Employee recognition, thanking and praising employees for doing good work, is the #1 driver of employee engagement, significantly representing 56 percent of employees’ perception of engagement where they work, according to research conducted by HR Solutions.

This might be surprising because thanking someone is such a simple thing—almost common sense—to do in dealing with others. Yet, most employees report they don’t get much if any, sincere, genuine thanks where they work. In fact, in one survey conducted by Maritz, Inc., only 12 percent of employees reported they receive meaningful recognition where they work and 34 percent reported that those things their company did to recognize them didn’t find meaningful at all.

Another Maritz poll found that having a culture of recognition in which employees are thanked, recognized, and praised for work they do well on an ongoing basis has the impact of increasing employee retention SEVEN-FOLD, that is, employees in such organizations are seven times more likely to want to keep working for the organization, ideally for the rest of their career! The systematic behavior of having managers thank their employees can significantly enhance employee engagement and retention in your organization.

Yet this common-sense notion of thanking employees is far from common practice in most organizations today. Why is that?

In my 25 years of working with this topic, I think the power of this topic often gets diluted by the things that are associated with its practice (i.e., money, gift cards, points, pins, plaques, etc.). Recognition is a behavior, not a bunch of things that cost money! In fact, in my doctoral dissertation on the topic, I posed a simple question “Why do some managers use recognition while others do not?”

I found that a manager’s access to tools, programs, or budget for recognizing employees was not significant in causing them to actually recognize their employees. Translation: Employees feel special from the act of being recognized in a timely, sincere and specific way by someone they hold in high esteem when they have done good work. This is also why many companies that spend millions of dollars on recognition tools, items, cash substitutes, merchandise, and programs still often have a major portion of their employee population report that “They don’t feel valued for working in this organization.”

According to the Aberdeen Group’s employee engagement research. “By acknowledging an employee’s positive behaviors and demonstrating appreciation for employee contributions, that individual worker will continue those behaviors, stay engaged with the company, and feel motivated to perform.” Sixty percent of Best-in-Class organizations (defined as those in the top 20 percent of aggregate performers in their study) stated that employee recognition is extremely valuable in driving individual performance.

Managers and organizations struggle to systematically recognize employee performance when it happens. The notion is common sense, but far from common practice in business today in which managers tend to be too busy and too removed from their employees to notice when they have done good work—and to thank them for it in a timely manner.

The widespread lack of rewards and recognition programs at a time when it is most needed is particularly ironic because what motivates people the most tends to take so little time and money to implement. It doesn’t take a huge bonus check or a trip to the Bahamas or a lavish annual awards banquet to get the best out of people. It often just takes a little time, thoughtfulness, and energy to notice what employees did, thank them for it, and to encourage others to do the same.

Enabling Employee Engagement and Retention

Here are some other simple forms of recognition any manager can use:

  • When you hear good news, act on it! Share it with others and thank those responsibly.
  • Take a few moments at the end of the day to reflect on whose performance stands out. Jot those individuals’ thank-you notes and leave the notes bytheir workstation as you leave.
  • To enable employee engagement and retention,take time at the beginning or end of meetings to share positive news suchas letters from customers or ask if there are any praisings from one teammember to another.
  • When you read your mail, look for positive items to share with others or atstaff meetings.
  • Take time to listen when employees need to talk. Be responsive to people,not just problems.
  • Make an effort to meet with employees you don’t see or speak with veryoften. Take a break together, have coffee, or an off-site lunch.
  • Remember the 4:1 rule: Every time you criticize or correct someone, plan topraise or thank that same person at least four times.
  • Take time to celebrate: individual or group milestones, desired behavior andachievements.

At the same time, some 80 percent of managers feel they are pretty good atrecognizing their employees, which is a big part of the disconnect that occurs on this topic. If managers feelthey’re providing recognition, but employees feel they aren’t receiving it, who’s right?

Since employee engagement stems from employee perceptions, they have the upper hand on the matter and managers need to find ways to provide more recognition that employees want and with greater frequency.

It’s not that it’s that difficult to provide more recognition: The basic behavior is quite simple. The best recognition has the following components:

Soon – timing is important, and the sooner you acknowledge someone after a success, the more that behavior or result is reinforced and the more likely it will be repeated.

Sincere – good recognition comes from the heart and rings true to the recipient. You can’t “go through the motions” if you want recognition to be valued.

Specific – some of the sincerity in any praise comes from specifics, i.e., what evidence that what you’re recognizing an employee for is valid and important.

Personal – whenever possible you should praise others directly, ideally in person.

Positive – 100 percent positive comments, avoiding the temptation to add a“yes, but” or other critiques. Save that for a developmental conversation!

Proactive – that is, having a sense of urgency to want to show gratitude to others.

Once you have established a baseline of frequently providing employees timely, sincere, specific, positive praise and recognition when they deserve it, you can build upon that with other forms of recognition they value.

To successfully enhance employee engagement and better retain employees in your organization, you must make recognition a foundational part of everyone’s work life. The practice is both a critical driver of employee engagement and essential for creating a culture that maximizes employee retention.


Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is the world’s leading authority on employee recognition and engagement. He’s worked with thousands of companies on these topics, including 80percent of the Fortune 500, spoken on six continents, and authored related books on the topic that have sold over 5 million copies. For more information, visit www.drbobnelson.com.