Aas the job market improves and employees dust off their resumes, recognition programs have established themselves as a business imperative to retain and engage workers. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, half of employees who don't feel valued by their employer intend to look for a new job in the next year. Among those who feel valued, just 1 in 5 (21%) will send their resumes elsewhere.

While it's well-known that recognition strengthens employees' ties to the workplace - it ranks second only to pay among factors that will keep workers from job hunting - what's less understood is why. Behavioral psychologists say that a closer look at the human psyche can show employers how to build successful recognition programs by appealing to workers' sense of value and reinforcing strong behavior.

"Most managers and supervisors are never really trained to give effective recognition," and don't track the effectiveness of programs that they have in place, explains Dr. David Ballard, Psy.D., assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the APA. He says managers need to be trained "in the basics of recognition and reward theory [to make] sure that recognition is closely tied to the behavior that they're trying to recognize and encourage."

While there's science involved in crafting effective recognition programs, experts seem to agree it's not rocket science. In fact, much of the psychology is more commonsense than complex.

For example, Ballard recommends rewarding employees as close to the time of their accomplishment as possible, as well as recognizing achievements frequently and early on to encourage them to persist in positive behaviors.

Dr. Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc. and author of "1501 Ways to Reward Employees," agrees, saying the psychology is even simpler: Ask employees what's important to them. He notes that 8% of the population wants more responsibility as a reward for their success, but not all employees would view additional work as satisfying. Further, some employees may enjoy public appreciation, while such recognition would make others uncomfortable.

"Just as in the consumer market where there's segmentation, in the employee incentive and recognition market, everybody has a unique way in which they like to be recognized," says engagement consultant Dr. Rick Garlick, who's worked with companies like Gallup and Maritz.

Garlick's research reveals that no single rewards strategy appeals to more than 40% of population. Managers must bring the reward to the individual level.

Once a manager knows what workers value, if they make it a priority to implement those rewards, managers "will get more of that type of performance guaranteed while reinforcing desired behavior, performance and results," Nelson says.

Recognition needs may vary person to person, but younger workers early in their career tend to be attracted to tangible rewards, such as bonuses and prizes, because often they make less money and value items with higher monetary value. However, Nelson's research shows that older generations working at later times in their career may want autonomy or career development over bonuses.

"On their own journey, [when employees have achieved a level of financial success] and money isn't as pressing, their big motivators become something else, which might be being part of a team, achieving success in their organization," explains Nelson.

Regardless of employees' age, Nelson cautions about using only money to motivate. "Over time, the extrinsic motivator will overcome the intrinsic motivator. So, whatever you are paid to do for a living, you will come to hate because you have to do it," he says. "If you always tie [the external rewards] to their intrinsic motivation, that won't happen."

Further, money doesn't stimulate the brain in the same way that unexpected recognition does, psychologists find. Basically, "if you pay people a cash bonus, they begin to consider it as part of their compensation," says Garlick. So, if an employee doesn't get a bonus one year, it can feel more like a pay cut than an incentive.


Top 10 retention strategies

Even though most workers (66%) stated that they are generally satisfied with their jobs, 25% said they will change jobs in 2013 or 2014. CareerBuilder found these 10 strategies are most likely to entice workers to stay with their current employer, based on a survey of more than 3,900 full-time workers nationwide:

1. Increasing salaries 70%

2. Improve employee benefits 58%

3. Provide flexible schedules 51%

4. Increase employee recognition (awards, cash prizes, company trips) 50%

5. Ask employees what they want and put feedback into action 48%

6. Increase training and learning opportunities 35%

7. Hire additional workers to ease workloads 22%

8. Provide academic reimbursement 22%

9. Carve out specific career paths and promote more 21%

10. Institute a more casual dress code 14%


Case study: Giving employees their close-up at Universal Studios

While Universal Studios always recognized employees in traditional ways for anniversaries, celebratory events, tenure, safety and others, "about two years ago, we took it up a notch and talked about reaching our team members where they are," says Rhonda Rhodes, the company's vice president of HR.

Her team members services department works year-round to reward employees. "When [employees] create positive energy and interactions with our customers, we value that, we celebrate it and call it out," she says. Managers give recognition cards at their discretion, and peers can recognize great work with Universal's "Say It" program.

"[The rewards] are used all day every day as they occur - not so much that they diminish their emphasis, but enough that somebody may [think], 'I'm going above and beyond, so I want to go above and beyond all the time so I'm acknowledged for it,'" Rhodes explains.

Despite being a high-tech company, Universal is high-touch in its recognition strategy. "We've determined here that face to face and touch is really important," says Rhodes. "The bulk of what we do is a face-to-face thank-you with a handshake, or a touch to the shoulder and a smile."

Rhodes advises HR/benefits professionals to ask their employees what type of recognition and celebration is meaningful for them.

"If it doesn't touch their heart, it's not going work," she says. "You're throwing your time and energy out the window if you're not doing it the right way and in a way that impacts them positively," adding that, "at the end of the day, our desire as a company is to have every single employee believe they are most important person here. That only happens one person at a time."

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