive. There are lots of different touch points -last year was my ten year service anniversary at Globoforce and I got this lovely award, which was digital, received on my mobile, a standard message from our CEO, the next one was my Irish boss with funny stories and anecdotes and below that, 67 messages from around the organisation, stories, video clips and images. That’s social and it’s very effective.

Sharon Williams: We are about to roll out a recognition platform that is linked to our values called ‘Heartfelt Thanks’. There are three component parts; one is ‘in the moment recognition’ and the other piece is that peer-to-peer and milestone anniversaries, linked to other social media platforms i.e. Facebook. So, when someone has been recognised for the work that they are doing, it becomes really public, if they choose to want it, and I think that’s a great recruitment and retention tool.

Ronnie Clawson: Yammer is really actively used in our company, as a communications tool, but also in peer-to-peer recognition. That probably works better than anything else in terms of social recognition because people are very dispersed geographically.

Sheila Edmund: If you are going to create good peer-to-peer recognition culture around that, you need some employees who champion and role model. I think it’s the role modelling that’s critical, the influencers and the champions of change.

How can you create a culture that can accommodate social and peer-to-peer appreciation?

Jana Watkins: We are launching a portal this year which facilitates non-monetary peer-to-peer recognition and link it to the larger recognition piece. So it all sits on one platform.

Nikky Sanwo: I think we need to improve on what we currently have, the environment of trust, transparency and appreciation must be encouraged and promoted.

One of the more fundamental questions is how to transition from traditional performance reviews into more of an organic, on-going, real time culture.

Karyn McComiskie-Wood: We do one to ones,weekly between employees and their managers. But before I joined Ocado, I worked for a care company which ran self-appraisals, where once a year, an employee would record thoughts and experiences through the year, and that would be the basis of the discussions with their manager – and it was really effective.

Joanna Oakley: We have recently moved away from performance reviews in our store support centre, focussing on more regular conversations about how well colleagues are doing. As no performance ratings are given, the aim is to encourage colleagues to think about the difference they are making and how to make an even greater impact going forward.

Jennifer Smith: The important question is what are companies doing instead of the annual review? What we’ve found is that companies are developing their own technology to be able to implement these check-in discussions. One of the things that we are developing within our solution is, is there a way in which the recognition platform can also provide the check-in? There is so much data that you are collecting about people through the recognition moments over the year, that if you can link that into the check-in discussion with the manager, your data is there for managers to have the discussion. I think it’s because if you don’t do your annual review when do you do your annual bonus or your annual merit increase, when do you have your promotional discussions your development discussions? So the theory is you have to have on-going discussions. There’s also this notion that merit increases are a reckless waste of money, take an example of giving an individual a $5,000 bonus a year. If you give that in January, research has shown that the motivation lasts about a month. In massive organisations that can be up to $15,000,000 – for one month of engagement – what if you took that $5,000 and broke it down over the entire year to 100 $50 rewards?

Sharon Williams: The annual performance appraisal is looking back on performance so if you haven’t recognised it at the time it will be difficult to have the motivational impact you want if they are only hearing about it six months later. Acknowledgement for a job well done needs to be immediate and linked to your company values. Jennifer Smith: Agreed, what is the point of giving somebody recognition for a job well done six months ago?

Joanna Oakley: It is important that colleagues receive on the spot feedback and instant recognition. It’s part of colleague performance reviews in our stores, and this feedback will also be discussed more formally.

How can the qualitative and quantitative data brought through continuous feedback and recognition be effectively channelled into essential decision making?

James McNeil: In terms of when recognition is given, as a manager if you’ve got insights into all that’s flowing through – you’ve got peers recognising one another, you’ve got coachable moments, and you might then use that as an opportunity to follow up. People get into the habit of congratulating and saying thank you and it becomes a natural part of the work day.

Sheila Edmund: Coachable moments should also cover where people need coaching because they are not doing something well. As said earlier, what motivates teams too, is when they see people who aren’t necessarily doing well being managed to correct unfair workloads on others.

Jennifer Smith: That absolutely comes back to the need for a personal discussion. That’s not something that can be dealt with through a tool necessarily, and the discussion needs to get logged. What we try and focus on is that the recognition moments are tied to a cultural driver of some description. It’s a business wanting to create a positive cultural impact and so it’s about positivity. It’s about the thank you moments and having positivity breed, that doesn’t mean that negative moments don’t happen in a business, but they are for one to one discussion points and to be logged in a different way. That should still mean that teams see those actions are still being taken.

Ronnie Clawson: I think that whole performance management issue is probably impacted by the prevalence for annual reviews still and that’s when managers think “I will hold it over to the annual review”. If you have on-going discussions and one to ones and performance issues are picked up and dealt with then and this gets in to the culture of the organisation you will see it being picked up at the right time.

Sheila Edmund: You have to have a strong disciplinary procedure in place that you pick up performance issues early enough because the more organic approach could drift for longer. If people never document or formalise the weaker managers are the ones who just let performance challenges drift. This very positive focus and doing away with the annualised reviews would definitely mean you would need to be quite strong on picking up any performance development gaps very early on.

Nikky Sanwo: Both collaboration and buy in are important in our organisation as a whole. I think it’s going to be a big challenge for us moving away from the review process as we know it, to a less detailed appraisal but then held frequently. I suppose we will take a phased approach to this and keep the process and documentation simple.

Ronnie Clawson: For those that have moved away from an annual appraisal and you have weekly or monthly one to ones. It may be brief, but I would still expect that you document it. For me that’s fundamental, whether it’s positive or negative I would still expect to have a record of some description.

Karyn McComiskie-Wood: We absolutely would encourage managers to document, especially the negative conversations as you say a very brief note. We expect a large part of a manager’s job should be managing employees, it’s the emotional intelligence part of the job.

Jennifer Smith: There’s more of a fundamental problem in that there are managers who have teams of people that don’t believe their job is to manage teams of people. They believe their job is to do the functional job. I think the role of the manager is changing because HR departments certainly aren’t growing, they are getting squeezed.

That strikes right at the heart of ‘what is a manager’, those that lead because of their technical capabilities or their knowledge, rather than their skills as a manager.

Jennifer Smith: Yes I think so, because a big part of any kind of process or solution implementation throughout an organisation is all about how managers are going to implement it.

Sheila Edmund: I have a concern. I think some people get to the basic level of managers’ skills, setting objectives and doing performance reviews. The more subtle elements of understanding what recognition means and understanding the people doesn’t get covered enough. You can’t really train getting to know your people.

Sharon Williams: I think it’s really important to give the green light to managers that it is ok to spend time on the people stuff, the one to ones, the coffee chats, because they will drive lots of positive behaviour.

Jennifer Smith: Agreed, it takes a lot of time to really get to know people; and these days too, it takes a lot of time to read all the social media feeds and give feedback, about work but also life moments; births; marriages and anniversaries.

Jana Watkins: We have a meeting every Monday morning just for a quick catch up and what’s happening on Zoom. I’ve got a team in Manchester, two separate offices in London, and the technology really facilitates, there aren’t any barriers to keeping people updated and in the loop, you still need structure, you still need direction and you still need objectives.

This style seems to fit the more flat workforce structure.

Jennifer Smith: Indeed, a great example is Zappos, the U.S. online shoe store, they are phenomenal! They don’t have a hierarchy, they don’t have managers. They are perceived in the U.S. as right on the extreme, but they’ve literally turned tradition on its head.

Karyn McComiskie-Wood: Google tried no managers, and it failed, but what it allowed them to do was identify a number of management traits that new managers should have.

Ronnie Clawson: Our organisation is way too traditional. As a concept, fantastic, if you can make it work and have those organic networks, but it’s years away from where we are.

How can business values be effectively represented when setting an employee recognition programme?

James McNeil: The starting point really is around understanding ambition. Almost always it’s about the values. It’s about creating a culture of recognition, addressing retention issues, it’s trying to improve employee engagement, but all of those are underlined by values, so that is the starting point.

Sharon Williams: Everything that we do is driven by those values and our new recognition platform will further embed that.

Nikky Sanwo: Agreed, employee recognition should be driven by the organisation’s values. It would be a good benchmark in terms of what recognition is all about.

Ronnie Clawson: I would be worried if recognition wasn’t linked to the values of the organisation, it’s fundamental. Financial recognition isn’t the way we drive behaviours, it is very much the values and that comes through in peer-to-peer recognition.

Jennifer Smith: Do you ever measure if there are any values that aren’t necessarily coming up through the organisation, that are being missed?

Ronnie Clawson: We’ve tried to drive social responsibility through the values in terms of competencies. Giving something back, for example, is something that we try to encourage but it does disconnect and that is something that we are looking at.

Sharon Williams: It needs to be part of the organisations’ DNA. It has to be embedded and communicated consistently and regularly. One of the ways we do that is through storytelling throughout the organisation whether that is at our award dinners, our employee magazine or through our recognition programmes.

Sheila Edmund: In terms of the issue about values that are missed, I have seen people who have really challenged something – this could display a real value of integrity, and these stories are never shared. My belief is that we need to see examples of somebody stepping outside of their comfort zone and taking action because they thought it was the right thing to do. We tend to have the fluffier, nice stories.

Jennifer Smith: Collaborating with the Marketing or internal communications team on messaging, branding to the internal population is a really smart move.

Joanna Oakley: Agreed, our Internal Comms at Sainsbury’s sits within the wider colleague engagement team and both teams work really closely together.

Jana Watkins: Agreed, if I can buy some time with the marketing team, it really makes a difference. Ronnie Clawson: You need to work together collaboratively, as the reality is there can be a battle between HR saying “we are responsible for internal comms, why are Marketing getting involved?” and Marketing saying “why are HR having the lead on this?”

Sheila Edmund: Agreed you have the Marketing, external side and Internal Communications wanting to stick to the brand and then prioritising the stories. When you’re trying to display something about the behaviours and the values, you don’t necessarily agree quite on the focus and the message gets diluted.

Karyn McComiskie-Wood: Ocado has a general comms and the function sits within HR. The Technology side of the business has just appointed a new PR person, who is focused on building the employer brand.

Sharon Williams: I’d agree too, internal Comms sits within HR, we need to move away from corporate speak to something that is much more conversational, it needs to be targeted at who you are you trying to communicate with.

Sheila Edmund: It’s about being realistic. If you are overselling it to that audience then they will see through it.

Ronnie Clawson: I think there can be a challenge if there’s a dissonance between how you are perceived externally and how you are perceived internally. That can cause major issues with staff saying “we are projecting this, but if you work here it is very different”. That’s where trying to bring those two together and make sure there is some sort of alignment is key so in my book, collaboration works.

Jennifer Smith: Only when you create that social peer-to-peer, can you create something that isn’t just a one off. I also think it’s really important that it’s got to be relevant to the individual. Personalisation brings the connection of the individual to the company that hopefully means you’ll release further discretionary energy because they are more connected to the company. It’s using connections because, yes, it’s nice to get a CEO message but it’s also really nice when people that you’ve worked with for ten years remember certain projects that you’ve worked on. It makes you think “this is why I love this company”. This is what we are all trying to do with engagement through recognition.

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