In study after study on recognition, retention and staff engagement, we have learned that people commonly leave jobs not because of pay or where they park or the food in the cafeteria. They leave because they don’t feel appreciated.
In this time of low unemployment and more competition than ever to hire and retain the best and brightest, it’s logical that more and more employers are looking for ways to build a culture of appreciation, and they need to know what a useful strategy that recognition can be.
Some of it is pretty straightforward:
- Staff members appreciate face-to-face contact.
- They appreciate someone acknowledging them in a group.
- They like seeing comments on walls, posted in common areas or the break room.
- They like that acknowledgment and reinforcement that they’re doing a good job.
From the beginning, we instill that culture of appreciation and recognition in our people. My staff gets in front of people on their very first day of orientation. We are among the first people that talk to new employees. When people take on leadership roles, we are on that agenda too, making sure that those messages about our culture of employee recognition are heard right at the beginning when people enter our system.
This notion of constant reinforcement makes me think of a recent visit that I made to the Homeland Security website, when I was looking into how you can block phone solicitations. On their site they had a big, amazing banner that I wanted to emulate. It said, “If You See Something, Say Something.” I recall thinking that slogan should be the theme for recognition, not just Homeland Security, because that is how effective recognition works. If you see something good, acknowledge it, and because the timing is important, so do it right then.
In my workplace at the Ohio State University, it starts with the medical center placing a value on recognition tools and having a strong statement about our values, wanting to live them and being dedicated to reinforcing them for consistency’s sake. The medical center supports us as a department and we are very active in using our tools, which is of high importance. If you put tools out there and managers don’t use them, it sends a message that people are not valued and it’s not a big part of the culture.
Since not every tool is going to work for every workplace, people have to pick tools that are going to make sense in their organization. You can’t just pick up a complete toolkit and expect it to work in every setting. For example, our medical center has over 20,000 people in different sites, so we do have a business partner provider who provides a place that people can go for consistency. This allows people to do e-cards across the system to communicate.
One thing we consistently communicate and coach is the need for people to take the time and reach out, either by rounding or writing personal notes. To that end we had hundreds of notecards printed and they’re available any time anyone needs more. It is one way we try to remove obstacles to the personal encounters.
We try to represent the Ohio State brand with all of our tools. So for example, some of our nomination-based awards are tied to our values. We have a lot of pride in OSU, so there are many things we can build from that way, and we’ve found that things branded with OSU are hugely popular among our people, so that works here. We talk about the Buckeye Spirit and living the values of our organization. There are many things we tie together this way.
I don’t use the term consistency lightly. When a manager vows to get better at recognition, they also need to take a vow of consistency. If they work on recognition for one or two days or try it out for a week and then quit, the next time something amazing happens with no recognition, a person will be hurt that they weren’t recognized. Consistency is vital.
As a leader of an organization, I believe that you have to emulate the behavior that you want to see from others. To create and maintain a strong culture of recognition, you have to work directly with front-line managers and the people who are going to be the positive enforcers of this. They are the people who will get the tools, and the effort will live or die right there, depending on whether or not the tools are used effectively. You can’t just give them tools and say, “Go!” You have to constantly coach and reinforce how to use them as well. Through efforts like leadership academy and ‘lunch-n-learn’ events, we share useful strategies and talk to them about their needs.
One of my favorite examples of an effective recognition tool is our Bravo Emergency Box. We are a big operation with several inpatient hospital units and someone may call us on a Friday afternoon, after a rough day, and ask us to do something for staff morale. The manager needs something on the spot in their hands immediately. With this in mind, we created the Bravo Emergency Box, which is filled with tchotchkes like sunglasses, stress balls, lip balm and lots of candy. We wrapped them up in what looks like crime scene tape. Each manager has one of these boxes in their office and if something good or bad happens, they can pull this box out in an emergency. All they need to do is tell us why they used it and they will get another box. Instead of a manager having to buy pizza out of their own pocket or something, they have this in their hands and it is brand-supported. It is a simple and easy thing we do.
We have done significant organizational coaching of our leaders, making sure they visit the second and third shifts to do rounding and make people know they are important. We have leaders who do rounds on holidays to let employees know they’re appreciated. It takes all of us to make this work. We also work to ensure that every member of the team, from top to bottom, is recognized for good work. There is no segregation of celebrations here. An award could go to one of our neurosurgeons, or to the person who removes scuff marks from the floors. They could get the same honor based on what they do, not comparing each other’s skills. We feel that shows the spirit that we are all one, and that is important because it takes all of is to make this work.
In contrast to the need for consistency in recognition, I see great value in variety when telling recognition stories. It is important to look at all the different ways we can communicate, and learn which communication tool is the right one to use for a particular message. You can’t effectively communicate everything across all platforms, because people tend to start seeing it as white noise and delete it. So we try to be strategic about what form of communication makes the most sense, and then we monitor the open rates of those different communication tools to see what is working. It’s not just one things that works every time, it’s a constant balancing act and we’re always trying to see what we need to do to get better and what we need to try next.
Taken all together, we like to think of what we do as the Buckeye Way of creating that culture of recognition.
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Amy Hurley is the Faculty and Staff Recognition Program Director at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. She is the RPI’s president-elect.