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Employee Recognition – a Key to Employee Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
December 2, 2016

This Thanksgiving, as we do every year, Americans across the nation gave thanks for the many blessings we enjoy.

Some of this gratitude would also go a long way in our workplaces, to help build employee engagement – and thereby improve organizational performance.

In government, high levels of engagement are linked to outcomes that matter, like achieving strategic goals and driving higher levels of productivity, citizen and customer satisfaction, employee retention and even employee attendance.

In other words, efforts to improve engagement aren’t just another HR program or some touchy-feely approach to making employees happy. To the contrary, it’s about improving government’s ability to deliver consistently high-quality services.

employees-1704059_640But what drives engagement – and how do we improve it?

I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution. Not when there are 90,000 or so public sector organizations just in the U.S. You can’t prescribe a solution until you know what the condition is. This means asking employees – through regular engagement surveys – how they feel about the organization and its mission, their colleagues, their bosses and their senior leaders.

And then acting on the results.

Even though there isn’t a single solution to improving engagement, employee recognition has consistently been shown to be a key way to drive high levels of engagement. When we hear “recognition,” though, we often think of financial recognition. And we all know providing financial rewards in government can be difficult.

While money is important, it doesn’t always buy happiness, at least at work. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 64 percent of Americans who leave their jobs say they do so because they don’t feel appreciated. In the federal government, the 2016 governmentwide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey revealed that only 44.5 percent of federal employees were satisfied with the recognition they received for doing a good job. There is no reason to believe it’s different in state and local government.

This is particularly disturbing given the critically important work public servants do on a daily basis. Government jurisdictions and agencies continue to be asked to address some of our toughest and most important issues, including protecting the public, healing the sick, taking care of the elderly, preserving the environment, supporting an ongoing series of wars, maintaining the quality of life in our communities, reducing poverty, educating our children, finding ways to provide affordable health care and so on.

And therein lies a critical aspect of employee recognition – ensuring that public servants understand, and take pride in, the fact that the work they do matters. Leaders must help front-line employees connect the dots between their work and the outcomes that government produces.

In my book Engaging Government Employees, I quoted a human services professional in local government who said the following about his work: “When I found myself getting down, I would head to the front lines. Being among the citizens we served reminded me why I was there and why it was important to keep fighting.”

That’s the kind of connection public servants must see clearly, particularly to counteract today’s constant drumbeat of criticism of government and government employees.

Recognition can also mean simply telling the people we work with that we appreciate them and their contributions. But we have to do this in an authentic way. I recently spoke to the HR director for a state agency who said that employees in her agency are tired of hearing their leaders offer generic thanks for doing a good job. It’s become perfunctory and lacks meaning. To be authentic and meaningful, praise needs to be specific. In other words, “I appreciate the good work that you did when you …”

Recognition also doesn’t have to be costly. The University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics created a toolkit for supervisors that includes suggestions to recognize employees “without spending a dime:”

  • · Recognize employee achievements at a staff meeting.
  • · Surprise the employee with a Post-it note of thanks.
  • · Put a thank-you note on the department bulletin board.
  • · Compliment the employee within earshot of others (and the word will spread).
  • Mail a handwritten note to the employee’s home.
  • Send a departmentwide email praising an individual employee or team.
  • Start meetings by recognizing employees and ask employees to recognize each other.
  • Pull an employee aside and ask for his or her opinion.

However, it’s also important to understand how each employee wants to be recognized. Some folks revel in being publicly recognized while others would be mortified to be singled out in public.

I always hesitate to cite the private sector when writing about government but I think this quote hits home. According to Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS—a business software company which ranked No. 8 in the 2016 FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For—“My chief assets drive out the gate every day. My job is to make sure they come back.”

Good advice for government too. Sincere and authentic recognition is one way to make sure that our employees do want to come back tomorrow.


Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and VP-research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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