Recognition Preferences of Digital Natives

Are our youngest workers driving a change in recognition preferences?

I have been researching the latest trends in employee recognition and comparing my findings to the recognition preferences research study we completed last year.

One trend that I have been following for a number of years now, is the move towards more peer-based recognition programs. The driving force behind the popularity of peer recognition programs is primarily convenience. Managers are busy, and peer recognition programs provide opportunities for recognition that seemingly absolve managers of responsibility. However, the move away from manager-driven programs and towards peer programs only makes sense is if recognition preferences support the move. Our previous research showed that 70 percent of meaningful recognition came from managers and 6 percent from peers. Clearly, in 2007 when the previous research was completed, peer recognition wasn’t that effective in moving the recognition satisfaction needle. But what about recognition preferences today? Has anything changed?

Two questions about recognition preferences

Might millennials prefer recognition from their peers?

The past few years, as millennials began to join the workforce, I started to wonder whether the strong preference for recognition from the manager that we saw in previous studies would still hold true, or would this younger generation drive preferences towards peer recognition? It seemed like a possibility that they would prefer peer recognition. After all, they grew up with lots of peer feedback from social media.

Would millennials prefer recognition delivered through social media and other virtual modes, as opposed to face to face?

Given that this generation is highly comfortable with technology (often being referred to as digital natives) would these younger workers cause a shift in preference as to how recognition is delivered? Social media peer-recognition programs have been popping up everywhere. These programs seem like a natural outgrowth of the Facebook generation joining the workforce. It doesn’t seem like that much of a leap to assume that these younger workers would embrace recognition from their peers that came in the form of ‘likes,’ badges, and comments on their profile pages as well as being displayed in the company feed. When planning this study, I expected we would see younger workers driving a decrease in preference for manager-delivered recognition and an increase in interest in virtual recognition (recognition delivered from within an application).

What the data says about the recognition preferences of younger workers

Intuition told me that we would see a decrease in the percentage of meaningful recognition being delivered by the manager and, in fact, we did. Instead of 70 percent, manager-delivered recognition now accounts for only 45 percent (peer 22 percent).  However the change wasn’t, as I had imagined,  driven by millennials. When we looked at the data by age we found that:

Those 25 and younger received most of their meaningful recognition from the manager (76 percent).

The more experienced workers drove the shift from manager- to peer-delivered recognition.

sourceslideExperience does seem to be a significant factor. Those new to the work tend to look to their supervisors for feedback almost exclusively. More experienced workers have discovered peers whose opinions they value in addition to those of their supervisors and managers.

Seventeen percent of meaningful recognition is now being delivered virtually.

Preferences for method of delivery were also surprising. We now have a significant percentage of meaningful recognition being delivered virtually, through applications such as social media. Preferences for virtual delivery are also driven, not by millennials, but by more experienced workers. Younger workers are more likely to receive meaningful recognition face to face and less likely to receive it virtually than are more experienced workers. We don’t know the reason for this. It may be that older workers have more opportunities for virtual recognition. What the data does show is that generational stereotypes can sometimes be misleading.

Implications for recognition programs

  1. Virtual delivery can be effective regardless of the age group. The term Digital Native really applies to comfort with technology more than it does to a specific age group. Don’t push application-based recognition on those that are uncomfortable with technology (both deliverers and recipients).
  2. Consider the experience level of workers when selecting recognition programs. Less experienced workers want feedback from their supervisors, while more experienced workers are also interested in peer feedback.
  3. Focus on the basics of good feedback regardless of the medium. Ensure that there are face to face opportunities whenever it is feasible. When providing public recognition, whether it is at an all hands meeting or through social media, consider how others will perceive the message. Ask, “Is the message clear, the accomplishment proportional to the praise, and are others who perform equivalently being acknowledged as is appropriate?

If you want to learn more about the recognition preference findings from our latest study: Recognition Preferences Research Report – Full study results

SHRM Annual Conference – Join me for Trends & Preferences in Employee Recognition and enjoy an amazing HR conference. Conference details.


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