Competing for staff in a tight recruitment market means employee recognition schemes have become more elaborate as companies vie to put together the most attractive employment package. But sometimes a simple approach is best and, used properly, words can be a powerful motivational tool. Although we might not always like to admit it, recognition is a basic human need. Anyone who has put a great deal of time and effort into a piece of work will know how disappointing it can be if it is met with total indifference. It’s certainly a far cry from that warm fuzzy feeling which comes from knowing that your work is valued. Michael Rose, director of reward and recognition at Aon and author of Recognising performance; non-cash rewards (CIPD, 2001), says: “The bottom line in terms of motivating people is that employees do need to understand that what they have done has had an impact and is appreciated. “If people receive positive reinforcement for what they have done, they are more likely to do it again.” Employees who feel good about their work typically experience higher motivation and job satisfaction. For employers, this helps to support a wider business strategy such as enhancing performance and productivity or reducing staff turnover. To help staff feel positive about their work, managers need to strike a balance between discipline and reward. Organisational psychologist, Professor Cary Cooper from the Manchester School of Management at Umist says: “Managers seem to know how to manage by punishment but not by reward and praise. It’s about managing employees with sticks and carrots.” Aon’s Rose adds: “If you don’t look at what people are doing, perhaps you are looking at them as cogs in a machine.” Small awards to accompany this praise are often used by employers who want to go that one step further. Because recognition is not primarily about rewarding staff, however, this needn’t cost the earth. Schemes incorporating a personal touch can speak volumes about an employer’s appreciation of their staff. A hand-written note of thanks from the chief executive, for example, may have a far greater impact than a large bonus. Monetary awards may be forgotten as soon as they are spent, but personalised gestures are likely to be remembered. Rose explains: “The starting point has to be the basic manager and colleague behaviour of simply saying the right words and thanking people. The thing that is really important is the symbolic value rather than tangible rewards. If employers look at it from a financial point of view, they are looking at it wrong. They mustn’t start on the basis of what they can give people, but how they can recognise people at the softer end.” Just as much can be gained from turning the thanks into an award and involving employees in their colleagues’ achievements. Publicly thanking staff or inviting employees to nominate their peers for an award can encourage others to strive for similar recognition. At Virgin Trains, for example, staff nominate one another for monthly ‘Great Service Awards’. All individual winners receive a framed, signed certificate from the chief executive and a ¬£10 store voucher. When designing a scheme, a little creativity can go a long way towards supporting an organisation’s objectives. Cooper encourages employers “to think of novel ways in the context of their own organisation.” He has experienced this firsthand during his own career, as universities are forced to think outside the box in terms of recognition because they have no control over pay. Instead staff are rewarded in more practical ways such as being allowed to attend more academic conferences. Unless employees know why they are being thanked, however, some of the significance is lost. Prompt recognition is vital if staff are to link praise with their actions. Claridges made this a central theme of their Going for Gold scheme. All managers carry a set of Going for Gold cards which they issue to employees as soon as they spot them doing something worthy of praise. Employees then trundle off to the human resources department to claim their reward from a lucky dip style ‘pot of gold’. To reinforce the connection between performance and reward, all prizes must be taken within four weeks. The idea for the scheme came from a staff survey, which showed that employees wanted more recognition. Sara Edwards, group HR director for the Savoy Group, explains: “We already had an employee of the month scheme, but immediate recognition was a key feature.” The scheme shows that prizes do not necessarily have to be expensive to be appreciated, and can be as simple as allowing employees to take a day off or have a lie in. Awards that have been matched to individuals, however, are likely to hold the most value. Nothing will demotivate staff quicker than if they are rewarded with champagne when they do not drink or a food hamper containing meat when they are vegetarian. While they might appreciate the gesture, in the future they are unlikely to strive for similar rewards. Offering a small selection of prizes can easily overcome this problem. Rose says: “Employers need to adapt a programme to their environment and circumstances.” Claridges regularly holds employee focus groups and staff surveys to determine what individuals would appreciate. To ensure that all employees get the most out of the scheme, staff who are not immediately delighted with their prize are allowed a second choice. Ultimately, an effective recognition scheme is all about good employee management. Cooper believes that managers are often seen as surrogate parents. Applying parenting techniques to management strategies, therefore, can pay dividends when it comes to striking the right balance between discipline and reward. “Good parents know when to praise and when to punish,” he explains. So the next time employers are presented with an exceptional piece of work, instead of taking it for granted or reaching for their chequebook, they should try simply saying ‘thank you’. It might not seem like a lot, but to an employee it can be priceless.