Gratitude and recognition in the workplace are so important and yet so easy to get wrong.

This week, I witnessed attempts at gratitude and recognition go awry.  It took one incident to turn a young, productive, loyal, hard-working, vested team player at a nearby business into a disappointed, skeptical, indifferent employee.  I have seen the same thing happen to loyal customers who become not-so-loyal when they feel unappreciated or unrecognized.

Taking the time to recognize someone’s contribution and thank him or her for it improves morale and output.  And, it’s just the decent thing to do.  Some leaders try to practice this daily in one-on-one conversations.  Other organizations have regular public recognition programs to give a formal shout out to a deserving team member.

Public recognition is effective but can be tricky to execute consistently.  If you are going to make a public fuss over someone in the workplace, you had best make sure you have an even hand and some consistency.

What happened to my young friend?  It was his last day at his company after a six month successful internship. He did well, was promoted, felt appreciated by his supervisor and believed he made an impact.   He looked forward to his last day, as the firm had a loose tradition of recognizing departing employees with a gift and a toast at a company meeting.  

Unfortunately, on his last day, his department forgot. It was a super busy day, it had been a crazy week, they were short-staffed, they had a few fires to put out and it just slipped his team leaders’ minds.

Worse, a departing employee from another department was not forgotten by her team.  An employee with a shorter tenure and smaller impact.  She received congratulations, hugs, and gifts from her team at the all-employee party, attended by all but my young friend’s team, as they worked through it and missed the celebration.

A seasoned professional can explain away how this can happen and why it so often does.  We can rationalize that all the good days and daily, personal appreciation matters more, in the end.  We make up for it with positive letters of recommendation in the file or a bonus if we can afford it.  As leaders we know we do our best and sometimes come up short.  We don’t mean anything by it.

But to a young employee just starting out, it comes as a blow.  One employee recognized for a job well done.  Another employee forgotten, despite a job well done.  A heartfelt apology acknowledges the mistake, but only confirms his worst fear. “They forgot about me.”

It was still a phenomenal, positive work experience.  But the passion, the sense of belonging, evaporated in an instant.  An “amazing employer” was demoted in his mind to just “a good job.”  Any leader will tell you that when your most passionate, committed team members start thinking of their work as just a job, the company is in for trouble.

As we enter this season of gratitude, all of us in business can learn from this tale.  Expressing gratitude and recognition is job number one, not just something we should do when we happen to remember, when we can squeeze it in between more pressing tasks or when the fourth Thursday in November rolls around.  Our employees and customers expect us to get this right.  They notice when we get it wrong.  And it’s very difficult to overcome the damage when you get it wrong.  You are impacting your two most valuable assets:  people and your reputation.  

Be grateful, and recognize the people who matter.  Don’t forget.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...

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