The Power of Thank You: Employee Recognition on the Cheap
I was intrigued by a recent article in The New York Times about the power of saying “Thank You” (“You Should Actually Send That Thank You Note You’ve Been Meaning to Write”). There are numerous studies and articles that tout the importance of recognition on employee performance, productivity and retention. There are even whole HR departments and numerous consultants that focus on engagement and recognition strategies. I reflected on times in my professional life when a “Thank You” made a big impact. Had I given enough recognition to those around me when they went above and beyond? Had my employers fostered a culture of recognition and thanks?
I remember sitting in a meeting with the whole operating committee of the business division I supported as an HR Business Partner. The day before, we had executed a mass restructuring of the division, closing our offices in some countries and exiting a large percentage of our employees. We were uncharacteristically quiet. The previous day had been difficult—we had dealt with tears, accusations, anger, confusion and unanswered questions. No one had slept easy, fielding calls and messages both from employees who’d been terminated and those who remained—all of whom wanted explanations we were unable to provide.
The meeting was a wash-up session to give feedback on how the previous day had gone. It was also a chance for the managers to breathe a sigh of relief because for them, the hard part was essentially over. For us in HR, the hard part was really just beginning, as we looked ahead to weeks of negotiations and tense discussions with employees. Yet at that moment, the head of the division did something remarkable; he said “Thank You.” It sounds like a simple thing, but in the middle of this stressful discussion, he took a moment to specifically thank my boss and I for our professionalism, the thoughtful advice, seamless execution, and the true hand-in-hand partnership that got us to where we were, sitting around that table.
I was surprised. Was the “Thank You” needed? Of course not. We were just doing our job. But was it nice to hear? Of course it was. For each of us, after we have completed a big project, executed a particularly complex roll-out, or handled a sensitive issue, it is nice to hear a “Thank You” and to know that our work is appreciated.
A prior employer had a “Thank You” page on its intranet where employees could post a message of recognition and thanks to anyone in the firm, either publicly or privately. This takes less than two minutes, yet employees who received them were often thrilled. Within our own HR team, we had a corkboard where we could post sticky notes to various people in the team, thanking them in a public way. This was an effective and inexpensive way to recognize others.
A simple way to say “Thank You” should be a key component of an employee recognition scheme.
A simple way to say “Thank You” should be a key component of an employee recognition scheme. If you are struggling with high levels of dissatisfaction or attrition in your organization, you should reexamine your recognition methodology. It is not all about money. Employees want to feel valued and to know that their efforts are important. I still remember that “Thank You” during that wash-up meeting a few years ago. Something as simple as that has stuck with me.
There are simple and inexpensive ways that you can foster a culture of employee recognition and thanks. Here are a few suggestions:
If you have active social media channels, use them to give a shout out to someone on your team.
When was the last time you put pen to paper? No one writes handwritten notes anymore, making it all the more special when you receive one. Take some advice from former top CEO’s like Frank Blake (Home Depot) and Doug Conant (Campbell’s Soup) each of whom wrote tens of thousands of thank you notes during their tenure.
If you have an internal newsletter with updates on new joiners or new products, add a “Thank You” section to highlight employees or teams.
“Thank You” meeting
Hold a brief meeting, simply for the purpose of thanking someone. This is not a performance review and there shouldn’t be any other items on the agenda. It can be as short as 5 minutes, but the impact will be felt for much longer.
When executed well, mentoring schemes are highly impactful and very low cost. Reverse mentoring schemes are also popular, particularly with younger employees.
When I left that employer, I took a cue from The New York Times article and handwrote thank you cards to a few people I had worked closely with. The simple act of sitting down with a pen and paper forced me to reflect on how much I learned from that person and how I valued their partnership.
In fact, I didn’t realize the importance of the words “Thank You” until I worked at an organization where they were rarely uttered. I didn’t have an expectation that my work be recognized on a daily basis, but when a controversial project has proved beneficial or a particularly sticky situation has worked out, it is nice to know that your efforts have not gone unnoticed. Only in the absence of this expression of gratitude did I notice how important it is to shaping a culture where employees want to work hard, outperform and develop their careers. “Thank You” doesn’t take long to say and despite its simplicity, its value can’t be underestimated.
Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.
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