Four Ways Recognition Builds Inclusion

Headshot of HR leader smiling

Having an inclusive company culture is no longer optional. Employers who don’t have inclusive cultures risk losing top talent and business success—as Josh Bersin, Global Independent Analyst and Dean of Josh Bersin Academy, reminds us, “Companies that embrace diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their business statistically outperform their peers.”

Unfortunately, most diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts have had lackluster results: only 44% of employees feel their organization’s D&I efforts are sincere, and 35% of employees say their organization is not doing enough to address discrimination internally.

Building truly inclusive cultures means going beyond just improving diversity numbers in recruiting. Instead, build inclusion into the everyday employee experience and your company culture.

Employees do not all have the same experiences or opportunities at work.

Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, says companies should be “a great place to work for all”— a place where everyone, no matter who they are or what they look like, can be their authentic selves at work and be treated with respect. He asserts that when people feel safe and have a sense of belonging, they are more innovative, productive, and inspired.

Yet the latest research from the O.C. Tanner Institute’s Global Culture Report shows not all employees have this sense of belonging or psychological safety at work. Minority employees (whether due to race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or age) face microaggressions at work more often than other employees. Those who feel “different” in some way in the workplace are:

In order to improve inclusion, organizations need to increase experiences that foster feelings of inclusivity and belonging, while, at the same time, decrease behaviors that contribute to employees’ sense of exclusion. Our research demonstrates these two groups of actions are related but independent of each other (they do not occupy the same continuum). Exclusionary behaviors undermine any efforts the company is taking towards building an inclusive culture. Sadly, the probability that a minority employee has experienced or witnessed exclusion at their organization is 64% higher than non-minority employees.

The bifurcation of exclusion and inclusion.
Inclusive and exclusionary behaviors are related, but impact culture independently of each other.

Fostering a sense of belonging.

The solution isn’t just more unconscious bias training. Inclusion needs to be part of every element of your employee experience and culture. What employees hear and see from leaders and each other every day should reinforce that the organization cares about inclusion and its individual people.

Employees need to feel seen and valued. Appreciating and recognizing employees for their unique role in an organization reinforces the message that you belong. You are one of us. You matter.

Here are four specific ways recognition helps cultivate inclusive cultures:

1) Recognition communicates an employee belongs at the company—and why.

At its core, recognition inherently demonstrates that a person’s unique skills, talents, and contributions are valued, regardless of their demographics. Effective recognition communicates the important role each individual plays in the success of the company. It shows why an employee is an invaluable part of your team and your organization—and that they belong here. Recognition celebrates the diverse mix of people on a team.

Simply having a recognition program (like a years of service program) increases employee feelings of belonging.

In order for recognition to be effective at communicating a sense of belonging, it must be:

  • Genuine
  • Given fairly
  • Inclusive of all areas, departments, employees (everyone has the opportunity to receive recognition)
  • Visible
  • Timely
  • Frequent
  • Tied to company purpose and values
  • Call out a range of accomplishments, contributions, and extra effort.

Specificity matters here. What did the employee do to make a difference? Keep in mind there can be biases and stereotypes in certain jobs and roles that affect how great work is recognized. Authors Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg point out gender stereotypes mean women are often expected to help out more than men but are not always recognized for it. And men are more likely to help out in visible ways (like attending an optional meeting where everyone can see them), and women in less visible ways (staying late to help a colleague or completing administrative tasks that require a lot of time). To combat these biases, companies should include giving extra effort, going above and beyond, and career achievements over time in their recognition efforts.

2) Recognition builds connection.

Connection is especially important for today’s workforce. With remote work, social distancing, technology replacing human interaction, volatile societal issues, and traditional sources of community temporarily unavailable, employees crave connection more than ever.

Recognition connects employees to three things:

  • Purpose. Recognition shows how employees individually contribute to the organization’s broader purpose and make a difference in the world. It rallies employees to work together towards a common cause and communicates that we are in this collectively—we need you and your unique talents and skills.
62% of employees agree that receiving recognition means more when it’s connected to organizational values.
  • Accomplishment. Recognition helps all employees feel a sense of success. Whether it’s collaboration, innovation, diversity of thought, or great work accomplished together, recognition motivates employees to embrace their differences and work together to achieve greatness.
  • One another. Recognition connects employees across teams, departments, and locations, including employees who may not normally interact with one another (in different generations, locations, levels, or social groups, for example). The act of recognition focuses on the positive qualities of employees rather than stereotypes. It helps each employee feel they are a contributing, essential member of the team.

Modern leaders (who mentor, nurture, and inspire) regularly connect their people. They tend to be more emotionally aware, understand the intersectional identities of their employees, and build more inclusive cultures. Simply having a modern leader increases the probability an employee felt their organization was inclusive by 9X.

It’s no surprise that modern leaders also show appreciation and give recognition more freely, make it personal, and appreciate everyday effort along with major achievements. This leads to more connection and higher odds of building an inclusive culture.  

Connection is powerful: when leaders are able to connect employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another, companies experience 10X greater odds of having a thriving culture.

Puget Sound Energy

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, PSE knew they wanted to help their newly-remote workers and front-line employees stay connected. So they sent regular emails to encourage leaders to recognize their people in order to boost morale, but also to remind employees the company values their uniqueness as individuals (which can be lost behind a screen). Employees are staying connected through ecards, formal recognition, and special awards for great work.

“Distance can’t erode connection”
—Karl Frunz, Training Consultant-Recognition Lead, Puget Sound Energy

3) Recognition empowers teams.

Peer-to-peer recognition in particular empowers employees to highlight anyone, including those who might be overlooked, feel excluded, or have less-visible roles. It allows employees to recognize accomplishments and contributions that leaders might miss or ignore. Giving everyone the ability to recognize great work means differing viewpoints and opinions are celebrated, and formal recognition reaches a wider, more diverse range of people. This means everyone feels noticed and heard, not just a select few.

Recognition can also motivate and inspire all employees to take risks, speak up, and innovate, not just those in leadership positions, with certain roles, or who are in the majority. Doing recognition well allows us to celebrate and highlight the success of a diverse group of people. It’s not just a select, homogenous group of people achieving. Everyone is invited.

Regardless of whether the recognition comes from leaders or peers, it’s important to connect the accomplishments to the values and behaviors that encourage a more inclusive culture.


During times of great change, stress, and uncertainty, leaders often default to micromanaging their people. But BASF believes recognition redirects focus to the positive things that teams are doing, emphasizes the individual strengths each employee brings, and empowers teams to do their best work. So the company ensures that recognition is all-encompassing of employee efforts, whether it’s having a positive attitude, being resourceful and creative, or quietly working behind the scenes to make success happen.

“It’s important to understand the value that each of your individual employees is bringing to the table and appreciate who they are as a person, both the impact they make and the character traits that contribute to the diversity and success of your teams.”
—Samantha Elliot, Total Rewards Programs Lead, BASF

4) Recognition data can point out inequalities and inform D&I efforts.

More organizations are using advanced technology, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, to assist with D&I efforts. Looking at recognition data can provide powerful insights. Knowing who is being recognized, who is giving recognition, and what is being recognized can be integrated with other demographic and performance data to help make the employee experience more inclusive.

Today, 52% of organizations are using advanced technology to support diversity and inclusion efforts, and 45% are considering it to support recognition initiatives and better their company cultures. To illustrate the opportunity, consider one organization’s surprising findings:

An annual culture and engagement survey found women and line-level supervisors felt less appreciated compared to other employees. Looking at their recognition program data, they saw no significant difference in the amount of recognition these groups had received.

Using advanced technology to analyze the data more closely, the organization found a difference in the words employees used to recognize each other. Male employees received recognition with stronger positive statements at a higher magnitude when compared to female employees. Line-level supervisors also received recognition with lower positive sentiment and magnitude.

Going a step further, the organization blended the data from the engagement survey, recognition program, and their performance management system. The analysis revealed that the employees in question received less-than-fair performance reviews and were more likely to feel disconnected from the organization.

These findings helped create a targeted strategy to better interact with female employees and line-level supervisors. The data informed targeted training and coaching for leaders that was more cost effective, easier to manage, and more impactful in addressing the root causes of disengagement and feelings of exclusion.

If data can tell a story, recognition data can paint a very clear picture of employees who aren’t always heard.

Appreciation is a powerful connector because everyone wants to feel valued and know they are making a difference. It’s the simple act of seeing people as humans. It’s also something everyone in the organization can do—from the CEO to the newest hire—to build a more inclusive culture for all.

See more of the latest research on inclusion at work and get best practices from HR and industry leaders on how to build inclusive cultures.

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