Red Flag for Global Recognition Programs

bio_400x400 Author:
Chuck Csizmar – CMC Compensation Group

When designing programs to recognize and reward an employee’s extraordinary achievements it’s important to understand the cultural implications of these programs.   Companies with a truly global operating mindset, vs. domestic-oriented organizations with international operations, will take into account national and cultural differences that distinguish its widespread employee populations.

One size rarely fits all.

You might think that the positive aspects of employee recognition programs are a universally accepted principle, but that’s only partially correct.  Important differences exist.  In some cultures / national identities the role of the team is such a core element of employee identification that seeking out an individual contributor for recognition would not be a welcome practice.  Some employees might be reluctant to step forward, or to be pushed into the spotlight.

In other countries you will find that the perceived value of cash as a recognition award varies a great deal.

Case study

A former employer of mine once implemented a global Spot Award program for its worldwide employees – without including their international HR community in the planning discussions.  Finalized program elements and procedures covered employees in over 20 countries in exactly the same fashion.  The premise was to provide immediate (read that, fast) recognition and financial rewards (Spot Awards) for those employees who demonstrated performance above and beyond their normal job roles.  Nominations for awards would come from an employee’s manager, though employees could recommend co-workers as well.

While the program was deemed a success in the US (though defined by only the dollars spent), it was much less successful elsewhere among the company’s far-flung international operations.

Lessons Learned

The first problem was that Managers outside the US placed a much more conservative financial value on so-called “extraordinary” employee contributions.  Or put another way, the US Managers were more generous in their payment awards than elsewhere.  The result was that the cash payments on a per-employee basis were widely skewed to the US employee.  Notwithstanding the vagaries of the various currency exchanges, the international offices did not spend their allotted recognition reward monies as frequently or as generously as their US counterparts.

I recall one scenario where a US employee received thousands of dollars for a particular project effort, while their European counterpart was given a non-cash award (recognition dinner).  This created more than a few awkward moments when the two employees shared experiences.

The second challenge was that many international employees did not want to be individually spotlighted by the recognition program.  They were willing to receive the award, but would rather the recognition be confidential.  Given that Corporate had planned an internal communications campaign to highlight individual award winners, that reluctance proved quite a hindrance.

Compounding the preference for anonymity was the desire for team over personal awards, as individual employees proved resistant to receiving the planned fanfare or preferential treatment – especially in front of their co-workers (team members).

The bottom line was that the recognition and reward program recognized a smaller than anticipated number of non-US employees, less reward money was spent per international employee, and Corporate Communications was hard pressed to find international employees amenable to being highlighted for the program.  Not exactly what the program designers had intended.

Corrective action

The answer seems straightforward, does it not?  If a global program is to affect all employees, then possible national or cultural distinctions among groups should be addressed, well in advance.  However, that would mean including representatives from those groups in the design and communication phases of the project.  Such a simple step seems a difficult one to take for many corporate plan designers.  Why?

When they have the bit between their teeth developing a program that affects the majority of employees, management is often reluctant to change course to include the differing sensitivities of small populations, especially if those populations do not speak with one voice.  What they prefer to do is have local representatives “tweak” the round peg into the square hole.

How does that work for you?


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9 responses to “Red Flag for Global Recognition Programs

  1. Chuck has some great points here. American businesses especially have a bad tendency to go for “one-size-fits-all” approaches, across a wide range of issues.

    We tend to see compensation as a technical field, a sub-field of Human Resources. Yet what is more cultural than rewards and punishments? Motivating and guiding people means appealing to things that mean something to them–and meaning is always cultural.

    This can even show up in small ways. A few years ago, a friend related a story to me about a small American team that had taken on some Japanese workers from an allied company. The American manager had a tendency–very American–to go around, check on workers’ progress, and give people who were doing a good job a pat on the back (literally).

    Two weeks into the experiment, he thought to ask a Japanese colleague how things were going. The back-pat came up in the conversation. The Japanese counterpart asked what it means when an American pats you on the back.

    “That you’re doing a good job,” the American manager replied. “What does it mean when a Japanese manager pats you on the back?”

    “That you’re doing a bad job,” was the response.

    We see this over and over again in the international arena. You’ve got to do your homework, and understand what you’re doing in the other person’s context. When a manager says, “Well, this is just how we do things here at company X,” run!

    • Hey Bill —

      Your note made me laugh at how easily one can create difficulties for one’s self overseas. I spent five years as an expat (Europe), and the tales I could tell about non-intentional personal *slips*!

      Which I think strongly makes the point that management should think twice before blindly following US practices for their international community. My gaffes were only embarassing to me and a quick apology solved the problem.

      What you described is an example of organized cultural flubs that employees won’t as easily laugh off.

      All it takes to stay out of trouble is a bit of advance thinking and asking the right people.

  2. Excellent and important post. Truly global recognition cannot be successful as long as the home office (wherever it may be based) imposes a locally designed/desired program on the rest of the world. While much in the recognition world has been said about understanding the needs/desires of the different generations, sadly the discussion on understanding the very different cultural needs of globally dispersed employees is not as vibrant.

    Challenges presented here are precisely why we encourage (nearly insist) on our clients creating an advisory panel during development of a recognition program that reflects ALL elements of the organization (various cultures/geographic regions, departments, roles, levels and generations).

    Another pitfall of global recognition efforts is deploying the program first to the home office or the HQ country and eventually rolling it out to the rest of the world. This implies the rest of the world employees are not as worthy or deserving of recognition — exactly the opposite message of what is intended through these programs!

    Far more on what to prepare for in global recognition available here:

    • Derek – I’ve seen the same problem you mentioned when Corporate Communications sends out a global message (same text to everyone). Too often they are writing to US employees while sending it to other countries.

      Which usually creates a “what about me?” scenario that is hard to deal with.

      Why do these simple fixes escape otherwise sophisticated, professional organizations?

      • Chuck,

        In answer to your last question, I think that, at heart, most folks are pretty provincial. This isn’t a moral judgment, just an observation. In my experience (in both business and in higher education, the latter spent explicitly trying to turn students into “global citizens”!), there just aren’t that many people who can really think outside their own culture/nation/tribal group. Which makes such people, of course, incredibly valuable.

  3. Suzanne Larsen Balaoing, GPHR

    Hi Chuck-
    Good article (and following comments)- thank you. The story is truly classic, and probably needs to be told over and over again for some time- takes time to learn!
    I agree with Bill, most people are quite provincial simply by nature, they don’t know what they don’t know.

    • I agree with you and Bill about provincial thinking, but I can’t help wondering out loud why THEY DON’T ASK? So many problems can be avoided with just a little humility; if they would remember that they don’t have all the answers. What a concept!

      • Chuck,

        It does seem that simple, doesn’t it? But in my experience, asking questions with humility is rare because it takes courage to admit that you don’t know something. I’ve run into too many managers, at a variety of levels, who are in reality in way over their heads. They’re afraid someone will find out, so they don’t ask for help – they make foolish decisions and then cling to them like a dog with a bone.

        I shouldn’t complain too much–that behavior has given us a whole bunch of sometimes hilarious stories, which is what we based our book (CARRY A CHICKEN IN YOUR LAP) on!

  4. What a great point to bring to focus of HR professionals. Often, we do not consider cultural nuances and, as in your examples, it can have disastrous results. A few years ago we began considering cultural implications of employee engagement surveys and found that even though our global offices speak English, when we accommodate their languages we get more detailed responses. It was a simple step that led to stronger participation. Great post.