Workforce & Workplace
Recognition by Any Other Name
Mia Mends
Mia Mends
Benefits & Rewards Services
Sodexo USA

Is recognition the holy grail of employee engagement and corporate success? It’s become an article of faith in the last decade or so and the subject of a lot of research.

During a lively discussion on recognition at Sodexo’s inaugural Quality of Life Conference in New York City, a panel of experts suggested the following drivers are essential to employee engagement:

  • The organization values them and their contributions
  • They are having a positive impact on others within the organization
  • Through their work they are making a positive difference in the world at large

Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco S/A, argued that outdated corporate standards undermine companies’ growth and success. Cookie cutter organizational frameworks – 9 to 5 schedules and dress codes, for example, deter millennials from applying for jobs.

Semco doesn’t have this problem. Semler has employed his vision to drive 40% growth since 1980 when he first became the company’s CEO – at the age of 21. He introduced independence and flexibility where employees had to meet just one requirement: tasks must be completed on time. They work on their own schedule, with nearly complete control over their work environment. He created a business that functions for its employees’ quality of life and the results for them—and the enterprise—have been excellent. Millennial nirvana achieved.  For these employees, the focus was on recognizing individual preferences and providing a sense of flexibility.

The other panelists, Nita Clarke, Betsy Myers, Michael Norton and Dr. Kathy Roemer presented compelling evidence supporting their views on where recognition fits into the engagement/attraction/retention question:

  • Betsy Myers, the Director of the Center for Women and Business, described recognition at Southwest Airlines as a corporate counterpoint to the Semco example
  • Nita Clarke, Director of the Involvement and Participation Association, contributed insights about the ills of a disengaged workforce where people don’t feel that management sees their contributions
  • Kathy Roemer explained how Montessori schools develop the traits that lead to success in the business world—and a part of that formula is providing well-earned recognition
  • Harvard Business School Professor Michael Norton’s research into workplace motivation suggests a role for recognition as well, as it provided intrinsic rewards such as feeling valued for one’s contributions that contribute to the sense of a life well lived

Engagement and retention can’t be forced or bought. While adequate monetary compensation is a necessary precondition of engagement, employees are looking for much more out of work than money. Pay is like a “hygiene factor,” said one participant: “Get it wrong, let it feel unfair, and they disengage. Get it right, and that doesn’t deliver engagement.”

Moreover, as another said, “Recognition is absolutely vital for us as human beings. And those organizations that… have an operational model and culture that embeds recognition…are the ones that are going to succeed in the 21st century.” People want more from their jobs than money. Organizations can build a meaningful culture by providing opportunities for employees to be recognized through a company-wide initiative that reflects both corporate and individual values.

Companies have long known that recognition and reward programs encourage desired behaviors, motivating employees to perform at their best. Global organizations must be mindful of the ways in which their workforce differs culturally, generationally and individually. Companies that customize their recognition programs to express those differences can reap the extraordinary benefits of a highly engaged, productive and committed workforce.


Mia Mends is CEO, Sodexo Benefits & Rewards Services, USA.

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