If you’re going to offer an employee recognition programme, don’t do it by half measures or you will actually create a worse situation. How can a some well-intentioned recognition be worse than no recognition at all, you ask? In two ways:

1) In those you recogniseIn offering only elitist recognition to your top performers, you are effectively saying the daily efforts of the majority of your employees are not worth appreciating and you lose the opportunity to frequently reinforce those behaviours you most want to see continued. Consider the scenario reported by the Charted Management Institute (CMI) in which two top British athletes were crowned world champions, but only Jenson Button (Formula 1) was acknowledged by Gordon Brown for his efforts. The other champion? Beth Tweddle (floor exercise, World Gymnastics Championships). As CMI notes, Formula 1 racing is far more publicised and watched televised sport globally than is gymnastics, but that certainly doesn’t lessen the achievements of Ms. Tweddle. The same is true across your organisation. Don’t ignore those, for example, who perform exemplarily in support roles in favor of those in more public-facing positions.

2) In the rewards you offer – Elad Sherf in his Comparative Advantage blog introduces an idea from Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational about the value in a $1,000 cash bonus or a Bahamas vacation, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that it would be better to not offer the recipient a choice, but to send them on the Bahamas vacation so they could enjoy the trip without the guilt of having not used the $1,000 cash “more wisely.”

I’d like to repeat my comments to Elad’s post here as I believe the point is important. While I certainly agree that cash bonuses are not a viable reward option, who are you (the boss) to say that you know what I (the employee) would find to be motivating and rewarding? A colleague’s husband uses a wheelchair. I’ve discussed with her about their favorite vacation destinations. A beach spot is not even in their top 25 because beaches are very inaccessible to someone who uses a wheelchair. When asked what she’d do with a Bahamas vacation “reward,” my colleague responded: “If I had the option, I’d re-gift the trip to family members. If that’s not an option, I wouldn’t go. I don’t like vacationing without my husband.”

So now that $1,000 investment is a complete waste. I realise this is just an example, but it extrapolates well to any number of situations. Perhaps someone who puts in long hours to get the critical job done on deadline would most enjoy a recognition and reward that allows him to spend extra time with family — how? Dinner and a movie with the wife? What restaurant? What theater? How about a vacation resort? Where? Ski? Beach? Disney? Or perhaps the employee has long dreamed of a home theater system. Plasma? LCD? Sony? RCA? The point is no small committee of people intending to do the right thing can give all employees the latest, greatest, most personal and most culturally relevant reward they want — unless you put that choice directly in the hands of the employee.

Are you carefully considering who you are recognising and what rewards you are offering? If not, you could be doing more damage with your “recognition” than you realise.

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