Recognition on the Job: It’s Not Just a Generational Concern

It seems I’ve written a few posts recently on “Questions I’m frequently asked.”

Here’s one more: “Derek, what are the differences in how the various generations should be recognized?” Or sometimes it’s phrased a bit more bluntly: “Derek, don’t you see Gen Y demanding more recognition and that having a negative impact on recognition overall?

My usual answer is this really isn’t a generational issue, but a stage of life challenge.

The importance of feedback and coaching

For those of you not a Millennial, think back to your first “real” job. Didn’t you often seek out validation that what you were doing was the right thing to do or way to do it? Don’t we want our newest employees asking these questions? Shouldn’t we as managers and mentors be looking for opportunities to give Gen Y/Millennial employees frequent feedback to help ensure they are working up to potential?

This topic became top-of-mind for me again recently when I read the latest “Corner Office” column in The New York Times, featuring Ben Lerer, co-founder and CEO of the Thrillist Media Group. In the interview, Ben responded to a question asking if he thought about the culture he wanted to create in company by saying:

Not in any way aside from being affected by the way I felt very mistreated by a manager I had in a previous job. Part of the problem was that I was young and immature and I sort of walked in on Day 1 out of college and had this attitude of, ‘Give me the keys.’ But I ultimately didn’t like going to work because of the way I was treated, my work suffered, and I didn’t have confidence in what I was doing. And ultimately that led me to decide to leave.

I remember being regularly publicly humiliated. I’d send out an Excel spreadsheet that didn’t have first and last names broken out into separate fields, and he sent a ‘reply all’ to the entire company telling me how stupid I am and how bad I am at Excel. There were so many situations where I remember being just made to feel inferior and stupid, no matter how hard I worked. I was a kid out of college and I was not qualified to do some of the work I was being asked to do, but I did my best. And when my best wasn’t good enough, I was told I was very stupid, essentially.”

It’s not about a specific generation

Here’s a highly motivated employee whose desire to go above and beyond is destroyed through public shaming. How much more could this bright, entrepreneurial employee have given to this company if, instead, he’d been given public praise and private coaching and mentoring?

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My advice is to stop thinking about recognition in terms of generations in the workplace and start thinking about it strategically as a powerful form of feedback that can motivate and inspire when done right.

Do you think the need for recognition is generational?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


6 Comments on “Recognition on the Job: It’s Not Just a Generational Concern

  1. I agree that recognition is relevant for everyone in the workplace and is powerful both as an element of “reward” and development.

  2. Recognition is definitely universal…everybody both desires and needs to receive recognition and feedback for the work they do.  The trick is to figure out what KIND of recognition has the most impact on any given individual.  Is it public? Private? Money? A certificate? Some crave the limelight, some despise it.  Some just want a gift card, and some think that’s a cheap way out…it’s never as simple as just patting someone on the back (is that a koodo, or an assault?).

  3. Derek – You make a valid point about young or new workers needing more frequent validation, perhaps, than those who’ve been around for awhile.  The whole issue of feedback and the related, dreaded Annual Performance Appraisal are continually brought up as issues within the HR community.  And no wonder:  the annual PA is hated by everybody, and feedback can take many forms and delivery mechanisms.  

    I’m beginning to believe that the problem doesn’t lie with the methodology of delivering job related information; it’s the assumption that the individual delivering that information has the knowledge and understanding of the job to provide credible feedback.  Said another way, does the manager really know what he/she wants their employees to do, and what they are actually doing?  Equally important, do they have or take the time necessary to observe their employees performing the job in order to provide informed feedback?  My experience tells me that the answer to both questions is a resounding No.  

    Training managers on how to give feedback is a wasted effort when they don’t have the information or knowledge necessary to provide it.  

    The other problem with performance related feedback is salary actions, which only makes the situation worse.  Add forced distribution and the internal/external inequities that exist in most organizations and the entire process becomes a disaster, especially when companies have ‘raise day’, which occurs when the PA process and SA process are combined into a single, annual event.

    The issue of rewards and recognition is an extremely important one.  I believe we need to re-think the whole deal from an entirely different perspective, if we truly want to improve our workforce.

  4. John, excellent comment. I couldn’t agree more, especially with your well stated point around managers not knowing what they want employees to or what the employees are actually doing.

    My CEO, Eric Mosley, is nearing final on an ebook on exactly this topic. Stay tuned to for more info on it in the near future.

  5. Derek,

    We often get that very same question when doing our generational workshops and webinars. You make some very accurate points from the Gen Y and Millennial viewpoint.

    Though I agree with your point “to stop thinking about recognition in terms of and start thinking about it strategically,” I do think some customization in retention and recognition strategies is necessary for success – in multiple areas 

    The generational lens is just one of many diversity lenses that contributes to how people view the world and work. It is important to not just develop a one size fits all strategy to recognition and retention but to customize several based on employees values, beliefs, desires, and views as shaped by various diversity factors – after all, though we all share fundamental needs, we don’t all have the same identical needs regarding recognition.

  6. Recognition as reciprocity for every job well done. And you’re right, this is why regardless of the generation, everyone needs positive feedback and encouragement when they’re doing a solid job.

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