How to Make Employee Recognition Part of a Dynamic Approach to Benefits

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | September 10, 2023

Your company may not be recognizing good work as much as it should. Forty percent of employees say they receive recognition just a few times a year—or less—according to a 2022 Gallup report. But recognition works. Employees who are recognized for their work are five times more likely to be connected to the company culture and four times more likely to be engaged.

In a From Day One panel conversation titled, “Maximizing Employee Recognition and Satisfaction with Comprehensive Benefits and More,” the speakers had a great deal to say about what kinds of recognition work—recognition of who your employees are and who they want to be, the benefits as well as policies that reward good work, and how to make a habit of reinforcing a sense of belonging on a daily basis. The panel, featuring leaders in HR and related fields, was part of From Day One’s July virtual conference on employee satisfaction, recognition, and retention.

The Sentiment Survey, But Better 

The most common way of evaluating employee satisfaction is the employee sentiment survey. As the moderator, I asked the panelists: Is this the best way to understand how your workforce feels?

Their answer was yes, when done the right way. Panelists agreed that frequency matters. Rob Catalano, chief engagement officer at employee-experience platform WorkTango, said sentiment surveys must be frequent enough to identify trends: An annual survey isn’t enough.

“If you’re only checking in once a year, no one has accountability to act or do something differently. People aren’t going to change their behaviors if you’re going to check in 365 days down the road,” he said. The period chosen for annual surveys may also fall at a point that skews results, like shortly after pay raises are handed out. Start a habit of surveying regularly, then pair that with diagnostic feedback, asking plenty of whys.

The group also recommended pairing up data about employee tenure and point-in-career to flag the types of people more or less likely to feel engaged—early career workers vs. later career workers, for example.

Creative Ways to Recognize Workers for Who They Are Inside and Outside of Work

Hospice care workers carry out an especially taxing job, and Diane Psaras, the chief HR officer at hospice care provider Vitas Healthcare, came with a long list of ways her company appreciates its employees, like writing letters of gratitude to the workers and their family members, “talking to them about the incredible work that their son, daughter, or spouse is doing at Vitas and thanking them for the support that they give that person day in and day out. That has been incredibly rewarding to the employees because they have seen that as the utmost respect, being recognized to their families,” Psaras said.

The panelists spoke in a session titled, “Maximizing Employee Recognition and Satisfaction with Comprehensive Benefits and More”  (photo by From Day One)

Vitas also instituted a program that lets peers and bosses recognize excellent work. “Since we started two years ago, we have had over 30,000 folks send in nominations and recognition for folks,” she said. 

Catalano also endorsed peer recognition since it’s often a worker’s closest peers that know the most about individual contributions, “catching people in the moment when they’re doing something that’s either living your company values or conducting the behaviors that are critical,” he said.

Perhaps the most creative form of recognition is Vitas’s podcast, which Psaras hosts. She interviews care workers at the company about their jobs: “I’m asking questions that help to give them the foundation to tell their story and tell their perspective,” Psaras said. “How they and their team have fulfilled a dying patient’s wishes by taking them skydiving. True story—that happens!”

Erald Minga, a VP of HR at digital marketing firm Media.Monks, makes a point to celebrate work anniversaries—especially important for remote workers, he said—and instituted an employee-of-the-month program. Excellent work is recognized with extra paid time off or a gift on the employee’s desk. Media.Monks also added a lifestyle savings account, from which employees can get reimbursed for perks like online therapy.

Workers deserve recognition for who they are outside of the office as well, said Jeni Mayorskaya, the founder and CEO of family-building benefits company Stork Club, especially when their values align with the company’s. “One of our [employees] is very passionate about reproductive healthcare and also very passionate about justice. She actually got additional education and a certification, and now she’s very active in our community. Recognition is very meaningful,” Mayorskaya said. “This is where people see that the company sees them as a whole person.”

In addition to evaluating engagement and satisfaction on a regular basis and rewarding recent behavior, panelists said that recognition must also be forward-looking.

Reviews tend to be just that—an accounting of the past. That’s well and good when the purpose is to recognize the good work that an employee has already done. But to Amie Major, head of talent management for Verisk Analytics, that’s only half the job. She prompts managers to ask their direct reports about who they want to be in the future.

“People think of reviews as evaluative, you’re just looking back and nobody really looks forward to it. In many cases this was happening maybe once a year, which we know is far from enough, so we made a ton of changes.” One is that managers are expected to have these conversations regularly—don’t wait for an annual review, work it into your daily interactions and one-on-ones. 

Another change is asking workers about what they want two years from now, said Major. “We prompt other conversations too, whether it’s about development, or ‘Have you asked your employee what their career goals are? Have you prioritized these employees because of a milestone or because they’re a person you’re trying to develop?’”

The changes have been a success. “We’re seeing people participating in these conversations, but it’s just more than just a review, we’re trying to get to what employees care about,” said Major. “They’re more likely to see themselves here in two years’ time, or they’re more likely to believe that they have good career opportunities. We’re trying to try to drive retention, just weave it into everyday experience.”


Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife, among others.


What It Takes to Put the Employee at the Center of Remote Work

Be tenacious. Be authentic. Be inclusive. Be “un-boring.” These are just some of the stated cultural values of Yelp that first attracted Chief People Officer Carmen Amara to the organization. So was the opportunity to work fully remotely. Thanks to its vibrant corporate culture and agility in employee listening, Yelp has been able to establish a remote-work policy that puts employee well-being first.Studies suggest that remote workers tend to get less mentoring and fewer promotions than their in-office colleagues. But by investing in employee experience, companies committed to their remote workers can provide equitable opportunities for career advancement and professional growth. Amara offered an inside look at how Yelp does it during a fireside chat at From Day One’s May virtual conference.Recognizing Remote Work as a Viable StructureMany companies have begun instituting return-to-work policies, said moderator Jessi Hempel, senior editor-at-large at LinkedIn and host of the “Hello Monday” podcast. But Yelp “has really gone the other direction and held firm,” remaining fully remote. This aligns with Yelp’s value “to be ‘un-boring,’” Amara said.Amara herself was attracted to the organization because of this policy. “I was excited about the fact that this really opens the aperture for us to be able to attract great talent, regardless of where they are,” she said. “It also helps me as a professional to develop my own work and life fit, and live in the place that’s most conducive to my life.” She is able to use the time previously spent commuting to pursue her own personal interests and passions.Despite remote work’s popularity among employees, the prevailing belief among many corporations right now, Hempel says, is that “energy is lagging, people are not connected, learning is not happening, and innovation is not happening.” But Yelp has the data to prove that remote work really works. In February, Yelp released its Remote Work Report, which showed that 90% of Yelp employee respondents found effective ways to collaborate remotely, 86% said they found ways to connect as a team, and 91% felt they had pathways to career progress.Keep Listening, Stay Agile, and Cultivate Cultural ValuesThe key to developing a remote work plan that works is listening to employees and being prepared to respond to feedback quickly. “What led to this decision [to go fully remote] was really to understand from our employees what was working and what they were struggling with, very early on,” Amara said. Yelp conducted a series of carefully tailored surveys to dig deep into what employees felt they needed, then took immediate action. “Rather than wait until we had figured out how to develop this perfect program, things were moving quickly. So we had to reimagine the experience and work with our employees to co-create what the new reality was going to be,” she said. Yelp had to be “willing to get it wrong, and then iterate and change.”Even while building a new remote structure Yelp kept “leaning into the culture that we've already established” she said. When Yelp was first founded, its offbeat corporate identity was wrapped up in its San Francisco location. But now employees are beaming in from all over the world. “We try to frame the narrative about our company through the employee experience and the employee lens. So we let our employees tell their stories about what it’s like to work for Yelp, and it’s always grounded in those values,” Amara said.Carmen Amara of Yelp, left, was interviewed by Jessi Hempel of LinkedIn, rightYelp prioritizes making sure employees feel connected to one another. “We enable our managers to do what makes sense for their teams, because they know their employees best,” Amara said. “But we are very focused on deliberate and intentional connection.” Yelp accomplishes this through regular team meetings and quarterly town halls, both at the department and the company level. It also has employee resource groups to bring workers together, united by topics they are passionate about.And even being fully remote, it’s not all virtual, Amara says. “There still is a place for purposeful in-person connection. We also have a strategy that we call IRL, ‘in real life,’ where leaders get their teams together in-person once or twice a year, simply to have fun and form more of an emotional connection.” “Fun is so key to a cohesive culture,” Hempel agreed.Focusing on Professional DevelopmentYelp is still perfecting its remote professional development opportunities, Amara says, which are, as always, driven by employee listening data. Initial surveys had shown that employees were eager for coaching, mentorship, and skill-building opportunities, which led to the development of a program for exactly that. But participation has now tapered off. “We have a disconnect around when we say, ‘coaching’ and ‘mentorship.' We may be thinking differently about that than what some of our employees are actually looking for,” Amara said. But, unafraid to try and fail, Yelp is taking that information back to the drawing board to develop a stronger program for the future.Amara also cites AI as an potential opportunity for HR to explore in the coming years, particularly its ability to positively impact the employee experience. “It’s something that we all need to stay connected to. It’s not the domain of the engineers. Having the ‘people’ people at the table as we're making decisions around how we’re going to implement this technology is critical,” she said.Ultimately, Amara and her team are driven by a focus on positivity and leaning into success. “The biggest lesson that I’m trying to apply in my current role is that focusing on people’s strengths will get you a lot further than focusing on their weaknesses or opportunities,” she said.Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | June 19, 2024

Trust and Transformation: The Role of Coaching in Employee Development

Sarah Sheehan, founder and CEO of Bravely, says her most memorable coaching story involves a young woman of color who was having difficulty finding the confidence to ask her manager about getting a promotion or a raise.“She had put in the work over time and had done multiple jobs,” Sheehan said during an executive panel discussion at From Day One’s May virtual conference. “This is a case where we were pretty sure on the coaching side that if she were to move forward and talk to her manager, that would propel her to a better place.”The end result was “that she did, in fact, get a promotion, much to her surprise,” Sheehan told moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company. “This is a great example of the huge gap where we often give coaching to the people in more senior roles, when really everyone deserves coaching, from your first job to the C-level.”Coaching is the most powerful resource a company can provide its employees because of its individualized nature, says Sheehan. Having a coach is somewhat like having “a work therapist, because what is impacting us in our personal life translates to our professional life and impacts how we show up at work.”Building a Relationship Based on TrustAny coaching relationship must be based on trust. The employee “has to believe you’re there for them and working with them, and really understanding what will be shared or not shared,” said William Agostini, senior advisor, strategic HR at SABIC.The employee also has to have faith that the coach “understands the realities of where they are,” Agostini said. Additionally, “coaches should not be projecting their own culture onto someone else. There are realities of different cultures and situations.”However, coaches also need to see and hear employees as individuals, versus whatever gender, age, or cultural label you might want to put on them, says Agostini. In addition, he recommends giving employees “the opportunity to give you feedback about your assumptions.”Building an atmosphere of trust pays dividends in terms of employee retention, says Isobel Lincoln, SVP of HR for Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield. Over the past two and a half years, every team member who received executive coaching is still there.“They come into it feeling like, ‘Wow, this is something really for me. I can transform personally and professionally,’” Lincoln said.The panelists spoke during a session titled, "Conscious Coaching: Guiding and Recognizing Talent with a Holistic Approach"Support from key stakeholders, including management, ensures that the employee receiving the coaching is getting feedback “which means that they're also helping to rewrite the script in whatever way they need to, whether it's just elevating and building confidence as a leader or changing some of those behaviors,” Lincoln said.Determining Who to CoachSean Allen, a SVP of strategy & talent solutions, at MDA Leadership Consulting, says he’s been asked to coach employees whose performance issues are so severe that they triggered an HR investigation. “That’s not what I would consider a good application of coaching,” he said.Coaching works best when it is designed to be more aspirational, says Allen. The goal should be to “create role models in change, and change champions,” he said. “But beyond that, from a macro perspective, one thing I know we really rely on is broad and objective assessment based on formalized high potential models. That’s important because objectivity talks to fairness in a way that washes out bias as much as you can, and gives everybody a fair chance.”This approach ensures companies invest in a diverse group of employees, says Allen. He said it also helps determine “who has what kind of ceiling and what kind of potential.”The Role of Mentors and SponsorsMentors and sponsors also have a crucial part to play in helping employees advance in their careers.Sarah Waltman, VP of global talent management and organizational development at Dentsply Sirona says that while coaches assist individuals along their journey, mentoring involves sharing your experiences with mentees. Sponsoring “is really about opening up some doors or finding some access to experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said.Coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship can all take place simultaneously. However, an employee might switch lanes, such as going from coaching into mentoring for a little bit, and then returning for more coaching or entering into a sponsorship, says Waltman.Allen says that coaching, mentoring and sponsoring “can and should coexist in a complementary fashion to form a powerful ecosystem of development support.”“For example, as a standard practice we leverage something called the growth network inside of a coaching engagement,” he said. “That brings into play sponsors, mentors, people who are in real business situations with the leader and can give them feedback. So it’s not coaching in a vacuum.”Coaching Remote EmployeesEven though pandemic restrictions have ended, working from home has not for some coaches and the employees they work with.“For me, it’s actually been amazing to have the coaching contacts because even though I'm not in person with a lot of my peers and hires, having some of those coaching engagements has allowed me to get to know them,” Waltman said.But remote work also presents certain challenges for employees when they try to show how they have grown as a result of coaching, says Lincoln.“How can you support them to think through proactive ways for them to demonstrate this new mindset, this new leadership capability, and strategic thinking?” she said. “I think strong ownership and promotional campaigning in an authentic, positive way is something to be extra mindful of, because it’s going to take them extra time and effort to be able to showcase that change they’ve undergone.”Mary Pieper is a freelance writer based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | June 14, 2024

How to Take a Multi-Faceted Approach to Developing Leaders

As many organizations are finding, the traditional approach to performance management doesn’t work anymore. That’s especially true in the music industry, says Jennifer Rice, SVP of learning and organizational development at Universal Music Group.“UMG has over 50 different labels, and a lot of these different labels have their own culture, their own ownership, it's incredibly decentralized, which I think is by design,” Rice said. At From Day One’s May virtual conference, Rice discussed how UMG approaches its leadership development. Bryan Walsh, editorial director at Vox, moderated the fireside chat. Rather than a once-a-year goal setting with a mid-year check in that’s tied to a bonus, they have adopted a methodology of workflow. It’s important to be flexible when you have 60 territories around the globe, Rice says. There are still clear objectives, but with a twist. “It’s a continuous conversation,” she added. Creating a Learning CultureThe business world moves fast, so it’s important to create a culture of learning to keep up. Not only is it good for business, but it’s what employees, especially the younger generation, crave from their employers.“A lot of younger employees are thinking about this,” she said. If they can learn important skills in the workplace, it can help them now and in the future, no matter where they end up. “They can remain relevant and resilient, knowing that what they’re doing now and how it's being done is almost certainly not going to be the way it’s been done in a decade’s time.”The pandemic certainly fast-tracked this way of thought, especially when it comes to middle managers. “One of the things we have to teach individuals is to be resilient, and to stay curious, because the world is changing so quickly,” Rice said. “We need to ensure that we’re equipping people, particularly that middle management and our leadership team to remain curious, to have a growth mindset, to really lean into building trust with their team and having psychological safety.” Jennifer Rice of Universal Music Group was interviewed by Bryan Walsh of Vox MediaThe question is, how do you coach people to learn resilience? Companies can’t begin to teach that until there is psychological safety and trust and a culture of learning. “Asking questions, being curious and innovating is huge.” At UMG, they have innovation labs and hackathons to help people build creativity. Mentors and coaches are another way to foster learning and growth. “Giving people that one-on-one attention via a coach is going to really be a game changer.”UMG offers a program specifically for women’s development—they all get a coach. Retention and promotion rates are better than any program they have. “Coaching fosters engagement, retention, skill building, a great employee experience and a great culture,” Rice said.The 6 Strings of Management UMG offers a 6 Strings of Management program, a cohort of managers who can develop skills for being better leaders. “I think we all realize that learning new skills is hard. To learn any new skill requires a sustained effort.” Then leaders need opportunities to apply those skills, then to reflect on how those skills are being leveraged, and finally assessments to validate. “Something that makes it really great is, it’s not just content that we’re teaching individuals,” she said. “People learn by doing, they don’t learn by just listening, watching or learning, in the flow of work. So as L&D professionals, our role is to make that content so captivating, but to also keep the learner engaged so that they’re not just clicking out of the tab and doing something else.” The 6 Strings focuses on leading through transformation, impact, how to deal with change, communication, emotional intelligence, trust, and psychological safety. Those are important skills in any industry, but psychological safety is especially crucial in the creative industry, Rice says.“If you’re not always innovating, then you get left behind. So it’s incredibly important to create that safe space for people to take risks, for people to try on new things, for people to be creative. We really lean into what behaviors affect trust within the organization.” The program has a 98% recommendation rate, and they’ve seen a 92% adoption rate of the skills being learned. This program is especially important for middle managers, who are the ones with influence and relationships with many employees. Measuring Performance in a Creative IndustryNumbers have their place, and certainly sales can be an indicator of performance. When it comes to the creative industry, however, it’s important to focus on more than just output. So how to measure performance in the creative industry? At UMG, they can’t rely on just one source of information. There is a lot to take into consideration.“We really need to take a more holistic approach and gather feedback from a variety of sources, because work is done through collaboration, creativity, and teamwork,” Rice said. “We’re constantly reassessing and talking, conducting weekly one-on-ones with our teams, gathering feedback from a variety of sources.”Rather than a traditional approach, they try to be more modernized, more fluid, more flexible, more in the moment—a multi-faceted approach.Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | June 12, 2024