Engagement Marketing

Employee Recognition Backfires

As a follow up to my last post on Employee Appreciation Day, I was reminded of a positive-turned-negative recognition experience I had earlier in my career.

The positive recognition came from the American Marketing Association in appreciation of my service as a volunteer leader. AMA’s executive staff acknowledged its volunteer leaders (at both the national and chapter board levels) with a letter of thanks. In addition, staff asked for the name of the chief contact where the volunteer was employed so AMA could acknowledge the company’s support as well. (AMA was smart to realize that in many cases volunteers relied on company resources and/or were allowed time to be involved in such professional development activities.)

The message conveyed in this letter was basically: We appreciate the leadership contributions of your employee [name] who served as [volunteer leadership position] … and we appreciate your support of their efforts in advancing marketing practice.”

What did you say your name was?

The bank I worked for was undergoing a merger, so I gave AMA the name of the CEO of the merged bank. I even forgot about this recognition until several months later when my boss showed me a copy of AMA’s letter that had been sent to the bank CEO. Not knowing who I was (or even taking the time to find out and respond), he wrote a note across the top of the letter: “What’s this about?” The letter was sent to HR, forwarded to the senior VP in charge of the region where I worked, sent to my boss’s boss, and eventually landed on my boss’s desk. My boss then asked me to provide a write-up about my AMA involvement for the higher-ups … and I never heard about it again.

Come on, how difficult would it have been for the CEO or one of his regional officers to have followed up with a note or phone call? (Someone in the executive suite could have at least whited-out the “What’s this about?” at the top of the letter, scribbled “Nice job” in its place, and sent me a copy.)

My husband teased me as I wrote this post, “Get over it, already!” I did a long time ago. I just wanted to share this story because it reminded me that effective recognition doesn’t have to be expensive or extensive in terms of what it involves. The irony here is that AMA’s letter gave my employer an easy way to recognize an employee … but the CEO didn’t care. That was the message I took away from this experience.

Your turn

Have you ever been in a situation where employee recognition backfired? Would love to hear about it.

6 replies on “Employee Recognition Backfires”

@Terry, Paul, Kathy, Jane: Thanks for taking the time to share your input and past experiences.
Regarding your comment, Paul: My boss sharing the letter didn’t bother me as I appreciated his transparency and, perhaps, he didn’t want to cover up for the CEO. My boss and I had a good working relationship at the time – he was supportive of me professionally, including my AMA involvement. But you’re right in that he could have handled the situation differently.
@Michael (my husband): My skin is thinner than yours … relatively speaking.

I repeat, ” Get over it.” It was only more than 20 years ago. It does show you the quality of the leadership in the banking community at that time. They had no clue regarding dealing with (“yuck!”) employees.

Reading your blog had memories flooding back to me. My first job out of college was working for a small newspaper. It had a young, dynamic staff, and was led by a very colorful publisher. He drove us all to run a quality publication. But the best compliment that he gave any of the staff members was “It doesn’t suck.” We all took this as motivation and his way of telling us that we were doing a good job. Years later, some of us who worked there still joke at his form of motivation. Negative employee reinforcement does stay with you…

Well, this is about recognition, but not positive recognition. Many years ago when I was a young, eager and aspiring marketer at a medium sized Silicon Valley company, I found myself as the channel marketing manager. My Director got fired so I technically reported directly to the VP, who hated indirect sales and never gave me the time of day. Given my Catholic school upbringing, I had a high tolerance for pain :), and kept actually trying to service our channel partners and do as good a job as I could figure out how to do. During a national sales meeting, the VP was leading a session and I asked a clarifying question from the back of the room about some policy he was explaining – I can’t remember the subject, but I do remember his ripping me a new one in front of a room full of people. All because I was trying to do my job. He was one of the worst (sadly NOT the worst) managers I’ve ever reported to — he left the company shortly thereafter and I don’t know whatever became of him, but his 30 seconds of vitriol to cover his own inadequacy has stayed with me the rest of my career. I know this is a style some sales people use, but managers, please think about the impact of your words on your staff, especially young staff who look up to you and want to do a good job.

Unfortunately, as in most things in business – it comes down to people. No “program” can provide recognition – only people can. In your case, the CEO obviously was not a good leader.
The highway of employee programs is littered with these kinds of results – and as the saying goes – the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Key to any successful employee program is top management support. And that’s not just support of the program being considered – but support of the “concept” of recognition. If the leadership of the company doesn’t understand that – no program will help.
I would also look to your boss at the time – showing the note was poor judgment as well. He could have just told you they were interested at the top and wrote up the deal (with your input.) As it was your boss effectively discounted the recognition AND made you do the write up. Not very savvy.
Again – people are the glue that holds all this together and sometimes it just doesn’t stick.
What you have outlined is THE most cited problem with employee recognition – lack of executive support.

The expression that came to mind when I read this, Sybil, was “No good deed goes unpunished.”
To your husband’s comment about “getting over it, already,” these small actions can have very long-lasting effects on people.
Feelings are facts.

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