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Adrian Duncan



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Gender bias in HR recognition programmes


Recognition is a key tool for driving engagement and can range from a simple ‘thank you’ to a large financial bonus. However if it is to be effective, HR teams need to understand what drives behaviours and align these with the desired organisational goals.

Compelling evidence exists that points to clear differences between how men and women give and respond to recognition. While employers are currently developing schemes to appeal to all, it appears they should in fact be catering for the differing demands of men and women. In general, women give and receive more recognition while men are more likely to give recognition in the form of a higher monetary value. Men become more engaged when there is a monetary reward involved whereas women tend to be better at just saying thank you.

High participation is essential

Given that being recognised makes employees twice (2.29 times) as likely to recognise colleagues, organisations that take gender differences into account when implementing recognition programmes will be more effective and can also potentially achieve savings by improving their schemes appeal to men.

Our own analysis of recognition generated 30,857 employee responses within two large, nationwide recognition programmes in the financial services and manufacturing sectors. 61.8% of the audience were men and 38.2% were women. Also, almost two-thirds of employees had received some form of recognition: 63% of staff had been recognised at least once and 29% of individuals (52%) had sent recognition.

The study defined three levels of recognition that could be awarded: a non-monetary ‘thank you’ accounted for 30% of recognition received, a low level monetary award of less than £75 accounted for 58% of recognition, and a high level monetary award (over £100 and often in the £1,000s) accounted for 12% of recognition received.

The data suggests that women receive more recognition than men: 72% of women were recognised, compared to 57% of men. Additionally, women send more recognition than men. 36% of women recognised a colleague, compared to just 25% of men. Proportionately, women sent 8.78% more of the recognition than men and, despite comprising only 38% of the audience, women represented 47% of those who recognised and 52% of all individual recognition items sent.

Mind the gap

There is a well-documented pay gap between men and women – the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put the gap at 19.7% in December 2013. The pay gap appears to be reflected in recognition schemes as women send and receive more low-level non-monetary awards than men and therefore received fewer high-profile or high-value awards. Women send 17% more non-monetary awards and receive 11% more than men. Yet women send 4% fewer high-level monetary awards and receive 1.7% fewer than men.

Non-monetary ‘thank yous’, while proven to be an effective and free form of recognition, tend to be used by women, who received 53% and sent 60% of them. Proportionately women should account for 38% of ‘thank yous’ received and men 62%, however women received 53% and men 47%.

The reasons why women receive more low-level awards are likely to be numerous and varied. Some women may be more likely to experience intrinsic motivation, where they are motivated by job satisfaction rather than extrinsic motivation such as targets and bonus. This may be as a result of perceived female characteristics such as empathy and emotional response – or workplace bias and prejudice.

Men say, ‘show me the money’

The statistics show that the higher the kudos and value of the recognition men are given, the more involved they become. In our study, 16% of men sent monetary awards worth less than £75 compared to just 6% sending ‘thank yous’.

Significantly, the gender split across those awarding high level monetary recognition proportionately favours men. 64% of high level awards are sent by men and 35% by women compared to the audience’s gender split of 61.7% and 38.2%. Men and women receive the right amount of high-level recognition awards, proportionate to their share of the audience (7.16% of men and 7.69% of women). However, this is the only level at which we have parity. Is this because these awards require a higher level of adjudication from a panel, rather than just a manager’s approval?

Many HR departments are female-orientated and recognition schemes may unintentionally be designed to appeal to women. It may be worth HR managers reviewing the design of schemes and how the organisation communicates low-value recognition to establish if they appeal to both genders. There are five key things you should consider:

  1. Review the scheme's creative design: It may be worth HR managers reviewing the design of schemes, with input from marketing, to determine how best to communicate no-cost and low-value recognition and establish if they appeal to both genders.
  2. Tailor communications for men: Schemes might tap into the factors that have made campaigns such as the Movember prostate cancer fundraising campaign so successful in appealing to men, with its male imagery, talk of ‘Mo Bros’ and ‘Team Mo’, and the use of straightforward, less emotive language.
  3. Use evidence not emotion: Focus messages on the benefits of recognition to the recipient, team, management and the business. Use empirical evidence rather than referencing how it feels. Provide tools so managers can reinforce this statistical approach. 
  4. Review the structure: Consider extending non-monetary thank yous with ‘quick messages’ that can contain pre-set recognition phrases, tied into behaviours. They’re easy, low level forms of recognition that can remove the emotion, making them more acceptable to men. 
  5. Introduce competition and incentives: Appealing to the extrinsic motivation of men need not mean blowing the budget on monetary awards. Retain the element of competition, perhaps by introducing prize draws for employees who have sent and received ‘thank yous’, or league tables of top departments.  Breaking down the isolated nature of a recognition scheme is also effective by providing managers with incentive tools which are tied in clearly with job objectives. This works well for many men and women .

It is clear that gender has a major influence on employee recognition schemes and must be considered if a programme is to achieve the engagement needed to deliver a return on investment.

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Adrian Duncan


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