The 4 "golden rules" of recognition

Many societies and cultures have in place some version of what they call ‘The Golden Rules,’ which is a philosophy and way of treating one another. Some have five, others seven or even ten, but what they have in common is that they’re all centred around acting with care, compassion and respect.


In my latest book, ‘Appreciate it! The Playbook for Employee Recognition,’ I’ve shared my version of ‘The Golden Rules,’ which are four guiding philosophies and principles I’ve used over the years to design or redesign recognition programs. They too focus on concepts such as care, compassion and respect as they relate to employee recognition, using them to drive and deliver genuine and meaningful appreciation to and between our people.


These four rules form the acronym ‘MUST,’ with each letter standing for a key point. Together, they create a call to action, what we ‘must’ do to achieve our recognition objectives. Here is a high level overview for each of these rules:


M – Make recognition meaningful

Let’s start with the letter ‘M,’ which stands for making employee recognition meaningful. This is critical so that the recipient truly feels recognized, and it happens when you deliver meaning in both what you say and what you do, showing the person that you have seen, value and appreciate their specific contributions. Here are three tips to help you achieve this:

  • Get recognition messages right The ‘say,’ which are your recognition messages, is absolutely critical to the success of a recognition moment. Saying ‘thanks for your help,’ although very nice, does little to make the person feel recognised since there’s likely little to no understanding of what they’ve done to merit that recognition. If instead, the message says, ‘Thanks for coming in early to prepare and distribute materials to the team to help them understand how the new office scheduling system will work,’ the person knows specifically what they’ve done, and how they’ve helped you and others.

By creating meaningful recognition messages, you multiply the impact of the appreciation, taking it to an entirely new level.
  • Get recognition rewards right Just as important as the ‘say’ is the ‘do,’ creating meaning by what you do to recognize your people through your recognition rewards. Sometimes it’s non-financial, with the messages being the reward, and other times it’s financial, with some token being given to recognise your people for their achievements and contributions. When it comes to selecting the most meaningful reward it’s important to keep these two things in mind: (1) Consider the connection between the reward and the contribution, making sure that they’re aligned (e.g. if it is small contribution the reward should be small, if it was a larger contribution, the reward should be larger). (2) Consider differences in your workforce when determining rewards to meet their diverse set of needs.

  • Create meaning in what you recognize Moving onto the ‘dot’s important to recognize the actions and behaviors that not only help your employees feel appreciated, but help your business achieve their objectives and success. If you don’t do this, then quite frankly you’re flushing the time and money you spend on recognition down the drain. The most effective way to do this is by recognizing your employees against your company values. As I talk about in my book ‘Bringing Your Values Out to Play,’ this does three things: (1) It creates focus - like a dartboard, showing your employees the target they're shooting for. (2) You signal that values are important – putting them front and centre, and not hidden away in an employee handbook or on a poster hanging in the office. (3) You create habits by recognizing against them.

Recognizing your people against your company values is like a live classroom experience, teaching and demonstrating what your values mean and how they look in real-time, and in the moment.

U – Make recognition unified

The next golden rule focuses on designing recognition programs that are unified and inclusive. It’s important that recognition does not create a divide or wedge between your workforce, with the ‘haves’ and 'have nots' based on location, department, manager or function, to name a few.


Instead, recognition needs to be universal, making it available for all to give and all to receive, thus increasing your chances of creating a recognition culture and achieving your recognition objectives. Here are two tips to help you achieve this:

  • Create a crowdsourcing approach to giving recognition The first part of being unified and inclusive has to do with who you allow to give recognition through the design of your programs. When companies limit it to just managers a few things can happen. First, it creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation as employees miss out on the opportunity of giving recognition, which has been proven to be just as important as receiving recognition. And second, it limits the number of recognition moments that are given as it reduces the number of people involved, which can directly or indirectly lead to feelings of exclusion. For this reason, more and more companies have adopted a peer-to-peer approach to recognition, or what I like to think of as a ‘crowdsourcing’ approach, as it encourages your people to work together to create and have collective responsibility for recognition.

Peer-to-peer recognition crowdsources recognition – having more eyes, ears and hearts looking for and capturing recognition moments.
  • Challenge your approach for determining who gets recognized The next part of making recognition unified and inclusive has to do with who can receive recognition, and I believe this is an area where much work still needs to be done. Too often, we put limits on who can be recognized, e.g. only one person can win employee of the month, or only six people can win employee of the year, etc. By doing this it can create feelings of exclusion, create negative reactions and reduce the impact and power of recognition.

We need to practice equal opportunity recognition, looking at recognition through an inclusion lens, making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be noticed, appreciated and recognized.

S – Shine a spotlight on recognition

Let’s next move on to the letter ‘S,’ which stands for shining a spotlight on recognition. In the past, recognition was done in a very private way, between the sender and the receiver, but over the years we’ve come to see the importance of changing this to put it under the spotlight and watch the magic happen. The benefit is that it showcases what good and great look like to your workforce, it multiplies the impact as others see and get involved with the recognition, and it connects your people in a positive, meaningful and uplifting way.


Here are four examples from my book on how companies do this:

  • Share through a recognition platform At Reward Gateway, when employees send one another recognition e-cards they appear on a social recognition digital wall. From here, anyone can comment or post reactions, participating and engaging with the recognition.

  • Share stories at company meetings At Atlassian, they share and showcase recognition stories during the monthly global town hall call, with the sender telling the story and sharing the positive behaviours.

  • Share stories during onboarding At the University of Lincoln, they take case studies from their annual recognition awards and weave them into their onboarding process to show what good looks like and to highlight how recognition is done.

  • Create digital badges. At Shell Energy Retail, they created digital badges that employees are awarded for receiving three or more recognition nominations for the same company value. These can then be displayed in their email signature, which showcases to their global colleagues over and over again their recognition actions.

T – Make recognition timely

The last letter of the acronym is ‘T,’ which stands for making recognition timely, and focuses on the ‘when’ of recognition. We’ve made strides in this area, reflecting on what we’ve learned and how we’ve responded to changes in the workplace, but there is still much work to be done. According to one survey, only 36% of companies are giving timely recognition, meaning that employees at six in 10 companies are having to wait to receive recognition.


The word ‘timely’ means to do something in an appropriate time frame, which is a bit wishy-washy, as what does ‘appropriate time frame’ really mean? I believe that this is part of the problem as we all interpret it differently. Does it mean giving recognition once a week, once a month? What, exactly, is the ‘appropriate time frame’ to give recognition? I propose that instead, we focus the definition and our efforts on the gap, the time frame between the moment the behaviour or action happens and the moment the recognition occurs. If we remove the hurdles and make giving recognition easy, there is no excuse for waiting, and we can all move to what is commonly called “in the moment” recognition.


Why wait until a certain day of the week or month to give recognition, why not give it now before you forget AND the impact of the recognition wears off?

I hope you’ve found these golden rules, and this acronym, helpful. I encourage you to use them to design or redesign your recognition programmes, ensuring they help you deliver appreciation in a meaningful and effective way.


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