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Team Spirit: Using a social recognition platform

Why some companies let their employees reward one another

Jun 2, 2014

by Anwar Ali

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You might not expect to find someone with Tabatha Cammidge’s job title, let alone at ATB Financial. After all, she’s the bank’s “Workplace Champion,” something that sounds more like the boardroom creation of a Silicon Valley start-up than a nameplate at a government-owned institution. But Cammidge insists that her title isn’t a contradiction in terms, and that it is a genuine representation of her enthusiasm for her workplace. The proof is in the posting, too, as she’s one of the most active employees on Everyday Heroes, ATB’s social recognition platform.

A program like Everyday Heroes, and indeed so-called “social recognition” in general, sounds like a slick stroke of HR-branded paint. But ATB isn’t alone in using one, and the U.S.-based research firm Gartner Inc. has predicted that such systems will be commonplace in the near future as organizations go beyond traditional performance incentives like tenure plaques, gift cards and the occasional catered lunch to recognize their best people. And no wonder: such programs tend to produce a more engaged workforce, and as a 2013 Gallup study revealed, those engaged workforces are both more productive and more profitable.

“What organization has gone down ­because there’s been too much recognition given? When has anyone ever said, ‘Jeez, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of recognition I’m getting.’” – Lorne Rubis, chief people officer, ATB Financial

The interface of Everyday Heroes is a ­newsfeed that lets users post and like comments. If that sounds suspiciously familiar, it’s because the latest versions of recognition tools are tapping into the popularity of social media. But Everyday Heroes goes a step further: it’s a blend of Facebook and an airline loyalty rewards program like Aeroplan. Employees can cheerlead and award each other points for good deeds, which, in turn, can be cashed in for a free trip, an iPad or a spa visit. And while those rewards are attractive, the proponents of programs like Everyday Heroes say they’re are almost secondary to what’s more intrinsically appealing: a virtual pat on the back. “If you ever want to feel good, just read our newsfeed for about 10 minutes,” said Lorne Rubis, ATB’s chief people officer.

Indeed, there are more than 10,000 comments on that newsfeed every month. It was created by a Toronto-based company called Achievers, which employs 250 people to create social recognition programs for a variety of clients. Founder Razor Suleman saw an opportunity while creating branded­ merchandise at his previous venture. When he heard an ING executive tell him, “This isn’t really working. No one works harder for a coffee mug,” he figured it was time to find out what they would work harder for.

Philosophically, ATB’s Rubis says, it makes sense for leaders to tap into the value of gratitude. And it’s more than philosophical at ATB as three per cent of Rubis’s HR budget goes to supporting Everyday Heroes. But programs like it raise an interesting question: when it comes to praise, can there be too much of a good thing? “I’ve had leaders tell me, ‘Oh, we’ll spoil them. They’ll get too much recognition,’” Rubis says. But he isn’t buying that. “Really, when you take a look at it, what organization has gone down because there’s been too much recognition given? When has anyone ever said, ‘Jeez, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of recognition I’m getting.’”

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Better still, the public nature of the news feed weeds out acknowledgement that’s ­insincere or trite. And the relative scarcity of points in these sorts of programs means that employees need to be judicious with the way they spend theirs. There is, in other words, a built-in constraint on praise inflation. “You have to be able, in an honest and authentic way, to recognize that maybe this person stayed late one night and helped put together a presentation which is a great behaviour,” says Chris French, vice-president of customer success at social recognition firm Globoforce. “But that’s different from somebody who spearheaded a project with 30 people in five countries for six months and it generated $1 million in savings for the company.” Not only is recognition ineffective when done in bulk, Suleman says, but it also needs to be timely to be meaningful. “It can’t be a quarterly rock star award,” says YouEarnedIt founder Kenny Tomlin, who developed a social recognition program internally at his digital marketing agency Rockfish before selling it to other firms. “It’s the kind of ­recognition that’s recent and contextual that makes a difference.”

But fear not, dubious employer, because even if you’re not convinced that programs like YouEarnedIt and Everyday Heroes will help make your employees more engaged, there’s still something tangible in this for you. The newsfeed of thank-you notes, for one thing, provides you with all kinds of useful data. Lee Gonsalves, the vice-president of human resources at Calgary Co-op, uses an Achievers platform to determine who the most recognized people are, who’s active in doling out praise, the activities that are getting attention and the organizational values related to them. Smile Rewards, as it’s called at Co-op, has also helped fill the communication gap between office and frontline staff, Gonsalves says. “It’s hard to reach the guy that works at the gas bar 40 kilometres away.”

And perhaps the most valuable aspect of social recognition is how it curbs turnover in a way that compensation cannot. “You don’t retain employees by paying them a little more, because someone is always willing to pay them a little more than you are,” says Bruce Wade, partner at HR consultancy Cenera. And as every HR manager in the province knows, ­attrition isn’t just inconvenient. Chris McNelly, the president of Calgary-based Rowcad Consulting, says the cost to replace a lost worker is typically twice the salary of that position when the cost of recruitment, the loss of productivity and the training of a new hire are factored in.

All the more reason for acknowledgement to start at the top, says ATB’s Rubis. “Our CEO is positively notorious for writing in the news feed,” he says. “People are shocked when the CEO of the company is commenting on their very individual recognition – very straightforward, day-to-day stuff.”

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