Your employee recognition scheme – is it inclusive?

Employee recognition programmes are a core part of many businesses and for good reason. They increase engagement, improve internal culture and encourage excellent service delivery through positive reinforcement. They also better align your people with your organisational goals.

But these benefits are only achieved if the recognition programme is objective. And further to this, if a recognition programme is not set up correctly, it can actually further magnify existing biases within an organisation.

A fair recognition programme

3 common challenges around inclusivity and diversity:

1. Visibility

With regard to peer-to peer recognition, managers and colleagues are more likely to recognise people that they can physically see. This can impact those who work flexibly or remotely. Additionally, they are more likely to recognise those who contribute to visible outcomes. Employees who take care of mission-critical elements within a business, your IT department for example, are often only seen/acknowledged when things go wrong. This is all unconscious bias which needs to be considered in the set up and ongoing communications around your employee recognition programme.

2. Unconscious or hidden bias

Harvard University has conducted extensive research around unconscious bias, attitudes and preferences around sexuality, weight, skin tone, gender and race of people. You can try doing the test here. From recent research they found that 70% of hidden biases were directed towards the elderly, the disabled, the overweight and African Americans.

Generally on the subject of gender, there is extensive research around women being less likely to be promoted within the workplace. Mckinsey & Co disparity begins at entry level, where men are 30% more likely than women to be promoted to management roles. This continues throughout their working life where the efforts of women are not regularly recognised or rewarded. This also extends to the salary disparity between men and women. Interestingly, research has also shown that women are more likely to send and receive peer to peer recognition. Organisations should look at how promotions/salary increases are awarded and try to level the playing field. Promote meritocracy within the workplace, by setting KPIs as the basis for salary increase or promotion. This helps to promote gender neutral decision making. Encourage transparency around what the KPIs are and perhaps even include colleagues in the setting of what they are.

Internally run recognition programmes can often suffer from hidden bias. For those looking to further support inclusivity and diversity initiatives, it is worth looking for an independent third party to run their recognition programme like what we offer at The WOW! Awards. With our programme, each nomination is read and judged based purely on the feedback we receive. Our independent judging panel has no visibility of your employees, limiting bias based on physical appearance, race, age, gender etc. We also have no prior knowledge of employee performance or career history, which keeps your recognition programme from being pulled down into office politics. Great service delivery is recognised in and of itself.

3. Recognition context

It is important to measure and evaluate the context around what is being recognised and celebrated. Unhealthy or dysfunctional behaviours must not be recognised in positive ways. For example, an employee burning the candle at both ends, whilst this showcases a high level of dedication it is not something that should be encouraged if you want to ensure a happy workforce. Employees that you see regularly going the extra mile in supporting their team – whilst this is an excellent thing to do could it mean that there are wider challenges around the team being under-resourced or under-supported.

Employees who put in extra hours can be those that have less commitments outside of the workplace e.g. caring for elderly relatives, family commitments and so on. Equally, it is increasingly common to see part time and flexible workers having to put in extra hours in order to maintain the flexibility they need. This is particularly relevant during the pandemic, where lines seem to have been blurred between work life and home life.

There is a fine line between employees rising to a challenge versus trying to support the organisation in areas of weakness. Organisations must look at the overall trends in the type of behaviours being recognised as this data can point to shortcomings across the organisation. Analysing qualitative comments from peer-to-peer recognition can be particularly insightful and give context around why someone has been recognised.

What can be done to reduce bias and support diversity?

Motivate your team through meaningful, bias-free recognition.

At The WOW! Awards, we pride ourselves on supporting our customers in reducing these biases that are often a symptom of internally run programmes. We believe objective measurement is key to success. That’s why we take on the responsibility for reading and assessing every nomination that our clients receive. As an independent third party we have no knowledge of age, race, ethnicity or appearance. This serves to strip out a significant amount of unconscious bias. Being credible and trusted means our customers have a higher uptake amongst employees in their recognition programmes.

It’s an independent recognition scheme: totally non-judgemental, all nominations and stories are valued and analysed, based on the value of the story itself. So, it’s very fair and it is an instant way of recognising people.

Natalie O'Dalaigh

Training and Engagement Manager, Rapport