The Worst Ways to Thank Someone

With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s a great time to consider whether you properly thank your colleagues.

Acknowledging people isn’t a “fluffy” thing that only HR should care about.  Recognition fulfills the basic human need of feeling valued.  When people don’t feel valued, they won’t be motivated or engaged, and ultimately, they will quit to find a better job.

So how do you properly thank people?  Sometimes it’s easier to identify what NOT to do:

Vague: When you thank people, it’s important they understand what their actions mean to you.  Was it the deal they closed?  Or was it all of the extra hours they worked, the effort and thoughtfulness they put into their sales materials, and their drive to bring in new business?  If you don’t specifically say what people did well, they won’t know you noticed.

Impersonal: If you have a rewards budget, you might get a lot of the same thing to thank people.  A bunch of $100 Visa gift cards makes it easy and fair, right?  A generic gift card is nice, but it’s impersonal.  It doesn’t take a lot of thought to give, and that makes it less valuable.  A better reward would be a gift certificate to a local restaurant you know a person loves.

Unstructured: Give employees a structured way to thank one another.  Peer-to-peer recognition is key for driving engagement, and it goes a long way for boosting company culture.  In my fully remote company, PeopleG2, we have a system that anyone can use to show gratitude or highlight the good work of others.  We use a computer image of green flag to represent individual accomplishment.  Any staff member can post a green flag and a message of thanks in a shared chat room, such as: A big green flag to Brian for helping out with a client question I couldn’t answer!  And then others can chime in with well wishes and positive comments.  When recognition is structured, thanks will be spread out more evenly for deserving employees.

Too Private: One of the best things about being acknowledged can be when even more people find out the great things you’ve been doing.  Instead of being recognized by one person, you’re suddenly being congratulated by the whole team or company.  That moment can make people feel an extra sense of belonging, and foster deeper connections between coworkers.  But sometimes people forget how effective public recognition can be.  The next time you want to thank someone, consider whether you should share the news with other colleagues as well.

Too Public: Although some people like being in the spotlight, others feel extremely uncomfortable being the center of attention.  You definitely don’t want to embarrass people when you’re trying to thank them.  For a manager, a best practice is to ask employees how they like to be recognized.  This is best done in the onboarding process for all employees.  That way, you know whether a personalized thank you note is generally better than calling attention to someone in a large meeting.

Too Small: Don’t trivialize contributions or achievements with monetary rewards that seem disproportionately small.  A $5 gift card to buy coffee might “technically” be worth more than a heartfelt thank you that clearly describes what a person did well, but the gift card feels cheaper.

Unfair: Folks who curry favor with the boss or opportunists who insert themselves at the moment of success can overshadow the real hard workers.  Use an objective means of selecting whom to praise and reward.  Decision Toolbox, a human resources recruiting firm, developed an algorithm specifically to spot exceptional job performance.  It uses a number of identified key performance indicators of which everyone is aware.  This provides an equal incentive to all employees to do their best.

Work can become so busy that you feel like you only have time to do necessary tasks, and recognition can seem like one extra thing to think about.  Trust me—I get it.  But half-baked acknowledgment efforts fall flat, making employees feel forgotten or undervalued.  On the flip side, when people know their work has made a difference, that knowledge is often all they need to keep chugging along and doing their best.  So this Thanksgiving, let’s figure out how to make employee recognition a strong year-round practice, instead of a seasonal one.