Employee Loyalty and the Power of Individual Recognition

A recurrent problem happened again last week. It came in the guise of good news—in an e-mail that included the CEO—that the Website I manage was delivering impressive metrics. I was happy about the success, but also troubled that the message only referenced “the group,” and not my accomplishments and contribution individually.

A recent study by American Management Association notes that employees are less loyal than they were five years ago:

In your opinion, how loyal are your employees to the organization compared to five years ago?

Less loyal: 52%

About the same: 37%

More loyal: 11%

My own experience makes these findings unsurprising. As noted, the group thanks e-mail in my department has happened before. The first time it happened, I e-mailed my boss about adding a line or two about me (I do about 90 percent of the work on the site, which houses an online health trade publication). Maybe predictably, he ignored me. I fumed silently. This time, when I e-mailed him, he did, indeed, respond, explaining that he understood my need for individual recognition, but contended (unbelievably, I think) that my part as sole writer, editor, amateur graphic artist, editorial planner, and main sponsor contact was co-equal in importance with the people who send out our promotional e-blasts. He didn’t stop there. Noting the rise in our metrics following the hire of the individual who sends said e-blasts, he went on to say it’s not so much what you’re promoting, but rather, the fact that you’re promoting. In other words, the promotion is more important than what’s being promoted. Whether or not you agree with him that the advertisement is more important than the product, you can imagine how that would make an employee feel (particularly one who hasn’t seen a pay raise in nearly five years).

I told my boss that I didn’t want to replace the group thanks; I just wanted to supplement it with a line or two noting my contribution. I wanted, in other words, to be shown an understanding and respect for my work. I didn’t want to feel like an interchangeable cog in a large machine.

During a civil face-to-face meeting that sounded like a corporate version of “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, he dug himself ever deeper into absurdity, noting the profit to be made by simply re-using content (just taking the content I’ve already developed and endlessly re-running it or using a content aggregation service). He conceded that the company did not want to do either of those things, but at one point made the comparison to a TV show in which the re-runs continue making money long after the show has gone off the air. I should have reminded him that our Website is great, but we’re no Seinfeld.

The conversation ended with me making this point: “I just want a reason to say, ‘No,’ when an opportunity from another company arises, as it has at least a couple of times since I started working here.” He nodded, said he understood, thanked me for my contribution, and that was the end of that. In other words, no changes will be made, and I will have to learn to enjoy my group thanks, forego individual recognition, and simply leave if I don’t like it.

When I read that loyalty has declined, I suspect that is for two reasons: a recovering economy in which workers have more choices, and situations like mine in which companies fail to recognize individual contributions, referring instead to “the group.”

There are a few reasons group thanks instead of individual thanks occurs. One reason is obliviousness. Executives don’t realize the importance of having your individual accomplishments recognized. Another reason is when you’re thanking the group and not specific individuals, you don’t have to give anyone a raise—after all, “the group” isn’t going to ask you for a raise. Pay increases are given to individuals, not groups. The third reason is the most complex. It has to do with managers more interested in justifying and bulking up their own contribution than recognizing, and often simply being truthful and accurate about the contribution of those working under them. Fortunately, I have an easy fix: Make it part of your yearly review system to have the executive who oversees each department (and/or the department head who oversees managers) meet with both supervisors and those working under them. During these separate meetings, have the executive ask both the boss and the underling(s) about the division of labor—how much they’re doing and how much the boss is doing and vice versa. You might find that the boss hasn’t been providing an accurate picture.

Funny enough, my group thanks-loving boss let slip that he was asked just a few weeks ago to “justify his position.” This was fantastic news to me at first thought, and then I remembered that they were just asking him. If they had asked me, they would have heard a different story.

Individual recognition is not of the same value as a group thanks. Ensuring your most valuable employees are given the individual recognition they need to remain loyal requires a special effort. That special effort should be woven into your annual review process, and should not be dependent on self-interested accounts from supervisors afraid of losing their jobs.

What is your organization’s system for ensuring individual recognition doesn’t slip through the cracks? What role does individual recognition play in boosting employee loyalty, and how does it differ from a group thanks?