The Importance of Employee Recognition

Apr 18th 2019
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When I started my first job in public accounting, I felt appreciated at work. Every birthday was celebrated with the person’s favorite cake or other treat, and any leftovers went home with them. Work anniversaries and staff promotions were also recognized with short, 15-minute meetings just for that purpose. We would occasionally get random bonus checks to recognize our hard work, and we could depend on cash bonuses at our end-of-year holiday party and at our end-of-tax-season party.

We had mini parties when a new person joined the firm and when staff members left. We were recognized publicly for work that was done well, and we had private conversations when things didn’t go so great.

One busy season, they brought in a mobile car wash and detailing service to spruce up our vehicles while we worked. Another year, on top of our tax-season bonus checks, we got gift cards for a weekend at a local five-star resort hotel.

Little things like those made me feel appreciated and made the long hours at work worthwhile. They kept me loyal to the firm.

Then the recession hit at the same time ownership changed. Belt tightening ensued. We also moved into new offices, which were more modern and upscale than the old place – and more expensive.

Gradually, the niceties disappeared. We no longer got special treats on our birthdays, but once a month, we’d gather for cupcakes to celebrate that month’s birthdays. Then that dropped to quarterly, and then to random intervals. 

Work anniversaries were ignored. Even big milestone ones for five or 10 years on the job were neglected for months. New people came and went. Sometimes that was noted, and sometimes not. Departures of even long-term employees were sporadically noted. Our office manager, who was the one responsible for those celebrations, exuded an attitude of being too busy to put a meeting on the calendar and send someone out for cupcakes.

The formerly predictable dispensing of bonus checks in December and April changed to an opaque formula to determine if bonuses could be paid out and how much they would be. The conditions never seemed to allow for any.  

Our new office had a lovely coffee bar in the lobby, with a new Keurig machine, fancy mugs with the firm logo and a fridge of sodas and waters. But those perks, we were pointedly told, were strictly for the clients. They were not for us.

Birthday cakes, coffee bars and anniversary plaques are little things, yes, but the result was that we didn’t feel appreciated, especially those of us who remembered the good old days.

So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that over six months, seven people in a firm of about 15 left.  Four of us had been there more than a decade.

I admit that some of these little things do come with a cost, but with unemployment for accountants and auditors at 1.8 percent in the first quarter of 2019 and 93 percent of accounting and finance leaders having a hard time finding talent, wouldn’t you want to make sure that when you do find good people, they stay?

Those little things, like birthday treats and even just passing around a card to sign when a long-term employee was leaving, made us feel valued, even when our paychecks didn’t increase. Those small investments – smaller than any raises – kept us loyal for a long time.

Recently, I’ve been working closely with LA software company FloQast, which makes close management software. The founders, especially CEO Mike Whitmire, have created an amazing culture where everyone works hard and is willing to go beyond the extra mile. I asked the HR director Adey Tadesse-Heath what they have in place for recognizing their 150 employees.

Adey told me that at the company level, they have a special Slack channel for gratitude. “So anyone can drop any gratitude. Let’s say, to Kat for going out of her way to help me on a project that she had nothing to do with,” Adey explained. “I really appreciate her hard work, so I'm giving visibility to Kat's hard work, when maybe nobody else could see it.” Besides giving peer-to-peer recognition, that gratitude channel is also a way for team members to learn about what others in the company do, which helps break down the silos between departments.

Once a quarter, the leadership team picks three team members for a company-wide gratitude award. As Adey said, “You don't get awards for just doing your job, you get an award for going above and beyond.” These awards are announced at a company-wide meeting, and the winners get either a cash bonus or an equivalent stock option. Adey said that the winners usually don’t expect the recognition but are pleased to have their contributions noted by the CEO and the whole company. 

Departments at FloQast also have their own means of giving shoutouts to outstanding employees. So, for example, the sales team recognizes the account executive of the quarter and the account executive of the year.

These are not hard things to do, but they are vital for making employees feel valued and appreciated. This article in Forbes has 10 ways to recognize and reward employees that are free or have minimal expense. One of my favorites is scheduling regular one-on-one meetings between a manager and team members to talk about performance and the employee’s long-term career goals and any other issues that need to be addressed. The key to making this idea successful is actually acting on any comments from the staff member and helping to make those career goals happen.

The competition for talent is only going to get worse as baby boomers retire, and your best employees are likely already getting multiple calls from recruiters. If you don’t want to see your best and brightest – and hardest to replace – walk out the door, make sure they know in concrete ways that you appreciate the hard work they do.

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