There are so many nuances to navigate in the workplace. Language—specifically the language we use to tell people we value the contributions they make to our organizations—is one of them. The language we use in our recognition programs deserves careful consideration. Today, most businesses acknowledge the value of recognition in helping attract and retain talent and have some kind of recognition program in place. Many believe they’re doing a good job by making their recognition personalized. Ink someone’s name on a certificate, engrave it on a plaque, or add it to the salutation of an email and voila!—you have personalized recognition, right?
As work-life balance morphs into a more organic work-life blend valued by Millennials and Generation Z, personalized recognition needs to evolve into individualized recognition. What’s the difference? While personalized recognition assigns an employee’s name to an organizational goal or value, the name can easily be changed. Individualized recognition takes into account a person’s passions and interests—making it a truly meaningful declaration that moves the needle toward a more engaged workforce and cohesive corporate culture.
Here are ways to make the nuanced leap.
Embrace these two important “m”words.
“Knowing a fair bit about the individuals who work for you goes a long way toward making your recognition efforts more authentic, not simply a “to-do” item,” says Theresa Harkins, senior vice president of client success and engagement solutions. This premise is born out of data that reveals the most effective recognition is honest and individualized, so it is meaningful and memorable to the person receiving it. In a Gallup workplace survey, respondents said the most memorable recognition comes from a direct manager (28%) and high-level leader or CEO (24%) . It makes sense. Everyone feels honored that upper leadership is not only aware of their efforts, but appreciates them. But how do you fulfill the other part of the equation and make recognition meaningful?
Good leaders develop a camaraderie with their people—and this begins by learning what inspires and motivates them. Don’t be afraid to be out-of-the-box when gathering intel. Business advisor Marla Tabaka suggests the “bucket list” quiz . Have employees create an anonymous list of 10 items and place it in an envelope. During a relaxed group lunch, the envelopes are randomly selected from a box and read aloud, giving everyone a chance to guess the author. It’s a fun way for colleagues to learn more about one another—and gives leaders insights into ways to individualize recognition. As Tabaka notes, you might not be able to gift someone a mountain climbing excursion, but you can give them a gift certificate to an indoor rock-climbing club.
Connect the dots between company values and individual values
No organization can survive without people who believe passionately in its mission. Yet, many leaders will be alarmed to learn that, according to Gallup , just 27 percent of U.S. employees strongly agree that they “believe in” their organization’s values. Only 23 percent believe they can apply their organization’s values to their work every day. The stats help explain why most Millennials “want a job that feels worthwhile, and will keep looking until they find it” (according to Gallup’s How Millennials Want to Work and Live)
“Sometimes, there is a gap between the culture an organization aspires to achieve and its actual culture,” says Harkins. “If your organization is working to align the two, strategic recognition can help.” For example, identify an individual in your organization who demonstrates one of your corporate values beyond the confines of your workplace. If your organization defines “lead with a servant’s heart” as a core value, then recognize people who are passionate, long-time volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers and Sisters, or local food bank for exemplifying the value you wish to nurture.
Be specific when recognizing someone.
More than anything, recognition should be authentic, not a rote or automatic effort. People are turned off when they feel something is disingenuous, but when you speak about their individual contribution in a knowledgeable way, they feel valued. As Meghan Biro, noted HR tech brand strategist and author, observed in a recent Forbes article, “People crave positive feedback, recognition they put in extra effort, acknowledgement of leaders and peers, the glow that comes with knowing an achievement has been seen, appreciated and celebrated" . Be sure your recognition includes details that reflect a genuine understanding and thankfulness of your employees’ current efforts.
“Being specific also means using language that ties your employees’ efforts directly to your organization’s goals and success,” says Harkins. “For example, telling someone ‘Your initiative and quick work creating customized code to clearly demonstrate how we can help Company X capture greater market share was instrumental in landing this three-year contract,’ is much more meaningful than a generic ‘You did a great job.’”
By taking the time to find ways to make recognition individualized, employees will likely take note of how you pay attention to what matters to them the most.
 Gallup Workplace Survey, Employee Recognition: Low Cost, High Impact, 2016.
 Inc.com, 6 Entertaining Ways to Get to Know Your Employees Better--Because That’s What Great Leaders Do, 2018.
 Gallup, Few Employees Believe in Their Company Values, 2016.
 Forbes.com, 5 Ways Leaders Rock Employee Recognition, 2013.