How To Appreciate Loyalty And Service: The Consequences Of Getting Key Rewards Wrong

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

Burger King worker receiving a bag of goodies for 27 years of perfect attendancePoor Burger King. One oops that keeps circling back.

Do you remember when a – no doubt well-intentioned – leader swung by their local convenience store on the way to work to pick up a little something for their employee? They probably didn’t expect any backlash when they presented their employee with a bag of Reese’s Pieces Peanut Butter Cup Minis to thank him for an incredible 27 years of perfect attendance. 

Let me just pause there. As often happens in the telephone game, the story got slightly jumbled. He actually received a plastic drawstring backpack containing a movie ticket, a Starbucks cup, two packs of Life Savers, two pens, a lanyard, two keychains and those infamous Reese’s Pieces. 

Okay, so you’ve got the gist. We’re all on the same page now. But is that actually better?

Why it went wrong…

The gesture didn’t match the impact. And people had something to say about it. We’ll circle back to that in a bit, but first, you may wonder, how did it all go so wrong?

This is a cautionary tale (and a delicious opportunity) to review what rewards and recognition truly mean and how to get it right 97.162915% of the time (give or take).

Does this sound trivial in the context of the 1000 other things on your plate? Let’s put it this way: not thinking through what a reward means and how it could be interpreted can have a lasting (not so great) impression, particularly if you’re a very public, wealthy, and well-known brand.

For the rest of us, it’s a delicious opportunity and an important reminder about the importance of being intentional in our appreciation. And when we do, the result is 10x our loyalty, reputation, satisfaction, and retention.

Where to start?

Understanding the subtle but essential difference between rewards and recognition. We often use them interchangeably or use one word when we mean the other. When you are clear on this, you increase your chance of hitting the right mark exponentially.

Let me explain.

What are employee rewards?

image of a balance scale with recognition on one side and reward on the otherRewards include paycheques, gift certificates, employee of the month, bonus cheques, days off, tuition grants, bags of candy, branded water bottles, plaques and any tangible or quantifiable gesture that a colleague, leader or company would give to show appreciation. It’s transactional. You know it when the reward happens. You can know exactly what it’s for, and there’s some form of dollar figure or physical evidence of the acknowledgement. 

Given that what gets appreciated gets repeated, the gesture is often about ensuring there is an acknowledgement to keep doing the thing that’s being recognized. It’s extrinsic to the person. When done well – when the reward fits the ratio of what’s being acknowledged and aligns with the person’s values – there’s an amazing synergetic power and momentum that comes from rewards.

How to get it right…

Here are some examples done right:

  • Your quality improvement idea saved your for-profit company tens of thousands of dollars, so they shared some of that profit with you.
  • Your sharing of safety ideas and reporting of near misses resulted in your being nominated (and maybe winning) a company safety influencer of the year award.
  • Your huge fundraising campaign for disadvantaged youth resulted in your team nominating you as “Citizen of the Year ” in the community.
  • Your project team’s kickoff was honoured by company-branded t-shirts with the slogan of this important initiative.

What to avoid…

Here are some examples done wrong:

  • Your ten years of dedicated service resulted in a generic card from the president that wasn’t signed (my husband’s example)
  • Your promotion didn’t come with a raise but double the emails
  • Your safety award plaque used to sit in the front lobby, but after the renovations, it never got put up again (and no one knows where it is)
  • Your 27 years of perfect attendance was rewarded with a $4 bag of candy and other swag you didn’t need (heck, your kids couldn’t even bring the candy to school because peanuts were banned a decade ago!)

From these examples, we can see a huge chasm between effective rewards that makes it more likely that loyalty, performance and productivity are reinforced and demonstrates that people are truly valued. Hopefully, you had an audible “cringe” moment reading the rewards done wrong list. This is a sign you get it. So it’s actually not as complicated after all, is it? Your intuition knows.

Getting rewards and recognition right is confounding, but it’s not. So, on that note, what about recognition?

What is recognition?

image of Sarah McVanel on stage and the words Relational Currency on the screen and a play buttonRecognition – a thank you, personalized words of appreciation, thank you cards, appreciation experiences – builds relational currency. It’s not a transaction, and you might not even be able to have tangible “evidence” of it; however, you know it when you experience it – giving, receiving, or witnessing it. 

First off, you can probably see one of the issues we’re battling is our propensity to value financial or status markers as signposts of success. Forgive the sociology lesson here, friends, but can we all be honest? In our culture, we see stuff, titles, and other external validations as signs of achievement; therefore, we expect acknowledgement to be linked with those. Yet at work, what if you only got a paycheque? It’s likely the biggest sign of cash value reward, right? Your salary or hourly wage! Would that be sufficient to know you were valued, your work mattered, and motivate you to keep putting in more discretionary effort? And what if you got a 1% raise? Would you give 1% more effort?

See the problem? The math doesn’t add up. And that’s because we’re not robots, wind-up toys, or machines. You cannot just put coins in the slot, so we whirl to life.

Do you think I’m taking it a little too far? Maybe. (I did take drama in high school, after all.) But you catch my drift, right? 

If it doesn’t have a dollar sign, does it count? If it isn’t a huge gesture, is it truly appreciated? 

It’s not all about money.

image of many thought bubbles with thank you written in many languages on a colourful backgroundI can tell you, working with many not-for-profits, that folks don’t need or expect these; however, they do need to know that not only does their work matter to the people they care for and serve, the people they work with, and the bosses they work for. They need to know others see the effort and impact of that hard work and sacrifice. (And if you want to keep them, they must have a story of appreciation to tell their family and besties, validating all that effort and energy! Otherwise, those who care about them might say, “That job’s burning you out, and what’s it all for? Head for the door!”)

I ask in my speaking engagements, “If you could only receive appreciation in one form for the rest of your life, no matter where – work, academics, family and friends, the community – what form would that recognition take?” Overwhelmingly, across industries, roles, job titles, countries, generations, genders and every other factor, the answer 95% of the time is this: “A thank you.” 

Too easy? Well, the people have spoken. Ninety-five percent of audience members, and, 95% according to our data too.

Because recognition is harder to see, we often get it mixed up with rewards because that’s what we can see. However, we know recognition as it’s what we feel when we make or see gestures of authentic appreciation. 

  • You can give a safety award without recognition. “Here’s your trophy”. 
  • You can give recognition without a trophy, “You are so dedicated to ensuring we all go home safely, and I’m grateful every time you speak up, even when it’s tough to do so.” 
  • You can also combine them: “We’re honouring Sam with this Safety Influencer Award because they speak up every time they see a safety issue, even when it’s tough to do so that we all can get home to our families safely.”

Would Sam hug that plaque at night? If they found it on their desk without context or words of acknowledgement, would it make them feel seen, heard and valued? Will that mystery plaque make Sam say, “I am going to redouble my safety efforts!” Hey, maybe it might! Not as much as if they were told about their impact, wouldn’t you agree?

Sam will keep focusing on safety regardless, and thank goodness for the Sams of the world! But what if being the guru of safety wasn’t so great for Sam:

  • What if Sam gets backlash by creating extra work every time they submit an incident report?
  • What if Sam gets teased as being “in the leader’s pocket” because folks heard they got a trophy through the grapevine? (There’s nothing like a bit of mystery to get the rumour mill flowing!)
  • What if the hard work of being the safety pulse of the team is just too darn exhausting some days, and Sam thinks, “If no one cares and is paying attention, why should it all be down to me?”

Would Sam keep going at the same level of safety focus if it was crushing, frustrating or ignored?

What gets appreciated gets repeated. We must show and tell folks their effort matters and their impact is valued. 

We cannot assume folks know. And if they’re putting in all the work, effort and impact, we can match them with aligned rewards and recognition.

So, let’s circle back to our friends at BK. What advice could we give that poor leader who got it wrong that fateful day, and how can we FLIP failure by Failing, Learning, Igniting and Praising? In other words, what can be learned from the failure, how can this actually ignite that BK leader to dial into their team, and how can the signs of success be celebrated so recognition momentum can grow?

Back to Burgers

The secret sauce: align the magnitude of the accomplishment with how you (tangibly) reward it and how you (relationally) recognize it.

The public understood this. 

The comments section filled up with suggestions from giving him time off to a raise to sending him home for the rest of his shift to a vacation to a handwritten card and more. In various ways, they implored Burger King to express their gratitude more sincerely and called out the lack of true acknowledgment of the original gift.

And then the public mobilized. The public filled the void left by the employer.

image of a Burger King employee who went viral for never having missed a day of work in over two decadesThe video went viral, as did a fundraising campaign for Kevin, the employee. Thousands of folks jumped on board, donated money, and encouraged others to do the same.

They wanted to make a point

They wanted to ensure Kevin felt appreciated. They also wanted to send a message to employers worldwide that we need to show deep value for loyalty. 

How much did they raise, you ask? $400,000. That’s a house! That’s years of working in an hourly wage job! That’s sending your kid to Harvard!

That’s rewards on overdrive.

So, what can we learn from this? (And I hope I haven’t freaked you out yet.)

Ask yourself:

  • Is the magnitude of the impact reflected in the rewards we give?
  • Have we expressed in words our appreciation?
  • Are the people the employee values most the ones to express that gratitude?
  • Is there a fun and energizing way to ensure that rewards and recognition is provided?

image of Sarah McVanel and a thought bubble that says Let's TalkIf you wonder if your rewards and recognition program is not actually doing what it’s supposed to, let’s talk. If you’re realizing that common rewards aren’t likely acknowledging and aligning with the folks’ values, let’s talk. If you’re thinking your budget for rewards could be better spent to have the impact you know it can, let’s talk. And most especially, if your turnover or disengagement is so concerning, you need to look at anything that could help, let’s talk.

And I’m serious about the offer! I’ve cleared some times in my calendar for that convo. HERE is a link to my personal calendar and I am serious, I’m here to talk. Click on the link, and let’s make sure you never have a BK moment of your own.

For more delicious ideas on getting recognition right, click the links below:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percent, if any, is AI generated.

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

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