How the pandemic is changing employee recognition

Employee recognition historically has involved formal acknowledgment of long-term contributions or periodic rewards for special efforts: recognizing how long workers have stayed with their company or choosing one or two employees for “superstar” recognition by selecting them as employee of the year, quarter or month.

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While still relevant, those types of employee recognition are simply not enough, says Debra Corey, a 20-year total rewards veteran who has worked for companies including Gap Inc. and Honeywell and now consults with employers on driving employee engagement. That’s especially true in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is demanding more in-the-moment and frequent points of recognition and gratitude.

Related: Remote work, mental health: COVID lessons from employers

“There’s been a desire and a need for connection and community,” Corey said during a session this week at WorldatWork’s Total Resilience Conference, which is being held virtually over nine weeks after coronavirus forced the organization to cancel its annual in-person event.

“There should be no limits to recognition, as long as it’s genuine.” – Debra Corey

In today’s bad-news world, good news is something everyone–including employees–is clamoring for, whether it’s celebrating healthcare workers, COVID-19 survivors or employees who are doing their best, she explained.

“We’re in a world that desperately needs kindness, recognition and empathy,” Corey said.

With employees stressed and some working harder than ever to help their employers stay financially sound during a pandemic–while also dealing with their own struggles due to the complexities of the crisis–employers and HR leaders should step up their recognition efforts, Corey says.

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“There should be no limits to recognition, as long as it’s genuine,” she said.

That sentiment was also echoed last week during WorldatWork’s opening session. Steve Pennachio, senior vice president of total rewards at Pfizer, predicted that recognition and bonus programs will change and increase in prevalence and importance because of the crisis. “People want to know they are appreciated for their efforts,” Pennachio said.

Related: Distinguishing appreciation from recognition

Such recognition stalwarts as bonuses, monetary awards and gifts are important, especially while many employees struggle financially due to COVID-19, but so are simple acknowledgments like e-cards, emails, calling out employees for their hard work during team meetings and simply saying thank you.

“Employers should recognize small wins,” Corey said.

She noted that employee wellbeing and recognition are directly tied together and predicted those components will remain linked going forward. You simply can’t have one without the other, she said.

“Think about your employees’ wellbeing–recognition is a really important part of wellbeing,” she said. “If you’re having a bad day and you don’t get recognized for another month or two until you finish a project, that’s not having a good effect on your wellbeing. One kind word can change a person’s day.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.