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Cutting Recognition Takes a Toll, Especially During a Crisis

COVID-19 Weekly Culture Pulse Survey: April 27-May 1, 2020

Organizations took aim at employee benefit programs in order to save costs during the COVID-19 crisis, including formal recognition. But this may have done more harm than good to employee psyche—such as an intention-to-leave score nearly 20% higher.


Crisis and the state of recognition


All organizations have had to make tough decisions during the global pandemic. Leaders have had to decide which of their various corporate initiatives would be delayed, paused, or even canceled. Recognition programs have taken some of that hit.

In this article, we’ll consider the impact that either having or not having a recognition program in place during the crisis had on employees. Our most recent weekly pulse survey brings some critical observations of each situation to light. But first, take a look at how these types of programs have fared during the crisis.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis we have seen:

16.8% reduction in active, formal, career anniversary programs

19.7% reduction in active, formal, performance recognition programs

7.3% reduction in active, formal, everyday effort recognition programs


Recognition finds new powers during COVID-19


The business case for recognition is strong. At O.C. Tanner, we’ve made that case in multiple ways. In our 2018 Culture Report we noted that simply adopting a formal recognition program resulted in employees feeling 35% more appreciated.

Other persuasive facts? A deliberate thank you led to the immediate impact of employees feeling 116% more appreciated. Spontaneous praise scored an even greater benefit, with employees feeling 172% more appreciated. Consistent above and beyond performance recognition adds 3.5 years to an employee’s tenure, and effective career celebrations extend employment by 2-4 years.

But in addition to these powerful metrics, we found that recognition during the COVID-19 crisis has generated even greater returns than pre-crisis baselines indicated. Its positive results were amplified in many areas. Notable comparisons include:

47.4% increase in employee engagement (48.1% higher than pre-crisis)

66.3% more likely for employees to be Promoters on the standard Net Promoter Score (NPS) scale (22.8% higher than pre-crisis)

47.4% more likely to have employees innovating and performing great work (63.4% higher than pre-crisis)

Organizations without a formal recognition program during the crisis saw a 48.6% decrease in employee engagement.


The costs of managing a crisis without recognition


Our survey results not only indicated that recognition programs had a more significant impact during the crisis, it proved the reverse to be true as well. Organizations that did not have a formal recognition program in place during the crisis suffered greater negative feelings and outcomes by employees.

Overall, organizations without a formal recognition program during the crisis saw a 48.6% decrease in employee engagement. Other measures of employee sentiment also scored much lower than employees who had the advantage of an active recognition program.

Employees without a recognition program during the crisis:

Averaged a 38.3% lower employee Net Promoter Score (NPS)

Reported a 19.9% higher intention to leave the company

Experienced a 14.4% increase in mental exhaustion

Were 22.7% less likely to feel supported by the organization

Were two times more fearful of COVID-19

We discovered that recognition played a crucial role in helping employees to maintain a more positive outlook during the stressful times of the crisis. Employees without recognition programs during this period were more fearful and felt less supported. On the flip side, our research showed that employees who had been recognized in the past seven days were 47.4% less likely to be fearful about COVID-19 in their workplace.


Best practices for recognition during a crisis


Our ongoing pulse survey research revealed the value of recognition during a crisis. For example, we found that when employees had been recognized in the previous seven days, they were 63.7% more likely to believe that their senior leaders had their health and wellbeing in mind.

Regardless of whether your organization has a full recognition program in place at the moment, you can implement some best practices to maximize the benefits of appreciating during the coronavirus crisis. Here are a few to consider:

• For remote employees, virtual recognition is appropriate. But don’t deliver the recognition through chat. Instead, be present on video and invite others to participate in the moment. Not only is this more meaningful, but employees who have a best practice recognition experience are 43.3% more likely to feel successful.

• For non-remote employees, try to gather a few people to participate (keeping social distancing in mind). Additionally, think virtually here too. Utilize video conferencing to connect the non-remote employees to their colleagues in the virtual setting.

• For all employees, focus on communicating the accomplishment and linking it to what matters. How did the employee support organizational purpose? What value did the employee model? What impact did the accomplishment make?

• Don’t always default to monetary recognition. Yes, monetary awards have a substantial effect, but so does a personalized thank you that is deliberately given (instead of just mentioned in passing).


Looking beyond the crisis


As we continue to make the case for strong recognition practices in the future, it’s also valuable to consider what we have learned during the COVID-19 crisis. Just implementing an employee appreciation program can pave the way for some positive gains.

Keeping talented and engaged workers feeling good about their job and their leaders has only been magnified during this time (48% of employees said they were considering an industry career change after COVID-19 settles down). Not only did we discover that employees without a recognition program had an intention-to-leave score almost 20% higher, we found that these employees felt 22.7% less support from their organization. But it’s not too late to turn missed opportunities into a plan for improving future culture.

In contrast, those with a recognition program in place during a time of crisis felt more supported, more engaged, and reported more positive views of their leaders and organization. Some benefits of recognition were even found to be greatly amplified during the crisis—like the 64% jump in innovation.

Now is the time to begin building the culture you want to have when things return to something closer to normal. Likewise, organizations will be well served to consider the added benefits a recognition program can provide in times of crisis and uncertainty.


Stay tuned to our COVID-19 weekly culture pulse surveys for insights that will help your organization to weather the storm.

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