Formal Staff Recognition

Public recognition can create awkward moments

Recently, I attended the luncheon for a volunteer organization at which members were to be acknowledged for their contributions over the past year.

The person responsible for the awards, who I’ll call “Jim,” confessed he was facing a dilemma. He wanted to recognize one volunteer (we’ll call her “Sue”) for her outstanding contribution, but was afraid that in doing so he would offend another volunteer.

On paper, Sue and her colleague “George” had shared responsibility for a specific task that was fundamental to the organization’s operation over the past year. In reality, one person (Sue) had done the lion’s share of the work, while George had fulfilled the role in name only.

Should they both be acknowledged to avoid offending underperforming George? Or should Jim acknowledge neither, which would mean that hard-working Sue would not receive the recognition she deserved? Should both be acknowledged equally, even though Sue had contributed much more than George?

In the end, Jim found a compromise. He found another reason to acknowledge George, for a relatively minor task he had accomplished with some degree of success, before acknowledging Sue for what she had accomplished in the recent months when she had had sole responsibility for the task that she and George were supposed to have shared over the year.

Did the compromise work? Most of the audience likely did not notice how Jim nuanced the recognition he provided. Sue likely appreciated the recognition she received, but might have wondered about the focus on what she had done recently, when she had contributed in the same fashion over the full year. And George might have thought, “Hey, didn’t I work with Sue on that?”

Although Jim successfully avoided creating an awkward situation, I believe that the recognition Sue received would have been more complete if Jim had acknowledged her privately—over coffee, with a thank-you note, or during a telephone conversation.

Recognition delivered privately is freed from the pressure to treat everyone equally—a practice that diminishes the impact of the recognition received. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi one said, “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.”

First published in Briefly Noted by Nelson Scott, September 2011.

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