Staff Recognition Rewards: A Path to Motivated Employees or Engaged Employees?

A casual glance around the walls of any store, car dealership or restaurant will probably reveal a plaque announcing the “Employee of the Month” or “Employee of the Year.” Such recognition awards are considered a method for motivating employees to enhance productivity. Numerous studies have found that highly motivated workers are more productive. Abraham Maslow developed a now highly-regarded “hierarchy of needs” that describes how extrinsic rewards (tangible items such as pay and benefits) and intrinsic rewards (non-tangible rewards such as praise and recognition) can be set into a hierarchy that gauges their relation to motivation. Basic needs, such as safety and survival, are considered lower on the hierarchy of needs and need to be matched with more tangible rewards such as pay. More complex needs, such as self-esteem and self-actualization, are considered higher levels of needs and require more intrinsic rewards.

Libraries also use recognition awards for motivational purposes. In 1991, an Association of Research Libraries (ARL) survey (SPEC Kit) found that out of 90 respondents, 44 (37%) had active recognition programs. The study found that libraries employed the following rewards:

  1. Monetary awards (ranging from $25–$2,000)
  2. Plaques and/or certificates
  3. Gifts such as t-shirts, flowers, lapel pins, bookbags, paperweights and medallions
  4. Day off with pay

The SPEC Kit also reported on the types of presentations of the awards. Fully 87% were done at an annual event and ran the gamut of activities from regular or special staff meetings to luncheons, picnics, barbeques, banquets and receptions (ARL, 1991).

Employees who are highly motivated (1) tend to seek better ways to do their job, (2) are more quality-oriented and (3) are generally more productive. Most employers, including libraries, motivate employees through rewards and punishments. The positive motivators are more often associated with an organization’s efforts to improve productivity, but in reality, any process of punishment, such as reprimands, is intended to motivate.

However, motivational efforts may backfire if employees perceive the motivators as insincere or inappropriate (bumper sticker: “The beatings will continue until morale improves”). In some professional and non-professional circles, the term “motivation” is considered a dirty word. There is a connotation that is sometimes associated that employees can be manipulated. Recent studies of public sector organizations, including libraries, have shown that a greater number of employees believe that award programs do little to improve performance. In 2002, the “Federal Human Capital Survey” found that only 30% of respondents believed that their organization’s incentive program encouraged them to do their best and only 38% said creativity and innovation were rewarded. (Jacobson, 2007). Palmer (2007) described a study of private sector organizations that found only 21% of all US employees felt motivated in their job and a significant majority are frustrated and skeptical of their organizations’ leadership.

Furthermore, how recognitions are made can also impact whether they are seen as sincere or held in high regard. At a southwestern ARL library, it was tradition to produce a humorous monologue or skit for employees receiving longevity awards, for a ceremony that lasted one and half hours. While it was not required or done for all, many long-time employees were regaled with humorous past incidents in their career. One curmudgeonly administrator complained that this made the ceremony too long, cutting into productivity time. The dean stopped the practice and instead required all awardees to submit their own statement in two sentences or less, which were read by the dean in dry, straight forward manner. The new ceremony lasted about one hour, saving the library one-half hour of productivity time per year at the expense of fun, morale and shared staff participation.

A review of management texts on motivation of employees in the workplace produces common suggestions for best practices that apply to all organizations, including libraries:

  1. Thoughtfully tailor praise to the individual and the accomplishment. Praise should be clear and specific, and the process should respect the employee’s personality and culture.
  2. Allow employees to participate. Employees should be included in the initial design of the process, have opportunities to recommend and recognize their peers and participate in giving the awards.
  3. Link awards to performance. Connecting award to performance encourages repeated excellence.
  4. Reward nominators. This idea not only recognizes the nominator for his/her participation but also builds bonds among staff.
  5. Seek ways to visibly recognize the employee and his/her accomplishments. Formal ceremonies, plaques and certificates increase the visibility of the accomplishment. Is it possible for a top administrator to visit an employee in the employee’s workspace? Sincere, specific praise delivered informally but publicly will motivate both the employee and his/her peers.

Managers debate whether award opportunities are more effective if offered frequently or rarely. Cronin (2001) argues, “The proliferation of honors creates a variant of Gresham’s Law: trivial awards drive serious accomplishments out of sight” (p. 70). However, some authors in the human resources field believe that more recognition increases productivity through greater morale. Jacobson (2007) describes some important components of a recognition award program:

  1. the plan should strategically prepare to tie-in rewards with actual results
  2. rewards should be given in a more timely manner
  3. more types of awards should be part of the plan

Jacobson found that most organizations hold a once-a-year recognition ceremony that is the only time managers recognize their employees. Furthermore, the annual award tends to increase the number of nominees since they’ve waited all year to gather their accomplishments. This causes the awardees to see the awards as less meaningful and those who did not receive an award to feel dejected, especially if a smaller group of peers appear to receive the bulk of the awards each year. Lastly, Jacobson found that there are mixed benefits of having competitive awards, such as awards for the highest production or most sales. Though competitive awards may motivate some employees, managers may find such competition counterproductive: competition may tempt employees to skew their efforts to increase their competitive edge (for instance, by sacrificing quality to quantity). Exemplary effort that does not cut corners may go unrewarded, and the most dedicated employees may become demoralized when management does not recognize their efforts.

Increasingly, managers in the private sector view awards not as “motivators” but as a tool to reward “engaged employees.” In customer-service industries, especially, the concept of productivity, which motivators are supposed to improve, is inadequate to the needs of the business or organization. Hosford (2007) says that “going above and beyond is a hallmark of an engaged workforce.” (p. 14). However, it is recognized that this quality is not innate. Instead, it must be nurtured in the workforce. To truly motivate workers managers must engage with their employees; this engagement builds communal ownership of the process and production. Hosford argues, “Once employees shed the idea that they’re victims of decisions laid down from on high, and instead embrace the idea that they are shapers of those decisions, they begin to emerge as an engaged work force.” (p. 14). Organizations and companies that are committed to “engaged employees” utilize a rich and varied program of recognition and rewards, emphasizing timely recognition and appropriate ways to announce and make the recognitions visible. Timely recognition is steeped in intrinsic awards such as immediate praise from the manager, verbal or written.

Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager, a tremendously popular management guide, stresses the importance of immediate, specific feedback. Praise should closely follow the accomplishment, and it should address how helpful that accomplishment was to the organization. Reprimands, as well, should be prompt and specific. Much of the most recent advice on recognition is grounded in this idea. Libraries need to train managers on delivering such immediate feedback because experience tells us that these are rare events in most libraries and organizations.


  • Association of Research Libraries. SPEC Kit 173: Staff Recognition Awards in ARL Libraries. Robertson, R. M., comp. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, Office of Management Services, 1991.
  • Blanchard, Ken and Johnson, Spencer. The One Minute Manager. New York: Murrow, 1982.
  • Cronin, Blaise. “For whom the bell curve tolls.” Library Journal, 126 (Jan. 1, 2001): 70.
  • Hosford, Christopher. “Engaging employees boosts bottom line.” B to B, 92 (July 16, 2007): 14.
  • Jacobson, Don. (2007). Making creative use of employee recognition programs. accessed, April 29, 2008.
  • Palmer, Alex T. (2008, Jan). “Personal delivery.” Incentive, 182 (Jan. 2008): 22-23

John Harer is a professor of library science at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC and a former academic library administrator, including acting head of personnel for an Association of Research Libraries (ARL) library system.