Does Christmas have anything to do with employee recognition?

The festive season is upon us once again and many organizations will be gearing up for a period of activities and treats to celebrate.

However, some companies continue to see the approaching holidays as a time to show appreciation towards staff for their efforts throughout the year, combining recognition and celebration into one. But is that what recognition is about, and do popular Christmas activities deliver anything more than a bit of fun?

First, let’s take a look at 10 of the most common Christmas activities;

  1. Christmas meal/party
  2. Christmas Jumper Day
  3. Secret Santa
  4. Office decorations
  5. Early finishes
  6. Christmas cards
  7. Office games/movies
  8. Awards ceremony
  9. Office snacks and drinks
  10. Christmas bonuses

The majority of these activities are about having fun. Wearing Christmas jumpers to work, secret Santa, office decorations, games and snacks are all nice things to do. There’s also celebration with team meals and parties. Christmas bonuses are typically a contractual benefit, too.

The only activity that looks like recognition would be an awards ceremony, yet only top performers such as an employee of the year or top salesperson would receive any recognition during this event.

This is where trying to merge recognition with celebration really falls down. For most employees, Christmas has nothing to do with being recognized for their endeavors throughout the year – and nor should it. In fact, a workforce that does feel appreciated and valued are more likely to engage positively with the range of Christmas activities going on. They’re an extra benefit, a joint celebration which it should be, whereas, within cultures where recognition is limited to non-existent, it’s going to feel a lot more like forced fun, added expense and extra effort.

What does real and effective recognition look like?

Effective employee recognition happens all year round, every day and within every level of the workforce. It’s explicit in highlighting a great piece of work or contribution and pinpoints the person who made that happen. And perhaps most importantly, it’s open to everyone to participate in, not just the top performers.

Here’s a look at just five factors that make real recognition a success:

Effective recognition is frequent & timely

Saying thank you to employees in the last working week before the Christmas holidays and not saying it again until next year won’t create a lasting culture of recognition within a workforce. Most importantly, it won’t feel to an employee that they’re actually being recognized. If Christmas parties happen every year, that’s not a showing of individual appreciation for each staff member. It’s expected, for some employees it may even be something they have to drag themselves to (especially if they’re expected to chip in to cover the bar tab!)

Numerous studies have found a strong correlation between the number of recognitions received throughout the year with heightened levels of self-reported engagement. One-offs have little long-term impact, but making recognition frequent and timely creates a habit, makes showing appreciation a daily occurrence and a lasting part of an organization’s culture.

Strategies shaped around the changing needs of the workforce

The demands and expectations of the workforce have changed drastically over the last 50 years. Whereas older generations such as Baby Boomers were happy with receiving feedback in annual appraisals and receiving awards based on years of service, younger workers such as millennials and Gen Z want far more regular feedback on how they’re doing. Positive and frequent reinforcement confirms that what they’re doing is right, helps establish a feeling of contributing towards a larger purpose and makes them feel appreciated for their ongoing efforts.

And whilst all age groups within the workforce say they would consider leaving a job if they felt underappreciated, the number jumps to 76% for millennials. Only a culture where recognition is part of the daily workplace conversation can effectively deliver this requirement for workers.

Personal and authentic

Christmas events are the epitome of a company-wide activity, but recognition is most effective when it’s individual, personal and specific.

An authentic and personalized recognition will mean more to the employee receiving it; it’s about them and their specific contribution. It builds a stronger bond between the giver and receiver and creates a greater sense of feeling valued and appreciated.

Recognizing a wider team absolutely has its place, particularly when showing appreciation for the completion and delivery of a project that required numerous minds to make it happen.

But the most effective recognition programs dive deeper than end results and even top performers. They make it possible to identify and understand the daily contributions of employees, generating recognition of the right behaviours and ways of working which make great end results possible.

Linked to company values

Great organizations understand the importance of company values and how aligning working practices, behaviors and expectations with them, can create corporate alignment, cohesion and a shared purpose.

The same is also true of recognition strategies, with 90% of workers noting that values-based recognition (in a peer-to-peer model) makes them feel more satisfied with their work.

Recognition that is aligned with a specific value of a company gives a grounding and wider reason as to why that recognition has been given, particularly where it’s effort and endeavor that is being highlighted instead of an end-goal result.

Creating a recognition strategy that leans on organizational values also keeps them in front of mind for employees and promotes what they mean in practice on a day-to-day working basis.

Driven by every employee

For the majority of the modern working world, managers and even sometimes the executive brass have been the bastions of recognition, deciding who deserves singling out for praise and denoting bonuses and rewards for employees who rack up a certain number of years with the company.

But organizations today with the best performing teams, the greatest engagement scores and also delivering the best bottom-line performance understand that recognition should be driven by everyone.

A great example is peer-to-peer recognition which engages every level of an organization in recognition, helping to embed it within the culture and become part of day-to-day working practice. Instead of relying on a top-down approach, peer-to-peer enables recognition to take place wherever and whenever good things happen, from the top, from the bottom, side to side and diagonally across business functions.

Managers still have a crucial role to play, and the most valued recognitions for employees are often from their higher-ups. But organizations shouldn’t rely on this happening organically or naturally outside of a strategic approach – particularly as managers only see about 30% of the effort and work their direct reports are putting in.

Equally, the job of making sure every employee feels valued shouldn’t be left to HR teams to deliver in isolation.

Effective recognition is driven by everyone within an organization, creating a positive feedback loop of contagious appreciation that reaches everyone within the workforce.

A time to celebrate

Christmas is, of course, a great time to spend with colleagues, get festive and celebrate as one organization.

Read more: 20 companies leading the way when it comes to employee perks and benefits

The key is understanding that recognition is altogether different from joint annual celebrations, bonuses or even company awards and requires a much more strategic, personalized and ongoing approach to truly deliver for both individual employees and an organizational culture as a whole.