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Faint Praise: An Employee Recognition Program Post-Mortem

Steven Green
by Steven Green on January 19, 2017

I sat down for a coffee with an HR Director who contacted me about their ailing employee recognition program.

By ailing I mean mostly dead. It had started well, they said. But participation plummeted after a few months. Six months had now passed and they reached out to see how TemboSocial's tools and expertise could revive it.

Employee Recognition Programs Fail for the Same Reasons

Why many employee recognition programs failBad programs tend to be like races. They start with fanfare. Exhortation.  A green flag waves and everyone blasts out of the gate. Success is certain.

And then a big ‘ole pile-up happens on the first turn.

Unless they are tied to employee needs, business goals and corporate values, programs will quickly go from green to yellow. Engagement turns into a few well-recognized leaders and a grumbly peloton of employees doing just enough to meet management’s expectations.

Bad programs are like races. Good programs treat recognition like  a marathon.

Read about Recognition Best Practices in our Employee Engagement Roadmap Whitepaper.

A Recognition Program Autopsy

The Director and I went over how the program was launched. Its tenets, tools and application. We discussed the company’s culture. Buy-in from executives. Feedback from employees. We agreed that these were the most serious failures:

The organization confused accomplishment with unconditional praise and rewards.

Everyone was complimented, which was the same as no recognition at all. Top performers and behind the scenes contributors still felt overlooked. Employees were confused about expectations.  

A blanket approach to recognition can be smothering. Worse, overconfidence can make employees poor decision-makers.  

Employees of the Month Millennium

A few employees were singled out for (extra) special recognition. But the selection criteria was not made clear. This caused grumbling about favouritism and divisional politics.  

The way to combat this is with transparency. Present the background stories and circumstances for recognition. Better yet, encourage peer-to-peer recognition, not top down praise.

Food fight

The company randomly catered lunches to thank everyone for their efforts.

This was unconditional praise: bagel edition. Employees who went the extra mile watched those who didn’t pocket an extra sandwich. Sales teams often couldn’t attend the lunches.  

When praise and recognition aren’t clearly tied to business goals, the result can be confusion, cynicism and hoagy hoarding among the workforce.

A hockey team that celebrated goals but not assists

Managers had been instructed to be fulsome in their praise. But they hadn’t been trained what to praise. As a result, they tended to celebrate the ‘closers’ of projects, rather than the ridiculously essential collaborators, who, because of their ability to nurture ideas, are at once the most in-demand and disengaged employees in organizations.   

Institutional Fear of Failure

When the recognition program started to fade, no one spoke up. The company’s mission statement spoke to transparency and innovation, but hushed tones prevailed at the water cooler. Management kept pushing the idea of employee engagement because failure was uncomfortable.


The company’s recognition program was not integrated with their intranet. This separation made it invisible to employees and created extra work for HR, who found themselves marketing the program instead of managing it.   

Why TemboSocial Recognition Programs don’t fail.

We know exactly what makes an employee recognition program successful and sustainable. We walk our customers through the hows and whys of TemboSocial Recognition, and we continue to engage and support long after the project has begun.    

Here’s feedback from a recently launched program for New Relic, who integrated TemboSocial Recognition into their Jive intranet.

“The team at TemboSocial really went above and beyond with helping us to launch our recognition program. We couldn’t be more pleased with their customer service and just how smooth the whole process was. Because of their easy-to-follow onboarding, attention to detail, and fast responses, we now have this amazing tool to share with the company” 

employee engagement roadmap


Steven Green
Written by Steven Green

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