Recognizing the value of employee recognition

Think for a moment the last time someone recognized you for a job well done. You’re likely smiling at the memory, because recognition inherently feels good. But now get more specific. What did it look like? How and where was it delivered? Was it in a meeting? A quick hallway conversation? A handwritten note?

Too often, we tend to limit our ideas around recognition at work to the most traditional of forms, such as plaques and awards. But the true power of recognition is so much bigger than a simple statue or certificate. With some creativity, listening and intention (and without a lot of cost), hospitality leaders have an incredible opportunity to unlock the power of recognition and authentically drive employee engagement to new heights.

Recognition is a powerful tool to drive engagement and build strong organizational cultures. It doesn’t just happen—it’s part of an intentional, well-thought-out strategy, consistently delivered over time. But that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. To drive a culture of recognition, leaders can build on existing practices or start new efforts, keeping in mind these best practices for positive impact.

Recognition is Not One Size Fits All

People like to be recognized in different ways. Someone who is an introvert may not want to be spotlighted in a large group setting, preferring to be recognized one-to-one or in a smaller group, but others thrive on the joy of being appreciated in front of a group of colleagues and friends. Invest some time learning how your team members prefer to be recognized and then individualize the approach. 

Recognition does not always have to come with a price tag; there are many ways of showing gratitude, like saying a sincere thank you face-to-face, sharing a handwritten note or giving the team member a small token of appreciation that reflects their preferences or interests (like a small desk plant for the garden lover). Customized acts of gratitude show that you not only appreciate their hard work but have taken the time to learn and care about your team as individuals which further promotes engagement and boosts morale.

Being able to tailor your approach to recognition based on what is most meaningful to someone speaks volumes. Recognition snapshots, where team members share information like their favorite snacks, hobbies and color, help you learn how your team likes to be recognized and also what brings them joy on a more personal level.

Make it a Habit 

Recognition is something leaders should strive to do regularly. If it becomes a daily habit, then it ensures you are making it an automatic practice. The key to consistency is starting small. Perhaps it’s a commitment of five minutes every day to send an email of appreciation or thanks, then look for other opportunities, big and small, to show gratitude. 

Cultivating this practice also makes it easier to deliver recognition in real time. To be most effective, recognition should happen when the opportunity is presented. When you see something worth recognizing, in the moment say, “I see you, I appreciate you, the work you are doing is meaningful.” Waiting for a team meeting or an annual performance review makes it more likely that it goes unacknowledged and taken less seriously. 

Reinforce the Behavior You Want to See

Recognizing team members not only shows appreciation, but also acts as positive reinforcement. Research indicates that 92 percent of workers are more likely to repeat a specific action after being recognized for it. If there are certain behaviors, skills, or practices you want your teams to be doing, make sure to recognize the behavior you want them to embrace. In a hotel, an example is how to meet and greet guests. If someone does a great job of using eye contact and meeting guests with a smile, commend those you see doing this well and acknowledge it individually and publicly. 

A recent example from my own team came during a period of upcoming construction at Hilton’s corporate headquarters. In advance of an office-wide shift to an agile seating model, our HR team piloted the technology to reserve daily desks. Wanting to encourage my team to sit in different spaces and next to other people, I recognized those who were varying their desk placement and used them as a role model to inspire others to follow suit.  

Leaders should also build a mechanism where people managers feed things up to them, so they know who should be noticed and respected for their efforts. Within my own team, I regularly ask my leaders want others are doing that is particularly impactful and then make a point to recognize those individuals. It’s also important that recognition be multi-directional and not always top down. Rather than a straight line, an ideal recognition culture is best represented by a web spun from peer-to-peer moments intersecting across all levels and titles.  

Anchor to Values and Fun

The business case for recognition is clear: when employees feel recognized, they are more motivated, productive, and inclined to stay with the organization. So where does one start? Keep in mind that recognition needs to feel authentic both on the team and individual level, so think about your organizational values. What behaviors do you want to drive? What’s already happening that you could readily anchor recognition to it? 

At Hilton, some of the most powerful, effective ideas have come directly from team members and hotels, which is why we avoid being prescriptive and encourage them to do what works best. From awarding Cookie Cash to team members at the DoubleTree Crystal City for going above and beyond to arranging an educational sightseeing tour for the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills Concierge team to enhance their local knowledge, recognition looks different across the business. What is most important is that should be fun.

Our highest form of team member recognition is our CEO Light & Warmth Awards, where team members nominate colleagues from around the world for their incredible works of hospitality and then winners are selected by our CEO, Chris Nassetta. As you might imagine, winning one of these is a big deal.

This year, as we notified several of our hotels that they had a winner on property, we left it up to them to decide how to share the news. Seeing this differentiation across the properties was so inspiring—everything from balloon drops to surprise drop-ins from family members—and it was a reminder of the incredible role recognition plays in building a culture of trust, engagement, celebration.     

Get Listening, Get Creative, Get Going

We are fortunate in our industry: Hospitality and recognition go hand-in-hand. Every day in hotels, we experience countless stories of hotel employees delivering exceptional hospitality to our customers and their fellow team members. 

As hospitality leaders, we have the opportunity embrace that same mindset of hospitality to deliver memorable, customized recognition experiences for our employees. By listening closely, learning what’s most meaningful to them and then acting upon it consistently and in the moment in ways both big and small, we can all build cultures of recognition filled with an engaged, passionate workforce.

Gretchen Stroud is SVP of HR Consulting and DE&I at Hilton.