Beware Black Holes in Employee Recognition

Big black hole
Black holes suck.

If you want a culture of success, build a culture of recognition.

Or so the saying goes.

I once worked for a retail giant where management constantly strove to build a fun culture of recognition, but a black hole kept it from being effective.

Where we clocked in, a calendar hung, filled with sparkly stickers denoting some event or party in the break room.  Many of these events were rewards for reaching some sales goal or working safely.  As Halloween drew near (as in, by October 1st), we were coloring pictures of witches and ghouls, searching for skeleton bones behind vending machines, or guessing how many pieces of candy filled a mummy jar.  We strained through cobwebs to watch Silence of the Lambs, Frankenstein, and Twilight: Breaking Dawn.  (Well, 15 minutes of them during break.)  We had pumpkin carving contests, pumpkin pie baking contests, and pumpkin bagels from Einstein Bros.

The day after Halloween, you’d come in, and the HR team would already have moved in to clear out the place, working like diligent iconoclasts to remove every last stray spider and gravestone and skull.

The tinsel and trees appeared out of thin air a day or two later, and up went the stockings and ho-ho-ho’s.  (For us, life was one long holiday from Halloween until Valentine’s Day.)

Beyond all the break room pageantry, managers would sign and post cards in the hallway recognizing employees who exemplified company values.  And every day we were presented the opportunity during team meetings to publicly recognize individuals for their help.  Sometimes the recognition felt programmatic, sometimes sincere.  But I believe all of these efforts were done in good will by management.  Rarely have I seen a company try so hard to make employees feel recognized, engaged, and rewarded.

But what stood out to me was that, despite all this, my co-workers and I still complained.  Sure, we’d eat our ice-cream sundaes over break, take some candy home, say “thank you” to HR and the store manager.

Why did we complain?  It wasn’t so much the work itself, or the co-workers, or even the managers themselves.  We got along well in my department, worked well together, and everyone carried their weight.

Why did we complain?  Because after all the hustling to sort out shipments every morning, and acquiring methods and skills that really made a difference over the course of the year, our raises were small.  Very small.  So small they made me and my team feel more insulted than anything.

Now, I’m sure there’s plenty to be said for the retail company facing smaller profits in this economy like everyone else… yadda yadda.  It’s a harsh world.

But in this harsh world, not since I was six years old has ice-cream made everything better.

The message behind our petty raises was clear: you are in a sales floor position in a giant retail company; you are a cog in a machine.  You are replaceable.

After we had received this message loud and clear, no amount of recognition could change our feelings.


This story ends with me quitting shortly thereafter, and making my reasons clear in a letter to management.  Many of my co-workers followed (and I’m sure turnover costs were higher than anticipated).  But there’s a lesson to be learned.

At this retail company, the lack of decent raises was the black hole that sucked away at us, causing employees in my department to feel replaceable and disengaged, despite all the recognition.

HR professionals ought to be acutely aware of these dangerous black holes. Don’t turn a blind eye.  Help to steer the company away from black holes- and close them before they suck away your workforce.


I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What are some other common black holes (maybe you learned of them through exit interviews)?  How does HR help steer away from these black holes, acting as both company and employee advocate?

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