I don’t think that Bob Nelson, Ph.D., was quite expecting my question at the beginning of the Q&A portion of his presentation at the Sept. 22-24, 2008 Melcrum Strategic Communication Management Summit in Chicago.

Mine was the first question he received, and it was: “Is employee recognition like heroin, where you have to have more and more to achieve the same effect over time?” I was serious, and I later learned that another participant had an “aha” moment when she heard my question. Dr. Bob, on the other hand, had more of an “Oh, no” moment.

Rather than directly addressing the point that employers may be concerned about having to escalate the value of recognition programs as employees grow accustomed to certain levels of reward, Dr. Bob reiterated some points about the value of recognition programs in general.

Although I didn’t feel that my question had been answered adequately, as the first person to ask a question, I was presented with a copy of Dr. Bob’s latest book, “The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook.” That turned out to be a good thing both for Dr. Bob and me, because while I was browsing through this very informative and feature-packed book, I discovered that Dr. Bob had answered my heroin question on page 329. Here is the question as it appears in Dr. Bob’s book, along with his answer.

FAQ Can too much recognition lead to constantly escalating forms of recognition or unfulfilled expectations on the part of employees?

A Employee motivation today is a moving target. You’ve got to be in constant contact with your employees to determine what they most value and then find ways to systematically act on those desired forms of recognition and rewards as they perform well. You need to vary your forms of recognition, adding new ones and experiment, but you can also stop doing other things that have run their course and are no longer very motivating to employees. If you keep doing the same things years after year, you’ll likely end up with a very boring workplace. Variety is the spice of life, and as you try new programs–especially ones your employees are interested in–your rewards will be higher morale, productivity, performance, and retention. Certainly that should provide some motivation for you to stay the course! By the way, the one form of recognition that never seems to get old is effective praise. If you are timely, sincere, and specific in thanking employees when they have done good work, this form of recognition will never become stale.

Dr. Bob’s presentation was similar to his book, in that both provided specific examples of effective and misguided recognition programs. I say, “misguided,” because as Dr. Bob explained, companies should find out what their employees consider to be good recognition and rewards–not what company leadership blindly considers to be good recognition.

Here’s a quick example from Dr. Bob: According to several studies over the past 80 years (including a study conducted by Dr. Bob in the 1990s), here are the top three things that employees most want from their jobs; first, according to managers, and then, second, according to employees.

Top Three As Ranked By Managers
1. Good wages
2. Job security
3. Promotion/growth opportunities

Top Three As Ranked By Employees
1. Full appreciation for work done
2. Feeling “in” on things
3. Sympathetic help on personal problems

Managers looked at things that had a financial cost. The employees cared about things that, ironically, had no direct financial cost.

I mentioned an “aha” moment that occurred for a participant at the Melcrum summit. This communications leader had been troubled for some time by a situation that had developed with a person hired by this leader. She told me that the man she had hired performed wonderfully, and she recognized his professional successes with notes of affirmation that were entered into his personnel file and greater responsibilities that resulted in a promotion (with salary bump).

Then one day, the man complained that this leader didn’t reward his efforts in a meaningful way! “When you mentioned heroin during the Q&As, I thought, aha! That’s it! It was like heroin–nothing I did was enough. He always wanted more.” When the man first complained to the communication leader, she quickly arranged a meeting with the man, and included an HR representative. During that meeting, the leader reiterated all that she had done to mentor this individual, and pointed out how his performance had been recognized by glowing performance reviews, compensation and a promotion. He remained angry, and said that she didn’t seem to like him. “What did he expect me to do, have sex with him,” she exclaimed to me. “I’m a married woman and I certainly wouldn’t want the sexual harrassment charges!”

After reading Dr. Bob’s book, and reflecting on his presentation, I’m thinking that the man was looking for some form of recognition that differed from the laundry list that the communications leader shared with me. (No, I’m not including sex in there!)

Maybe she would benefit from reading Dr. Bob’s book. I certainly recommend it to you. Share it with your leadership, and you have a good chance of offering recognition programs that are measurable, repeatable and enjoyable for employees–without any artificial stimulants or harrassment charges!