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Janine Milne

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Talent spot: Derek Irvine, vice president of client strategy and consulting at Globoforce

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 “Workplaces are deserts when it comes to employee recognition,” believes Derek Irvine, vice president of client strategy and consulting at Globoforce, the employee recognition firm.

That’s where Globoforce’s comes in. It aims to show companies that putting the effort into employee recognition can pay dividends in terms of productivity and staff churn. Employee engagement can often be improved by 15 percent in six months, claims Irvine.

Managing people has always been a focus for Irvine, a regular HRZone blogger, but at the outset it was managing consumers rather than employees that interested him. Leaving university with a Masters in Marketing under his belt, in 1988, Irvine joined the business strategy group of PA Consulting Group in London, working on areas such as business performance and improvement, mergers and acquisitions and marketing.

After a few years, Irvine felt he wanted to get closer to consumers, so he took an in-house marketing role at Johnson & Johnson in his hometown Dublin, looking after well-known brands Reach toothbrushes, Band-Aid and J Clot. Another stint at PA Consulting followed, but then Irvine temporarily stepped off the corporate ladder, taking a year out to travel in France and Spain, learning the languages and soaking up the culture.

When he was in Paris he came across Pernod Ricard, then a medium-sized beverages company with ambitions (now realised) of being a major drinks organisation. So, refreshed from his year out, Irvine took on a new marketing role working on the Bushmills and Jamiesons’ whisky brands in Ireland, then owned by Pernod Ricard.

He’d spent a decade in marketing, but Irvine felt it was time for a new direction; so he left the comfort of an established brand and joined employee recognition start-up Globoforce in 2000. Irvine was employee number four at the company and so took on responsibility for a whole host of areas, including marketing, products, and clients. Today, the organisation is more than 200 strong and Irvine can focus his talents on working with client strategy.

When he joined Globoforce the dot.com boom was at its height (although the bubble was fit to burst) and Globoforce recognised the potential of using internet technology to take incentives and recognition to a global audience. His years at PA had taught Irvine about strategy and communications, so Irvine felt he had plenty to offer the company. “I felt I knew about incentives and motivating people,” he recalls.

Irvine also recognised that there was a gap in the market that Globoforce could capitalise on. “Recognition was a whole mix of what was popular at that moment, but there was no real strategic direction on employee recognition,” he says.

All too often, companies employed piecemeal recognition initiatives or simple employee-of-the-month style awards. Instead, Globoforce developed an infrastructure for employee recognition – or “strategic recognition” as the company calls it. “One of the things we do for clients is we take disparate recognition programmes and bring them together. If you can amalgamate and consolidate them and concentrate on what’s important right now, it’s a huge enabler. Employees need to understand strategy and feel appreciated and have their efforts recognised,” he says.

One of the key tenets of Globoforce’s approach is to make recognition peer-to-peer. The idea of what it calls social recognition is to “crowdsource” recognition, collecting stories from peers about individuals. These stories can then feed into performance reviews, a neglected area, believes Irvine. “Do you know anyone that looks forward to their performance review? The process has not changed in years,” he notes.

Effective employee recognition feeds into engagement programmes. “Too many companies do make the mistake of thinking that engagement is just a survey,” warns Irvine. “While the first thing is to do the survey, they then need to look at that and from that take direct action on things that come out of the survey. If you have high engagement already, you have to work out how to keep engagement high. Employees will always do more when they are engaged,” he says.

Throwing money at engagement will not keep staff engaged. “Salary just gets feet underneath the desk. Then there’s the ‘psychic income’ – the things that keep people motivated, such as the relationships with superiors, feeling their work is understood and valued, clarity of direction and all these things strategic recognition helps address,” he says.

Irvine notes that Globoforce’s quarterly mood survey of US workers found 74 percent of employees said they would work harder if they felt recognised for what they did and that they needed regular feedback and recognition, not just saved up for the annual performance review.

The irony is that because recognition is free and it can be done at any moment of the day managers tend not to do it. Recognition doesn’t fit easily into a spreadsheet, so managers don’t feel that this is part of what they themselves are measured on. By formalising recognition and making it something that senior managers can see in their dashboards puts recognition on the radar.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve always had tremendous admiration for Bill Clinton in terms of his oratory skills and his ability to tell a story and motivate people. If I could deliver to conferences the way he delivers speeches, I would be very happy.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Go to market” strategy. I think it sounds so mechanical and impersonal.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A consultant at PA used to say that in order to be impressive with clients, the first person you have to believe in is yourself.

How do you relax?
Swimming and walking.

Derek Irvine on employee recognition

1. When it comes to employee recognition, provide the power of choice
Non-cash rewards in the form of gift cards or certificates allow employees to experience rewards far beyond monetary compensations. These tangible, culturally relevant symbols of achievement are lasting reminders of a job well-done, reinforcing the value of the recognition programme to colleagues across the rest of the company.

2. Align rewards to corporate values
Recognition efforts, when done strategically, bring core company values to life through the daily activities of employees, infusing them into the very fabric of the organisation. Rewarding people for actions that reinforce company values advances the company’s mission – thereby nurturing a culture and environment where behaviours are closely aligned with corporate values.

3. Recognise employees frequently and in a timely way
Speed is key when it comes to recognising and engaging employees – the recognition moment should closely follow the act being recognised for maximum impact. Frequency of recognition is just as important especially to Gen X and Y employees who typically seek more feedback, encouragement and recognition for their actions.

4. Ensure recognition is available to all
All employees – not just senior staff or the ‘elite’ – should be recognised and rewarded for their efforts. When strategic recognition principles are made available to all employees, companies can change the culture to one that is motivational, empowering, and engaging – resulting in improved performance across the entire organisation.

5. Use recognition to inform performance management
Recognition programmes that involve participation from the entire organisation produces crowdsourced data about performance. Using the collective wisdom of the crowds (peers and managers alike) can provide a more accurate picture about true employee performance. This data can help supplement annual performance reviews by expanding beyond the feedback of a single manager.

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