Make Their Day!
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Make Their Day!

Employee Recognition That Works: Proven Ways to Boost Morale, Productivity, and Profits

Cindy Ventrice

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📖 eBook - ePub

Make Their Day!

Employee Recognition That Works: Proven Ways to Boost Morale, Productivity, and Profits

Cindy Ventrice

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About This Book

In this thoroughly updated and expanded edition of the bestselling guide (over 20, 000 of the 1st edition sold) to employee recognition, author Cindy Ventrice explores how managers need to adapt their recognition strategies to deal with global, virtual, and generational realities. Additions include chapters on workplace culture, fairness, and remote communication.

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chapter 1

Recognition That Works

“Please, not another T-shirt!”
“I resent the money that’s spent to purchase doodads. It could be spent much more wisely.”
“Certificates of appreciation? I hate the damn things.”
I assume this isn’t the reaction you expect from recognition. Yet, if you depend on your organization to fulfill your employees’ need for recognition, there is a good chance that your employees would express similar opinions.
According to a former employee of one technology company:

“Our company offered the Terrific Employee Award. Everyone thought it was a cheesy name. People didn’t know why they were being awarded. It became a joke. The CEO never got involved. No one but HR took it seriously. They solicited employees for nominations and got so few responses they eventually gave up and selected someone themselves. The awards were gift certificates. They were nice, but without meaning.”

Missing the Mark

When you think of recognition, what comes to mind? Do you think of raises, bonuses, stock awards, gift certificates, parties, prizes, and plaques? Many managers view these things as recognition, but they are wrong. Employees see it differently.

According to employees, 57 percent of the
most meaningful recognition is free!

That’s right: in an international survey in 2007, I found that 57 percent of the most meaningful recognition doesn’t even cost a dollar!
Like the person in the last example, employees are looking for meaning, not things. They see tangible awards as a vehicle for delivering recognition, but they don’t regard the awards themselves as recognition. They’re much more interested in the underlying message behind the reward.
Your employees are strong believers in the old saying “It’s the thought that counts.” For awards to count as recognition, your employees need to see acknowledgment of their specific accomplishments and sincere appreciation of their personal value to the organization. The following examples will illustrate why recognition often misses the mark.

Perks Aren’t Recognition

The director of a small nonprofit agency hosts a dinner on a Friday night for employees and volunteers. Everyone has a great time and goes back to work the following Monday feeling refreshed and energized. The director planned this event as a form of recognition. Although it was fun and boosted morale, it wasn’t recognition; it was a perk—a little something extra.
To add an element of recognition, the director can announce that the dinner is a way of thanking the group for something they have accomplished; for example, “We served ten thousand clients this year, and we couldn’t have done it without your help.” She can include an after-dinner presentation during which she tells detailed stories about the specific ways in which employees and volunteers helped accomplish this feat. Her message will provide the recognition.

Bonuses Aren’t Recognition

The owner of an insurance agency gives holiday bonuses. They come in handy when employees head out to do their last-minute shopping. Employees appreciate the bonus but don’t see it as recognition. They expect it and feel entitled to it. Many have already budgeted for it, and if it is less than they anticipated, employees are resentful. If the bonus is more than was expected, they’re pleasantly surprised but figure they must have earned it.
The owner of the agency thinks the bonuses are a form of recognition, but employees don’t agree. To provide recognition, the owner needs to tie the bonuses to an achievement. But that isn’t enough. He also needs to state that the bonuses are his way of showing appreciation: “Our customer service ratings are up 10 percent over last year. That increase has helped us better position ourselves in the market. I know we couldn’t have done it without all of your hard work, and I want to show my appreciation by giving each of you this bonus.” Without the tie-in and the statement of appreciation, the bonus is just another way in which employees get paid.

Plaques and Awards Aren’t Recognition

Each month in a staff meeting, the manager of a city public works department presents one employee with a plaque and a gift certificate. As she hands out the awards, she explains that the recipient is “doing a good job” and is a “great employee.” She believes she is recognizing employees, but employees in her department have no idea what it takes to get the award. This public award is supposed to be recognition, but these employees see it as favoritism and feel even less recognized. If employees, including the recipients, don’t understand why recognition is given, then recognition hasn’t taken place.
If this manager establishes criteria for the award such as excellence in customer service or cost cutting, and then describes what the recipient did to earn the award, then the award will provide recognition.

Incentives Aren’t Recognition

A manufacturer sets up a quota system for assemblers: when they reach a certain level, they will receive a $100 gift certificate. As assemblers reach their quota, they find their certificate tucked in their pay envelope. Their supervisor thinks the certificates are recognition, but they aren’t. They are incentives. They tell employees, “If you do this, you will get that.” Used properly, incentives can motivate people to do more, but there really isn’t much recognition built in.
The line supervisor can easily add an element of recognition to the incentive. If he hand-delivers the certificate, personally congratulates the recipient, and offers appreciation for a job well done, then the incentive will have recognition value.
There’s a lot you can do that will make people feel recognized, but first you have to be clear about what recognition isn’t. It isn’t perks, bonuses, plaques and awards, or incentives. While these things aren’t recognition, they can be a highly valued part of the recognition experience. They can serve as excellent concrete reminders of the recognition you offer.
An employee who does customer support offers the following example:

“I was given a tough customer to assist. The underlying message was ‘We don’t entrust really important relationships to just anybody. We believe in you. You have proven yourself.’ After I was successful, they let me pick from a catalog of gifts. The opportunity was the recognition, but the mixer I selected reminds me of it—every time I walk into the kitchen.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the awards are the recognition. If you do, you will fall into a common trap: assuming that all you need to make recognition work is a new award. Focus only on the tangible award, and recognition will most likely fail. Focus on the meaning behind the award, and employees will receive recognition that works.
This isn’t to say that looking for new award ideas doesn’t have value. It’s always a good idea to come up with new and creative ways to show recognition. Many excellent books are filled with great recognition ideas. Two that I would recommend are 1001 Ways to Reward Employees by Bob Nelson and 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work by Dave Hemsath and Leslie Yerkes. Nothing is wrong with getting ideas. In fact, the Make Their Day website offers a free weekly tip subscription that will provide you with lots of new ideas. By all means, get creative.
Remember, 57 percent of surveyed employees said the most meaningful recognition was free! Eighty-eight percent said it cost under $100. What makes recognition meaningful isn’t the award; it is the meaning behind the award.

Before you give an award ask yourself a few questions:

  • What achievement does the award recognize?
  • How are the recipients selected?
  • When and how are awards presented?
  • What can I do to make sure that the award provides recognition?

What Makes Recognition Work

Simple, thoughtful gestures are what employees tell me make their day. Here are some examples:
  • A souvenir from your vacation
  • Remembering the details of an employee’s project
  • A thank-you e-mail
  • A handwritten note
The hundreds of stories that I’ve heard confirm that recognition doesn’t have to be big and splashy to be memorable and meaningful. What stands out in employees’ minds is recognition that is memorable because of the consistency and regularity with which it is offered, sometimes because it is clever and unique, but most often because it sends a strong message that they are valued.
n. 1. the act of seeing or identifying. 2. the perception of something as existing or true. 3. the acknowledgment of something as valid or entitled to consideration.
Look up recognize and recognition in any dictionary, and you will find definitions that use words like see, identify, and acknowledge. These words are at the core of how employees define recognition. One man told me, “I’d be happy if I thought anyone here even knew I existed.” Most employees don’t feel anywhere near this level of dissatisfaction, but his comment does show the extreme of what it means to feel completely unrecognized.
Another told me about how much more productive she was when she had the cubicle outside her manager’s office. She emphasized that she wasn’t intimidated, just visible.
Employees want to be seen—sometimes literally. When anyone higher up the organizational ladder greets an employee by name in the hallway, typically that employee will view the greeting as a form of recognition. Why? Because these are the people who employees most want to be seen by because they have the most influence over their careers.
Employees also want their accomplishments identified and acknowledged. When coworkers, internal customers, managers, and supervisors provide specific details about the value of an employee’s contribution, they provide recognition that works at its most fundamental level.

How well do you see employees? Here is a visibility quiz for you:

Imagine a senior manager stops by during your team meeting. Could you, if asked, introduce each individual in the room by providing the following information?
  • Name
  • Length of time with the company
  • Role on the team
  • Special strengths
  • Current project and why it is important
If you don’t have all of this information right on the tip of your tongue, work on it. Great leaders really know the people on their teams.

The Elements of Recognition

Recognition that works has four basic elements: praise, thanks, opportunity, and respect. Every successful gesture of recognition includes at least one of these four basic elements and is typically a combination of more than one. If you don’t include at least one of the elements, you aren’t giving recognition. You’re giving an incentive, prize, gift, or plaque, but not recognition that works. Let’s look at each element separately.


Employees want to hear you say, “Hey, you accomplished something important.” They want you to acknowledge their progress. They want you to notice what they do right.

Here are three tips for offering praise:

  • Be clear and concise about what you are praising.
  • Make the praise proportional to the accomplishment. Don’t exaggerate or overdo it.
  • Keep it timely. Don’t wait six months for the performance review. When you see it or hear about it, praise it.
You can praise employees publicly or privately. Be aware that while every employee wants praise, not all employees want public praise. It’s up to you to learn each employee’s preference. For more on this topic, see Chapter 12.


A sincere thank-you is a highly valued form of recognition that works. Some managers think there is no need to thank a person who is doing his or her job. It’s true that you don’t have to thank each employee, but if someone’s efforts make your job easier, then thank that person. Everyone responds to heartfelt appreciation. Employees will work many times harder for managers who express their gratitude. Offer a sincere thank-you, and you will make significant progress in improving morale and productivity.
To make sure that your thank-you has the desired effect, describe why the person is being thanked. Be specific, accurate, clear, and concise.
Remember: the simplest and frequently most desired form of recognition is a simple expression of gratitude.

Put It in Writing

While you’re at it, think about providing your praise and appreciation in the form of a handwritten note. People tell me they hang on to these for years and pull them out when they need a boost. Talk about a great return on the time you have to invest in writing the note!


At first glance, opportunity doesn’t appear to be an element of recognition, but it’s actually a very important element of recognition that works. Over half of the examples of meaningful recognition that I have heard include this element. Give your employees new opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way and learn new skills, pro...

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Citation styles for Make Their Day!How to cite Make Their Day! for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Ventrice, C. (2009). Make Their Day! (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Retrieved from (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Ventrice, Cindy. (2009) 2009. Make Their Day! 2nd ed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Harvard Citation
Ventrice, C. (2009) Make Their Day! 2nd edn. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ventrice, Cindy. Make Their Day! 2nd ed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.