Peer recognition initiatives can make employees feel mistreated: Study

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Employers are constantly looking for better and more innovative ways to recognize people in the workplace, especially in situations where change is frequent and rapid. According to recent research from the University of Waterloo, however, employee comparisons made possible by public peer recognition can make some employees feel mistreated. “Employers have sought various peer recognition systems in an effort to encourage employee-helping behavior,” said P Wang, a PhD candidate in accounting at Waterloo. “When employees feel they deserve recognition from their peers but do not receive it, employees may conclude that they are being treated unfairly, and that employee may be less willing to help other co-workers. Not only does the co-worker feel they have been treated unfairly.

In practice, this type of behavior is considered inappropriate by an employee when someone disagrees with what types of behavior should and should not be recognized during public peer recognition. Additionally, some employees may only grant recognition to those closest to them. Using a three-employee setting composed of recognizer, helper, and employee, the researcher examines whether peer information revealed through peer recognition systems influences employees’ subsequent willingness to help. During this study, both assistants and employees assist the recognizer, however, only the assistant is recognized by the recognizer. The worker exhibits less willingness to assist the identifyer and the helper when the worker perceives that their initial support is greater than the helper’s when the worker perceives that their initial support is less than the helper’s support. The employee’s low level of willingness to assist the helper is a spillover from the reciprocating reaction to the recognizer’s non-recognition.

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These findings provide the first empirical evidence of the negative effect that peer recognition systems have on helping behavior. This research may inform how employers use peer recognition in the workplace. Peer recognition is often advertised as a tool to make employees more willing to help others. The results of the study show that managers may want to consider the potential downsides of implementing peer recognition.

“My research provides a first step to caution managers about the potential unintended consequence of using public peer recognition, and that it is perceived unfairness that reduces helping behavior,” Wang said. It may be helpful for managers to communicate with their employees and come up with some agreed-upon guidelines about what should be recognized by public peer recognition and what should not be recognized by public peer recognition.”

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