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Why Employee Recognition is Crucial to Inclusion

By Emily Ciavolino

Why is inclusion important?

“Diversity” and “inclusion” are so frequently said together that they’re often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct (and important) ideas. In the workplace, diversity is representation: who is being recruited, hired, and promoted. Inclusion is about the environment and how each person experiences the workplace.

Diversity has been in focus in recent years, bringing bias-reducing hiring practices and representation metrics to the forefront. Creating an inclusive environment where diverse perspectives can thrive is the natural next step.

In the words of Gwen Moran, “...once you’ve put the time and effort into building your multitalented, multifaceted A-team, you’re not going to keep them if they don’t feel valued, understood, and comfortable. That’s where inclusion—making employees feel valued, welcome and comfortable being who they are—comes in.”

Creating a workplace where employees feel valued, welcome, and comfortable will include offerings like parental leave, gender neutral bathrooms, equitable pay, and unconscious bias trainings, but it will also include something that’s not so easy to measure or check off on a list: an inclusive culture.

In inclusive cultures, companies foster a sense of equity, belonging, and psychological safety for all employees. When employees feel comfortable at work, they're happier and more innovative as a result.

How can recognition build an inclusive workplace?

Employee recognition can be the transformative force needed to build and sustain an inclusive culture. What and who is recognized (formally and informally) represents what is valued in your culture and will directly influence who will thrive. A modern, well-designed recognition system can build and sustain a culture that is inclusive and celebrates diversity.

Since most employee recognition programs are nominated awards, employee of the month, or annual reviews, it might be surprising to think of employee recognition as a powerful, essential tool for inclusion. Not all recognition will have this type of lasting impact; in some cases, recognition can even hold your organization back. Programs that reward non-inclusive behaviors or recognize a select group of people will suppress diverse perspectives and potentially lead to turnover.

Here are a few characteristics of modern recognition programs that can help create a sense of belonging, celebrate diverse contributions and perspectives, and develop culture around shared values:

  • 360-degree recognition, meaning that anyone can recognize anyone else in the organization
  • Timely recognition that’s both immediate and frequent
  • Interactive and visible recognition, similar to comments on social media platforms
  • Recognition tied to company values, intentionally building culture by promoting shared values
  • Insightful and data-driven recognition, so you can measure what your culture looks like and make thoughtful changes over time
  • And finally, adaptable recognition, so you can recognize accomplishments that are less visible or incentivize specific behaviors

With recognition of this caliber in place, you will be well on your way to building a more inclusive culture. Let's look at a few reasons why.

Show all employees they belong

"A culture of inclusiveness is rooted in trust and respect, but it is much more than that. It's making sure that employees know that their contributions and opinions are noticed.

"It's leaders and managers embracing individuality and diversity, celebrating each person's unique strengths and accepting their weaknesses. These are the work cultures in which employees feel that they belong. They feel valued and part of the conversation — empowered to offer their ideas and concerns."

— Jane Miller, COO and EVP at Gallup

Culture Amp and Paradigm surveyed over 7,000 individuals from 35 organizations and found that a sense of belonging was the single metric that was consistently and universally tied to workplace commitment, motivation, pride and recommendation. Furthermore, the correlation between belonging and engagement was stronger for underrepresented groups.

Recognition shows employees that they are appreciated and highlights how their unique contributions further a shared purpose. Research from the WorkHuman Research Institute shows that employees recognized in the last month are 19 percent more likely to agree that they fit in at their organizations.

In order for recognition to make employees feel like they belong, companies need to ensure that all of their employees are being recognized. One way to ensure more people are recognized is to diversify the parties responsible for giving recognition.

If only executives are giving recognition, their limited number of perspectives, or value systems, will limit what is celebrated and rewarded. That’s because recognition is influenced by the recognizer’s value system. For example, in performance reviews, more than half of what determines an employee’s performance rating is a reflection of the rater, not the employee’s performance.

Companies that empower everyone to recognize and reward each other significantly expand the scope of what will be recognized and afford more employees a sense of belonging.

Companies can also improve inclusion by customizing a recognition program to different types of work. A one-size-fits-all approach could lead to entire teams feeling that their perspective and contributions are not valued.

For example, a great customer experience is essential for any business, but customers usually can't recognize individual employees. We've worked with customer-facing teams (support, sales, hospitality, etc.) to set up recognition programs that celebrate their contributions. Here are a few examples:

  • Share positive feedback and reviews from customers or partners
  • Highlight great metrics, like sales numbers or response times
  • Give employees the ability to recognize each other to capture day-to-day wins
  • Ask managers to recognize key accomplishments, especially those of less-visible employees

To magnify the impact of this recognition, it should also be visible to everyone in the company. With visible recognition, employees will witness a wide range of contributions and perspectives being recognized, showing them that their perspective is also celebrated.

Recognize helping out

“Most organizations regularly assess individual accomplishments. Why not track acts of helping as well?”

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg

Teams with more "helping behavior" have better profits, sales, quality, effectiveness, revenue, and customer satisfaction, but in most workplaces, there are inclusion issues with who is helping out and who is being rewarded.

In today’s workplace, women are helping out more, being recognized less for helping, and experiencing significantly higher rates of burnout.

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg did a joint piece on this for the New York Times, highlighting two key causes:

  1. Gender stereotypes have have created settings where women are expected to help more than men, so they’re not recognized for helping out.
  2. When men help out, they are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors — like showing up at optional meetings — while women tend to help out in private, time-consuming ways, like assisting and mentoring colleagues.

Nonexistent, minimal, or manager-to-employee recognition programs will not address this issue, so a visible, peer-to-peer recognition system is a good place to start. Peer-to-peer and 365-degree recognition programs help ensure that the behind-the-scenes work that managers might miss is appreciated. Making recognition visible will also encourage more employees to help out.

Drive cultural change to support your policies

Implementing inclusive company values and policy is a great start, but those policies need cultural shifts to support them. You can drive this with targeted recognition. Here are a few examples:

  • In the US, the average employee only takes about half of their vacation time. Even with a great leave policy, company culture needs to support it. With this bonus, a longtime Bonusly employee publicly recognized our CEO for taking his parental leave and living our company’s core values:

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  • Inclusive core values are great, but only about 53 percent of employees know their company’s core values. Recognition tied to values integrates them into your workplace. In this example, one of our public-facing Customer Success Associates lets someone on our marketing team know exactly how a recent blog post embodied our #delight-the-customer value:

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  • An inclusive hiring and onboarding process requires help from employees across many teams. Public recognition will reward employees who are already involved and encourage others to follow their example. Using a fund, like Interviewing Help, to give a bonus from indicates that the company especially values this kind of work:

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Collect insights on your culture and drive change

Building an inclusive workplace is a complex, ongoing process, not a finite list of tasks to complete. Since inclusion and culture are hard to measure, many companies struggle to know what the next steps should be. Employee retention is one of the most concrete inclusion numbers, but by the time you notice negative employee retention trends, it’ll be too late — your employees will have already left.

Namely points out that Simpson's Diversity Index is a robust metric for "quantifying" diversity, but inclusion metrics aren't nearly as straightforward.

If employees are giving and receiving recognition frequently, their behavior is usually an indicator that they are engaged and feel appreciated. Is there a team or department that’s not being recognized? Are remote employees part of your culture? Is one of your A-players going through a rough patch and in need of support? Which of your company core values are rewarded most often? You can uncover these types of insights in real time with recognition data and make prompt, thoughtful changes.

analyticsRecognition in Bonusly shows which teams are being recognized and appreciated, enabling companies to continuously improve.

What does this mean for you?

Countless studies have shown that employee recognition is tied to engagement and culture building. Ignoring this connection could lead to excluding employees or promoting a non-inclusive culture. There’s no quick fix for diversity and inclusion, but an intentionally-designed recognition program is a great first step towards creating a sense of belonging, celebrating diverse perspectives, developing a culture around shared values, and gaining insights to drive ongoing improvement.

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Written by Emily Ciavolino

Emily Ciavolino

Emily is the Sales Manager at Bonusly. Her primary objective is empowering companies of all types and sizes to build inspiring workplaces.

Originally published on May 30, 2018 → Last updated June 22, 2018