Yellow sign with loud speaker saying "Great Job"

How Employee Recognition Programs Can Have a Meaningful Impact

“Thank you.”

Those are two of the most important words that you can say to someone.

That’s especially true if you say them to your employees. By thanking your staff and assuring them that you notice and appreciate their work, you are investing in not only your staff but also in the future of the entire organization.

Employee Recognition Programs
Rochelle Crollard, director of human resources for The Everett Clinic, said, "One of the best ways to recognize staff is to ask them how they want to be recognized."

“People want to make a difference. They want to feel that the work they do, the contributions they make to the organization, is of value,” said Rochelle Crollard, director of human resources at The Everett Clinic in Everett, Wash. “When people are recognized or acknowledged for the work they do, it’s motivator for them to continue doing that same work.”

Most healthcare organizations have some type of employee recognition program in place, ranging from hospital-wide formal recognition ceremonies to smaller, more informal tributes on individual units--or they might have a combination of programs that include large and small rewards.

Some implement national award programs like the DAISY awards, which recognize nursing excellence, but also organize homegrown programs that are tailored to their specific organizational culture.

That’s what Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has done, said Mary Dee Hacker, MBA, RN, vice president and chief nursing officer for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and a board member for the DAISY Foundation. Two of the hospital’s most popular awards are its very own: the Going the Extra Mile (GEM) award and the Humanism award. A Humanism award is presented annually to a physician, a nurse, a non-patient care support staffer, and a team; all are chosen based on the depth of humanity and kindness they bring to their jobs each day. 

“It’s the most prestigious award that someone can receive,” Hacker said. “We’ve had parents come in from Paris as a surprise because they knew their child was receiving this award.”

Recognition programs “motivate them to continue to perform at their best,” Crollard said. “But it’s not the amount. It’s making sure it’s meaningful.”

And experts agree that recognition efforts must be meaningful to the people who are being singled out in order for them to be truly effective.  The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses even specifically cites meaningful recognition as one of six key standards for healthy work environments.

Don’t go for a generic, one-size-fits-all type of recognition. Find out what motivates your employees. Is it a bonus? Is it extra time off? Is it public or private recognition? Once you know, you can plan your recognition programs accordingly.

“Stop thinking that you know what they want and ask them,” suggested Bob Nelson, Ph.D., a motivational speaker and author of 1,501 Ways to Reward Employees.

And you should say “thank you” often; another key point to remember about effective employee recognition is frequency. This is one of the instances in which more is better.

“I absolutely believe that employers…do not say ‘thank you’ enough to those who live and deliver the mission of the organization,” said Hacker.

“We can’t do enough of it,” agreed Crollard, adding that it’s also important to recognize staff in a timely manner--ideally very soon after they’ve done something noteworthy.

Here are six reasons why it’s important to show employees how much you appreciate them:

1. It affects patient satisfaction.  

A study in the May 2011 issue of AJN: American Journal of Nursing found that patients are more likely to express dissatisfaction at hospitals where the nurses report a high level of dissatisfaction--“a finding with possible implications for quality of care.” Because of the new link between reimbursement rates and patient satisfaction scores, that’s a risky proposition.

2. It improves employee morale.

It’s worth investing time and resources in boosting employee morale. A 2009 report titled “The Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction and Hospital Patient Experiences” noted that stress levels, turnovers and leaves of absence all tend to be lower when staff members report feeling satisfied.

3. It enhances recruitment and retention.

When employees are happy and feel valued, they don’t want to leave their jobs.  To stay competitive in the marketplace, it’s crucial to invest in making sure your workforce is the best it can be. “We want to keep and maintain and attract the best of the best,” said Spencer Barroll, communications project specialist in human resources for The Johns Hopkins Hospital & Health System.

4. It doesn’t have to be expensive.  

Some organizations do choose to spend a significant amount of money on employee recognition programs and rewards, but spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee success. “The biggest motivators tend to be things that don’t have much, if any, cost,” said Nelson. He noted that praise, involvement and support have all shown to be excellent motivators.

5. You can spotlight unique contributions.

Every profession has a special “week” each year that provides an excellent opportunity for highlighting their unique contributions to the organization. For example, National Nurses Week starts with National Nurses Day on May 6 and runs through May 12, which was Florence Nightingale’s birthday. You should also take advantage of opportunities to showcase the work that your social workers or your occupational therapists or your physicians do and remind them how important they are.

6. People really want to be recognized.

People usually choose a career in healthcare because they want to help people--and they like it when others recognize them for doing so. “People do not commit 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week or more out of their lives to just show up at work,” Nelson wrote. “They want to make a difference in their work--and to be appreciated for doing so.”  And Barroll added, “People just want to be cared about.”