Timing Is Everything Learning to Say “Good Job”

By Charlotte Huff

Sep. 8, 2006

Sometimes, the joy of giving isn’t all that joyful.

    Too often, managers get stumped by the logistics of recognition programs, says David Sturt, executive vice president of marketing and business development at O.C. Tanner, a Salt Lake City-based recognition company. What should they give a valued employee? How best to present the award? Should they gather the entire team or sit down for a one-on-one?

    Several days pass and managers realize that they’ve lost an opportunity for recognizing work well done, Sturt says.

    “They have this guilt complex. They know they should be doing it more,” he says. “They just don’t know how to do it.”

    Companies are taking steps to boost confidence. After years of fielding employer requests for recognition training, the National Association for Employee Recognition this year started offering a certification program, says Christi Gibson, the association’s executive director.

    The first class was so crowded with midlevel and senior managers that they had to turn people away, Gibson says. (For more details on the certification program, visit Other companies provide internal training.

    Insurance provider Aflac offers an orientation class that also discusses employee recognition to employees who have recently been promoted into management, says Audrey Boone Tillman, the company’s senior vice president and director of human resources.

    Some managers are naturals, while others must learn to schedule kudos on their to-do list, says Paula Godar, director of performance strategy at recognition company Maritz.

    “You may have to make it somewhat mechanical for someone who is not very good at it, until they catch on,” she says.

    Ken Siegel, a Los Angeles-based management psychologist, sympathizes with today’s frontline managers, saying they aren’t always given the best resources and support. Layers of corporate approval can be required to purchase awards, he says. Plus, it’s difficult to break the cost-conscious mind-set.

    “Managers are under increasing pressure to do more with less,” Siegel says. “The discretionary spending power for managers has been clearly neutered. I do think the level of consciousness about (awards) is much higher. But that consciousness needs to match the level of authority that managers are given.”

    For managers committed to recognizing more employees, Siegel and others offer suggestions about some key elements of reward programs:

  • Timing: Immediate feedback is key, O.C. Tanner’s Sturt says. Ideally, managers should approach employees within a day or two. “If it’s been a week, it’s already awkward,” he says. Siegel agrees: “The closer the reward occurs to the behavior, the more meaningful it is.”

  • Selection: When choosing a reward, walk for a moment in your employees’ shoes, Siegel recommends. “Employers give out awards that they would like to get rather than awards that employees would like,” he says. “They forget that a reward is only a reward if the person receiving it considers it such.”

  • Emotional impact: Specify what employee accomplishments are being recognized, Sturt says. Don’t use generalized praise, like “good job” or “hard work.” At Aflac, Tillman takes the time to forward complimentary e-mails she receives from customers both to the employee involved and the employee’s boss. “I have found out that people print those out and keep those,” she says. “What took me five seconds of time is invaluable.”

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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