Offering a Shoutout for Low-Key Recognition

By Kris Dunn

Jul. 25, 2017

Recognition. We’ve been trained to believe that everyone needs it.

Do they?

I think so, but something that’s lost in the recognition/engagement market is that for many workers, getting recognition in the widely accepted formats can backfire.

The reason I’m thinking about this is simple. I was recently asked to speak to a group of managers by a premiere provider in the talent management space. One of the features of the meeting after I spoke was a small spiral notebook of great ideas for the managers in question to use to create a power month of recognition for their teams.

A great idea for sure by the provider in question. But as I looked around the room, I saw some poorly hidden discomfort on the faces of those who would have to take the ideas in question back to their teams.

At issue wasn’t the merit of the ideas, but their utility for certain segments of the workforce. The managers in question were thinking about the reactions of many of their employees to specific ideas included in the booklet.

I took it upon myself to follow up and ask the managers in question about the idea of doing a power month of recognition at their companies. What I heard can be summed up as follows: Recognition isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. Some of the ideas viewed as best practices will be loathed by certain recipients.

I couldn’t agree more; some notes from my life follow. My dad, Kent Dunn (RIP CKD), was a lifetime telephone/telecom lineman. One of the greatest things he gave me was a work ethic.

The memory of hearing his boots hit the floor and go out the door while I was still in bed before school are riveted in my mind. He had a bunch of positive qualities you’d want in anyone you hired from a pride of work perspective.

But one thing he never would have been comfortable with is public recognition. Here’s some things that are widely talked about today related to recognition he wouldn’t have been comfortable with, with his likely reaction in parenthesis to whoever was trying to reward him with any form of praise:

  1. Recognition in front of his peers in a team setting.
    (Don’t ever do that again.)

  2. Recognition 1-on-1 from his boss.
    (So what? That’s my job. That wasn’t special.)

  3. Recognition in a company communication.
    (Nobody reads that stuff.)

Kent Dunn would have been uncomfortable with many of the recognition strategies we take for granted in white-collar America. I think many blue-collar workers we have today in America are a lot like Kent. When I think about alternative/best ways to do recognition for those folks (mostly older males in blue-collar jobs focused on making a living, not changing the world), I came up with the following two strategies:

  1. To make sure the Kent Dunns of the world hear the praise, share what the customer told you directly with him (less emphasis on how you feel about it). The strategy here is this: You praise Kent in the normal way and it feels like you are expecting him to hug you, which repels Kent. You tell Kent that 81-year-old Mrs. Adams praised Kent, he knows you don’t expect to hug it out and he instead jokes/talks to you about how Mrs. Adams is a hoarder and has 30 cats, but she’s a nice lady. Trust me, he heard the work context of the praise.
  2. Rather than recognize in front of the group, follow up by telling some of Kent’s friends/co-workers the feedback you got on his work when he’s not around. Hearing that the boss was talking about your great work in a casual way among your co-workers is a passive, low impact way for the Kent Dunns of the world to feel good. It saves them the public humiliation (in their eyes) of praise, but the message is still delivered.

In both scenarios, the recognition is still there. The old school, blue-collar worker still hears it, but based on how it’s provided he doesn’t feel like you expect him to come in contact with his feelings.

Feelings are scary for blue-collar employees, especially those of the male variety.

The broader point for any of us thinking about recognition is simple. To maximize your approach and the subsequent results, you’ll have to customize your recognition programs for different employee segments.

Failure to consider when and how to recognize individual segments can and will be held against you in the court of employee sentiment. If you’re wondering why your managers don’t use the recognition tools you provide, it’s likely because you haven’t provided them with choices that work for the employee types they manage.

RIP Kent Dunn. I still hear your boots.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. Comment below or email

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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