Apps, peer recognition among the trends in employee recognition programs

While the days of handing out gold watches and lapel pins to recognize an employee’s years of service are largely outdated, recognition programs in Canadian workplaces still revolve primarily around formal milestones, rather than informal, day-to-day appreciation from managers and colleagues.

But as technology and data play a growing role in many human resources and benefits programs, they’re appearing in employee recognition efforts as well. And the traditional top-down acknowledgment from managers is turning on its head as more companies are encouraging staff to recognize each other.

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Ultimately, recognition programs are evolving as employers embrace the idea that each program should be unique to the organization’s needs. With that in mind, Benefits Canada has taken a look at the latest trends in recognition programs.

1. Recognition as more than just long-service awards

The early 1990s ushered in recognition programs where employees could select a gift from a printed brochure, says Alan Whittaker, vice-president of sales and marketing at Williams Recognition Ltd. The brochures, he notes, have since evolved to web-based programs.

While the programs do cover awards for employee milestones, they’ve also evolved to apply to other forms of recognition, he adds. “There’s the traditional points programs, perfect attendance programs, sales incentive programs, but . . . service awards are still the No. 1 type of awards we’re providing our clients.”

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While some people consider long-service awards to be old-fashioned, they actually remove the subjectivity that accompanies most recognition programs, says Peter Hart, chief executive officer of Quebec-based Rideau Recognition Inc. “So many people don’t really know how to recognize properly, and it’s very subjective. Around service awards, there’s no subjectivity. It’s all objective and it acts as a trigger to have a conversation.”

Perhaps one reason recognition awards have largely centred on service milestones is the Canada Revenue Agency doesn’t tax them when provided as non-cash awards, as long as the cost is less than $500 in any given year. “If it does exceed $500, then the portion that exceeds $500 would be a taxable benefit to the employee,” says Kevin Stienstra, a senior tax manager at Grant Thornton LLP.

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Cash rewards or any gift that someone can convert to cash, such as a gift certificate, are taxable. “Some companies, like our company, have loyalty dollars, where you can get so many dollars and that allows you to use those dollars to buy various things on a website,” adds Stienstra, noting anything received by an employee in recognition of their performance, rather than their service, would also be taxable.

2. Greater focus on the recognition rather than the reward

The move to expand recognition beyond service-based awards has been gradual, in part due to the challenge of differentiating between recognition and reward, according to Hart. “Recognition is a feeling, a perception. Do you truly feel, as an employee, valued, appreciated, recognized by your manager, your colleagues, your company? You can’t put dollars and cents on that,” he says.

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“Rewards, on the other hand, are very tangible. It can be the gold watch at 25 years, the gift certificate, the points you receive in some sort of a points-based system. It’s got a value.

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘Money can’t buy you love?’ Well, rewards can’t buy you recognition.”

And more and more employers are coming around to that fact, although Hart notes the challenge is how to make real recognition happen. “If a person doesn’t feel valued, appreciated, and you’re loading on the gift certificate or the points, chances are it will have a negative effect. People will think, ‘I’m being gamed.’”

3. Values-based recognition

The latest form of recognition aligns the program with the organization’s values, says Andrew Clark, president of BI Worldwide Canada in Vancouver. “It reinforces the strategic direction of the company and shows some alignment.”

In building its new recognition program, Ryerson University focused on the 14 values that underpin everything that happens at the organization, says Emily Pomeroy, recognition project lead. “We wanted to provide recognition that’s tied to these values as a way to encourage specific behaviours from our employees that would support the university’s vision or priorities.”

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The university also wanted to establish clear criteria, so there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding when it recognized some people and not others. “To be able to say, ‘We’re recognizing people who do things that support equity, diversity and inclusion,’ it’s harder for people to misinterpret that,” says Pomeroy. “It helps us be consistent in our recognition.”

Ryerson connected its values with a new online platform that allows employees to send a colleague recognition in the form of an electronic card. “We have cards for sustainability, innovation, integrity, lifelong learning, which are all actual values from our academic plan,” says Pomeroy.

4. Peer-to-peer recognition

Ryerson’s e-cards are just one example of the many ways organizations can encourage peer-to-peer recognition. Compared to the traditional recognition handed down by a manager, it’s certainly a more modern approach, says Chris Leong, customer success manager at employee engagement company TINYpulse in Seattle.

“When you focus a little bit more on peer-to-peer recognition, which we’re seeing today, it creates a better overall culture of appreciation,” he adds.

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Since 2014, Toronto-based charity Furniture Bank has used TINYpulse’s Cheers for Peers platform, which allows employees to recognize one another via their computers or mobile phones. “Half our staff are out on the road for much of the day, and oftentimes, they would feel quite disconnected from what’s going on,” says Dan Kershaw, the charity’s executive director. “Once we rolled it out, everybody had a clear pipeline into the charity, both in the building and out on the trucks.”

Since the program began, the organization’s 50 employees have recognized each other through more than 1,600 cheers. “When great things happen, people are immediately able to recognize that and share that,” says Kershaw. “It reinforces good behaviour.”

5. Apps and other technologies

When employers offer social recognition through peer-to-peer programs, they often deliver them through mobile or web-based apps. “In many instances around the world, the generations actually skip the desktop. It’s mobile-first technology. These are the digital natives. People grew up with this technology, and you want to be communicating and rewarding and recognizing in the way people are living their daily lives,” says Clark.

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“It’s very common to have a social recognition platform and the ability for employees to be able to communicate in real time,” he adds, noting the programs often look like any other social media platform, such as Facebook or Twitter.

“You would see other recognitions within your organization, or a group you’re following, or just your own. The nice thing about some of that is linking the management into that. For instance, we have a mobile app on one of our technologies where, if anyone in my team is recognized, I actually get notified and I can like it, I can comment on it, I can add discretionary reward points on the fly.”

One of the key aspects of these technology-based recognition programs is their immediacy. As well, many teams aren’t working physically side by side anymore as workplaces embrace flexibility, Leong notes. “Everything is going digital. I think this is a great way to bridge gaps and be able to recognize people for the work they do in their different environments and at a moment’s notice.”

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Aside from the delivery of peer-to-peer recognition, the more traditional manager-delegated acknowledgment, including long service, is also moving online. “I’d say 95 per cent of our clients today do have a website,” says Whittaker. “They get a paper brochure, but at the same time, they get an invitation to go online to place their order. They can do it from home or on their smartphone.”

6. Use of data and analytics

Along with the move to technology-based recognition is the use of data and analytics to predict employees’ future behaviour, a trend that could be very valuable for employers wanting to ensure their recognition programs are effective, says Hart. “The amount of times you’re recognized can actually determine whether you’re at risk of leaving the organization, disengaging and underperforming.” Rideau Recognition has implemented an analytics program with a large Canadian bank that ranks all of its managers, providing them with what it calls a recognition quotient, the IQ of recognition. “It’s how effective a manager is in providing recognition to his team, his colleagues,” says Hart.

“Basically, what we’ve done is taken the bank’s sales data, engagement scores, customer loyalty scores, et cetera, and we’ve overlaid them onto the RQ scores and we can clearly see that managers that get recognition right have better performance. They sell more, they have more engaged teams, they have better customer loyalty scores.”

Read: How to use analytics to improve your benefits plan

The use of data and analytics also ties back to aligning recognition programs with a company’s values, says Clark. “Many companies, as they invest in recognition and rewards, are very focused on results around that . . . and making sure recognition programs are aligned to companies’ strategic and financial goals.

“Very often, companies will want to see how many people are being recognized, for what values and attributes in the company, and start to look at how they can impact and drive behaviour in their company aligned with their values, through recognition.”

Jennifer Paterson is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.

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