How to Keep Employee Recognition From Creating Entitled Employees

Provide Recognition in a Way That Does Not Produce Entitled Employees

Unexpected recognition makes the reward not expected by entitled employees.
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What makes the rewards and recognition you offer employees memorable and not an entitlement or expectation for the employees? The element of surprise is big for effective rewards and recognition that avoid creating entitled employees. So are four additional conditions because most often you will want to avoid creating entitled employees who no longer appreciate the effort or expense you invest in employee recognition.

A long-term employee in a small manufacturing company is a perfect example of the element of surprise. He remarked upon unexpectedly receiving a thermal lunch bag with the company logo, that he had been truly surprised by the recognition. (He and the other employees who had braved a huge snowstorm to come to work were thanked with lunch bags a couple of weeks after the storm.)

He said it was the first recognition he had ever received that was totally unexpected. He said the unexpectedness of the gift had heightened the value to him and he uses the lunch box every day.

This is an employee who always receives attendance recognition, and is quick to step up to any challenge for which there is a promised reward. Consequently, he usually knows what reward to expect and when he will receive the reward.

The Power of Rewards that Surprise Employees

Impromptu rewards and recognition work to your advantage. Expected rewards can become seen as entitlements, and as such, lose their ability to reward and recognize. They become the expectation of the entitled employees who receive them.

An entitlement is any reward or recognition that is expected. Once the reward is an expected event or regularly provided recognition, it becomes more of an expectation or entitlement, and less of a reward. As an example, a tech employer provides lunch for employees every Friday. The goals of the lunch were employee recognition and team building because the lunch brought members of various departments together in one space.

Since it is an expected recognition, it is not motivating. But, another sign that recognition has become an entitlement is whether people would complain if they lost it. In the case of the Friday lunches, employees look upon them as a perk that comes with working for the company. No lunch? Employee complaints would be long and loud.

The lunch adds to the general environment of valuing employees that the company is committed to providing, and the lunch is also successful for team building. But, it is not perceived as rewarding or recognizing and would be viewed as a benefit loss if the lunches were discontinued.

Provide Recognition to Strengthen Your Team

In fact, in another company, the idea of a weekly lunch for employees was again viewed as an opportunity to strengthen an already tight team. The expectation was stated that the company would provide Friday lunch as a way to build a cohesive team across the company. Further, the employees were expected to eat together in the lunch room to fulfill this purpose.

Over time, several of the manager's reporting employees had decided not to attend their normal Friday team building luncheon. For several weeks, they stopped into the lunchroom, picked up their lunches, and went back to their desks—not at all the intention of the lunches. The employer reminded them of the purpose of the lunches. The employees then attended the Friday lunch for the next couple of weeks.

But, after a few weeks had passed, they hit their employer with an unexpected question. They had skipped the Friday lunch in the company lunchroom once again but they had participated in a team building activity. This time they had gone out to eat at a local restaurant as a group.

They were requesting reimbursement for the lunch they had purchased uptown on their own outside of the company lunch. Surprising? This is an example of employee entitlement carried to the nth degree.

Sometimes, in Employee Recognition, It's Okay to Create Entitled Employees

Sometimes, it's okay that employee recognition creates entitled employees. In the first company's lunches, referenced above, the employee good-will and team building outweigh the fact that the lunch is now an expected company benefit.

In annual company employee longevity awards, as a second example, entitlement is expected. You'll need to decide on a case by case basis. For successful employee rewards and recognition, you'll want a balanced mix of expected and unexpected rewards and awards.

4 Ways to Avoid Creating Entitled Employees

But, if it is important to you to keep a particular employee recognition from becoming an employee entitlement, you'll want to follow these guidelines.

  • Deliver the recognition unexpectedly and not always on the same day or at the same time. The surprise factor will wow your employees.
  • Provide recognition for various contributions. Vary the actions that receive recognition and always inform the employee of exactly why he or she received recognition. (Describe the actions that warranted your recognition.)
  • Vary the format of the recognition. If every employee receives a card and plant for their birthday, you've created an entitlement. You will not reap the benefit that you would with a thoughtfully chosen gift; you will hear about it if you miss an employee for any reason.
  • Let recognition come from a variety of people. The boss is not always the appropriate person to provide recognition. Consider empowering team members, coworkers, the president, reporting staff, HR, and an employee recognition committee to recognize employees. You'll benefit from the numerous people creating reward and recognition opportunities.

The keywords in keeping employee recognition from becoming employee entitlement are varied, unexpected, and surprising. Weigh each employee recognition activity that you consider against these three factors when you want to keep recognition from creating entitled employees.