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Does “Employee Appreciation Day” Improve Employee Retention?

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Employee appreciation is something we know we should do. Employee appreciation encourages productivity and retention, right? But it’s also kind of insulting.

I’m hot on the topic of “employee appreciation” because this Friday, March 2nd is “Employee Appreciation Day.” According to Recognition Professionals International:

Employee Appreciation Day first arrived on calendars in 1995.  A Recognition Professionals International’s founding Board member, together with his publishing company, Workman Publishing, created Employee Appreciation Day as a way of focusing the attention of all employers, in all industries on employee recognition.  It is always the first Friday in March.

Sure, there are lots of invented annual holidays. We could have a long philosophical discussion about whether or not “thanksgiving” distracts people from feeling thankful year round, or if “mother’s day” makes us less likely to call mom any other of the year.

But that’s not my point. I’m really here to talk about employee satisfaction and rewards.

To understand the issues, we just have to take a look at some of the boneheaded “employee appreciation” advice from around the web. That same link includes a list of some ideas (with my commentary in blue):

Ask an employee to write down six ways they would like to be rewarded. Anything goes. The only rule is that half the ideas need to be low cost or no cost. In other words, we’re know we’re not paying you enough, so feel free to come up with some ideas but include a few that don’t cost us any money.

Offer a free one-year subscription to an employee’s favorite business magazine and have it sent to their home. We’d like to provide subtle pressure to at least think about work when you’re not the on the clock. 

Consider a gift certificate entitling an employee to lunch with you or another mentor of his/her choosing for the purpose of being coached on one or more topics. We think you need coaching, and that you can be “fixed” after one lunch conversation.

In past years, popular articles on Employee Appreciation Day have noted the irony of this effort. A CBS News story from 2011 notes:

Sure, it may not be a real holiday, and it may lack the excitement of National Pancake Day or National Margarita Day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to recognize workers.

Of course, the best way to reward employees is with cold hard cash. According to research, salary is by far the biggest complaint workers have about their jobs. No better time to ask for a raise than Employee Appreciation Day.

How do you really think it affects employee retention when you give them a gift card but still insist on being a micromanager? When you offer them a free vacation day, but refuse to expand your telecommuting policy for workplace productivity?

You might think you’re showing your employees you appreciate them with a small gift or a word of affirmation. But if they secretly think poorly of you or aren’t engaged in their work, the effort could backfire. Before you can effectively appreciate someone, you have a genuine relationship based on mutual respect.

business process consultants discuss telecommuting

© Flickr user dyobmit

Ultimately, I think having an employee appreciation day is at its best, a little insulting. Not just because you should be appreciating your employees all the time, but because really this is “give employee a token reward day, instead of respecting and engaging them.”

I’ll close with an amazing quote from some of the scientific study on this topic. In a 2007 issue of Compensation & Benefits Review, researchers concluded:

Any ambiguity in value of tangible incentives could also make them less effective if employees do not trust the firm. For example, employees may think that the firm is just trying to save money by somehow cheating workers. This would have a negative effect on the motivational power of the incentive and negative long-term consequences for the employees’ relationship with the firm.

If the relationship with the firm is somewhat negative to begin with, an employee may attribute the firm’s actions to greed rather than the interests of employees.

Although the $1 billion spent on tangible incentives is small in relation to the amount of employee compensation, it is still a substantial amount of money. Given the large amount spent, the lack of rigorous research in this area needs to be addressed.

At the very least, firms are spending a great deal of money on these incentives with little theoretical guidance.

Don’t spend money on employee appreciation. Spend time on employee engagement. Focus on connecting and respecting your employees. Find out what they want, what they need and what they believe. Show them you care about their careers enough to focus on long-term growth rather than short-term tokens and trinkets.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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