When Austin Grieb was a student, nothing motivated him more than an A-plus on a school paper and a note or cheerful sticker from his teacher telling him he did a “super” job.

Now, as social media community manager at Minneapolis-based US Bank, the 26-year-old still craves such recognition — and he gets it. Thanks to his company’s rewards programme, any employee, not just managers, can heap on the praise.

“It really makes my day if I get an e-card or e-button from another employee giving me a pat on the back or thanking me for my work,” said Grieb, who works from his home in Georgia. “It provides the encouraging feedback that I need to know I’m going down the right path.”

In addition to electronic cards and buttons, US Bank has set up 17 “appreciation stations” in 13 cities across three countries, where people can drop by for a note card or fun button to give to a fellow employee. There also are monetary bronze, silver, gold and platinum shield awards for bigger achievements, and Circle of Service Excellence awards that include a dinner with top executives and a cash award. What’s more, customers can send “thank a banker” messages to employees who provided particularly good service.

Grieb said he has received about 44 e-cards and e-buttons over the last couple of years, as well as several shield awards for such projects as helping with the launch of a small-business credit card. “After putting in a lot of work, a shield award makes it all worth it,” he said. “It shows I’m having impact even if I’m only a small part of the overall project.”

The generational divide

Employers are expanding their reward and recognition programmes just as millennials such as Grieb are becoming the dominant generation in many workplaces. While these programmes are open to all generations, millennials clearly need more applause for their performance than older colleagues. These young people, born in the 1980s and 1990s, are sometimes called “praise junkies” because they were showered with accolades from parents, teachers and coaches and now expect such positive reinforcement from their work colleagues and managers. 

OC Tanner, a provider of employee recognition programmes, finds that while younger workers do indeed love frequent, spontaneous rewards, older employees believe that recognition should be based on truly outstanding performance.  

“Millennials want to get certificates of achievement and other recognition as often as possible, and it better not be generic,” said Gary Beckstrand, vice president of marketing at OC Tanner. “The younger generation likes for rewards to be personalised to show off their abilities and what they’ve contributed. They need to know managers really understand their personal value — and they want to make sure others know, too.”

That means public award presentations as well as online honours. For example, OC Tanner’s clients can create an online “Wall of Fame” that highlights employees’ awards and accomplishments and lets fellow workers pour on even more praise with their “likes” and laudatory comments.

“Some millennials have a strong need for spontaneous peer recognition,” Beckstrand said. “It seems more authentic because they feel recognition from managers may be more obligatory.”

An opportunity to motivate

Businesses, of course, hope more frequent recognition will motivate employees and strengthen their feelings of loyalty to the organisation, especially at a time when many feel overworked and underpaid. A 2013 global study by Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm, found that only 61% of employees feel engaged at work. European employees were least engaged (57%), while those in Latin America ranked highest (70%). Among the generations, baby boomers were most engaged (66%), followed by Gen Xers (60%) and millennials (56%).

“We want to create a culture of appreciation,” said Stephanie Hoffman, a senior vice president at US Bank. “Our employees are hungry for this. People don’t thank each other often enough, but there’s this human need to be valued and appreciated.”  

Rewards and recognition tend to be self-perpetuating at US Bank. When Grieb sees that another employee took the time to customise an e-card for him, he likes to “pay it forward” and thank someone else for helping him in some way.

“It becomes almost addictive,” Hoffman said. “Once you do it, you see how good it feels to give an e-card or button.” Almost 90% of the bank’s employees have received e-thanks, while about half have sent an e-card or button. “We’re trying to understand why even more haven’t sent them,” Hoffman said. “It may be that some people still feel they don’t have permission to do it and that it’s a manager’s job to send such messages."

Many of the latest employee performance rewards are non-monetary, which tend to be less expensive for companies and appeal most to millennials. Nearly three-quarters of millennials preferred such rewards as personal days off work, free meals and tickets to concerts and sports events, compared with 65% of Gen Xers and 56% of baby boomers, according to a study last year of Canadian employees by Ceridian, an HR management services company.

 “This reflects millennials’ need for quick, constant feedback,” which can’t always be a pay raise or bonus, said Deb LaMere, vice president for HR strategy and employee engagement at Ceridian.

Celebrating milestones

In addition to a greater variety of reward types, some employers are acknowledging more accomplishments. National Grid, a London-based electricity and gas company with operations in the UK and north-eastern US, used to give service awards only after employees had worked there for 25 or 40 years. Now, it celebrates “career milestones” when employees reach one, five, 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50-year anniversaries. “This way, younger people no longer feel excluded,” said Iain MacKinnon, global reward manager.

He added that National Grid plans to celebrate other milestones besides years of service, such as completion of an apprenticeship or university degree and the birth of a child.

Employers generally find that the new types of recognition, especially digital forms of appreciation, resonate most with millennials and Gen Xers.

“Usage is less among older people,” MacKinnon said. “Some people don’t get it; they think it’s childish. But we’re trying to persuade them of the power of recognition in getting people to perform better and stay with National Grid longer.”

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