Employee Recognition Gone Wrong


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“Time is running out to nominate a United employee for excellent service,” said no one, ever.

Oh, wait. Someone actually did say it! Click the image to the left to see an email I received from United a couple of weeks ago telling me exactly that.

This email is wrong on so many levels. Where to begin?

Let’s start with the most basic, which is the level of service United (i.e., their people) delivers. I’ve written two blog posts (The Experience Speaks Louder Than Words and Are We There Yet?) about my less-than-stellar experiences with United, but you and I both know that there are a ton of other examples of bad service at the hands of United staff.

I know there are plenty of examples from American, JetBlue, Ryanair, and other airlines, too, lest you think I’m just picking on United. Take a look at some of these; United has done a great job of angering its passengers in a variety of ways:

An Open Letter To Jeff Smisek, President Of United Airlines
An Open Letter to CEO Jeff Smisek On United Airlines’ Blasphemous Safety Video
United Breaks Guitars … which led to the startup Gripevine
An Open Letter to United Airlines

And one more… An Open Letter to United Airlines

United earned the the distinct honor of being America’s Meanest Airline 2012 by having the highest rate of consumer complaints in 2011. In the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), United ranked dead last.

I could go on and on. You get the picture. Just google “an open letter to United,” and the results are endless. But that’s not the real point of this post, is it? No, not really. But it is important to the subject at hand: employee recognition.

How do the two relate? Very nicely. Those very employees that United has asked us to recognize for a job well done are the very same employees who earned them all of these complaints. Do they really think that a mea culpa from their CEO a couple months ago results in an immediate turnaround and a United Love Fest?

Employee recognition is a crucial part of any culture focused on the customer experience and, more importantly, the employee experience. Employee recognition rewards a specific action, behavior, or result that is tied to company values or to the brand promise. Employees’ actions must be driven by a specific guiding light; as such, those actions done well in support of that guiding light must be appreciated, recognized, and rewarded.

Recognizing employees for delivering outstanding service sends a clear message that…

  • the employee’s contributions are valued, and
  • the employee is living the brand promise
Employee recognition is…
  • Fair
  • Consistent
  • Not subjective
  • Not a game

But let’s take a look at the United email and call out some “Glamour don’ts.” (Sorry, gentlemen. If you don’t know what that is, please google it! Make sure you look at the Images. They will be amusing.)

It appears that United has turned this into a contest. But not just any old contest; it appears to be a marketing promotion that gets travelers to download their app, with a chance to win prizes. Wait a minute. Is this about recognizing the employee for a job well done, or not? I’m confused. I’ve never gotten an email like this before, from an airline or from any other company, for that matter.

Without great employees you can never have great customer service. -Richard F. Gerson

Breaking Down the Email

Here’s how you’ll know this is nothing but a marketing ploy.

I have 10 days to nominate an employee. In the real world, employee recognition has no time limit. Of course, it’s best when it’s fresh and as close to the actual behavior being recognized as possible. (My last flight on United was almost two months ago.)

The name of the program is Outperform Recognition Program. This is interesting. The program “rewards eligible employees who provide excellent service and the eligible MileagePlus members who nominate them.” So only eligible employees can be nominated, and only eligible members can nominate. In the real world, anyone can recognize. Anyone can be recognized.

The program ends soon. There is no end to employee recognition. If I, as a peer or as a customer, want to recognize an employee, I can do it at any time.

I’m told to “be sure to make any nominations using your Apple or Android device.” Employee recognition doesn’t come in the form of a nomination. When I think “nomination,” I think someone is going to review my service story and decide whether or not the employee will be recognized. Again, if you want to recognize an employee, any and all can be recognized. And employees should receive all feedback, good or bad. Managers shouldn’t pick and choose what to share.

And why must I use my smartphone? Of course, to download their app.

There are prizes. Since when do we give prizes to customers who recognize employees for a job well done? If you have a great experience and want to recognize the employee who delivered it, do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you might win roundtrip airfare for two.

I wanted “complete information,” so I went to the website listed at the bottom of the email. In order to nominate someone, I must have the employee’s ID number. And, again, I must use the United app or the mobile website. What if I don’t have the ID? It’s a required field in the submission process. Well, they have a solution for that:

If you are using the latest version of the app, you’ll see a bar code button that allows you to scan the back of the employee’s badge rather than typing in their 4-digit employee number. Select the bar code button and follow the prompts.

I can’t even picture that. Are you kidding me?

If you want employees to be recognized by your customers, make it easy for them to do it. Allow them to do it in whatever format (snail mail, webform, email, social media, phone call, etc.) they want to. Don’t inhibit it by putting unnecessary rules around it.

Using the mobile app, I can only enter 120 characters max about my “Service Story.” Really? That’s less than a tweet! What can I possibly say about the experience within that limitation?

There are sweepstakes rules and information. Sixteen employees are randomly chosen to win a prize, and the people who nominated the winning employees also have a chance to win something. The beauty of recognition is that, really, that’s the prize. That feeling of being appreciated and valued for your contributions is the prize. (I’m OK with rewards. That’s fine. They just need to be consistent. I don’t like the idea of having a drawing for the reward.)

Just above the legal disclaimer, there’s a sentence that reads: “Thanks for choosing United. As a loyal United customer, you’re important to us, and we want you to let us know when our employees do an excellent job serving you.” That’s great. You just have to be OK with telling us on our terms.

And finally, nowhere on the page does it say what they actually do with the recognition and feedback. Yes, I will just have to imagine that it does end up back with the employees and that the employees are truly recognized and feel valued and appreciated. But with limited character space to write a good story, I’m just not convinced this program really adds any value.

The Bottom Line

It’s great that you want employees to be recognized for stellar service. But focus first on ensuring that your employees are living the brand and treating customers right. First. Recognition will come out of that.

Don’t disguise a marketing ploy as something it’s not, especially something like employee recognition, something that should be taken more seriously by companies at a time when employee engagement is at an all-time low. And at a time when customer service is so bad that customers are writing open letters to the airline – and the airline issues an open apology to customers – marketing under the guise of an employee recognition program is pretty shady.

Whether you are big or small, you cannot give good customer service if your employees don’t feel good about coming to work. -Martin Oliver, MD Kwik-Fit Financial Services

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).


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