Russell Deathridge: The importance of employee recognition in a modern workforce

We all need some form of recognition. Perceiving that we are lost in a large workforce can, eventually, lead to people turning into what I would call “foot soldiers” – doing just enough to get by, but not really achieving their full potential. Virtual working, while having many benefits, can also increase the likelihood of employees feeling isolated. Recognition and feedback can help overcome these barriers.


When I first started as a manager in a sales call centre, many years ago, I decided to run “power hours” – which was when one agent focused their outbound calling on converting as many sales as possible. The team were mostly extroverts who loved a challenge. At the end of their “power hour” I would make a big fuss over all they had achieved. It worked – most were happy with that recognition. But one day a very good agent came to me and said “When I have my power hour– no big celebration please as I will be embarrassed”. She did her hour and I quietly checked in with her. She had done well. A few minutes later she came to me and said, “well perhaps a few bells and whistles”, meaning please tell everyone what I have achieved. So, I did.

What did I learn from this? That we all, in some way, need not only recognition from a manager but also recognition from the team. However, it must be as personalised as is reasonably possible. When employees receive no recognition whatsoever, even if that recognition is “You are doing well but here is how you can do better” they can feel that their employer has given up. Recognition indicates respect for the employee’s effort, achievements and development.

Formal vs. informal recognition

Although formal recognition is necessary, famously a pay rise will only motivate until the next pay review. Relaxed but structured recognition is important. “Hero of the Month” awards are a way for companies to recognise their employees in an informal way and are popular with staff. Employees are asked to nominate colleagues for the award against a company’s values. The winner is the person who receives the most nominations and they receive a certificate from the company. However, all those nominated are recognised and the reasons why they were nominated are published. It works well and people look forward to that part of the month.

Companies often ask how recognition can be practically introduced. I believe that if leaders are trained correctly on motivation, team alignment and goal setting it is likely they will create, at grass roots level, an informal recognition system. Even if that is only saying “thank you”. Collectively this can begin to embed the feedback culture that many organisations we work with yearn for. Once that culture is emerging then more formal structures that reflect and enhance that culture can be introduced, such the Hero of the Month concept. However, this will not happen automatically, leaders need to be trained to take accountability of both the numbers and the people.

Other examples of non-financial reward systems can be found in both the academic and practitioner literature and a great example is found in the observations of Nelson (1995) and the Travel Related Services (TRS) “Great Performers” recognition programme.  It began by displaying, throughout many weeks, life-sized posters of famous people performing their greatest achievements. TRS then moved to using their own employees on posters, along with a statement of a major achievement or accomplishment. Met with positivity by employees, the “Great Performers” programme is cited by TRS in increasing their income by 500 per cent over an 11-year period and increasing return on equity (ROE) by 28 per cent since the programme began.

Recognition for a diverse workforce

In a multi-generational workforce, companies often think that different management styles need to be put in place for different age groups including employee recognition. However, personally, I do not think that there should be a different employee recognition programme for different generations. However, the type of reward should be thought about as what may work for one group may not work for another. For example, not everyone will respond well to a team evening out such as going for drinks.

Workforce demographics mean that teams are often operating virtually – as remote or satellite teams. Thought must always be given to how a disparate team can be brought together and receive the same recognition as an in-situ team.

Tips to ensure your employees remain motivated and recognised:
  • Build trust and create a safe space to work effectively together:
    – encourage contributions through value and recognition
    – take time and make the effort to understand and be mindful of each other’s strengths, style and preferences
  • Provide space for personal connections and opportunities to chat without talking “shop” all the time
  • Be brave! If you are noticing that things aren’t working, say so. Offer constructive suggestions about how you might get back on track
  • Consider your own communication style. If you are likely to dominate and talk a lot, consider how you can allow others to contribute





Russell is a highly experienced and popular leadership development consultant having been working in this sphere for nearly twenty five years. In that time he has successfully delivered numerous projects as a manager; trainer; program leader; strategic development consultant and executive coach. These challenges have taken him around the globe many times, working with entry level managers through to CEOs of Blue Chip companies. Currently, Russell is a Solutions Lead at Lee Hecht Harrison Penna.