For corporate recruiters and human resources professionals, these are—to paraphrase Charles Dickens—“the best of times, and the worst of times.”
Despite economic headwinds both foreign and domestic, the U.S. economy continues to chug along and the national unemployment rate is hovering at a post-recessionary low of just above 5 percent.

That is, of course, the good news.

However, the ‘yang’ to that ‘yin’ is that a steady drop in unemployment has also resulted in a dramatic depletion of the ‘pool’ of highly qualified employees. In addition, as many companies expand operations, there is a growing need to not only recruit—but to retain—individuals of the highest caliber.

There are, of course, numerous factors that come in to play when an individual decides whether or not to either accept—or continue in—a job. And while factors such as competitive salary and benefits are very important, most employees acknowledge that there is often more than money that goes into the decision-making process of whether or not one accepts–or remains–in his or her job.

A recent survey conducted by the Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM) examined the importance of “Employee Recognition Programs”, and the role that they play in strengthening employee relations within Corporate America.

Some of the key findings of the SHRM survey were both interesting, and insightful, for companies facing the challenges of recruiting and retaining the best employees in this increasingly challenging employment market.

Key findings in the SHRM Employee Recognition Survey included:

The most important organizational challenges facing HR professionals were said to be employee retention/turnover (40 percent) and employee engagement (39 percent)
Instructively, the survey also stresses that “a successful employee recognition program may have an impact on employee retention, turnover and engagement; (the survey added that) “it is also important to track the effectiveness of employee recognition efforts in these area.”
According to the study, HR professionals who are able to point to specific ‘ROI’ (return on investment) for employee recognition efforts were also the most successful in sustaining the programs, and receiving continued Executive-level support

One of many reasons cited in support of expanding employee recognition programs is, put simply, just an acknowledgement of human nature.

The fact is that it’s only natural that employees who work exceptionally hard—go that extra ‘mile’ beyond what their job description requires—should and often do expect some recognition by senior management of their exceptional efforts.

The SHRM survey confirmed this fact, and cited the benefits of giving employees a corporate ‘shout out’ for a job well done; the report stated “recognition by senior organizational leaders can be one way to strengthen employee perceptions of the level of respect for employees at all levels—and improve trust between employees and senior management.”

While there are many potential benefits to be gained by successful employee recognition programs, the SHRM survey also points out that successful execution of these programs is critical; the survey identified that potential problems with these types of programs can sometimes include “inadequate reward selection, the program not being impactful for employees, or an inconsistent employee experience.”

So, as with all aspects of building and running a successful organization, planning and forethought are important when devising employee recognition programs.

How pervasive are employee recognition programs within modern Corporate America?

According to the SHRM survey, a whopping 80 percent of responding organizations stated that they already had in place some form of an employee recognition program. In addition, more than 83 percent of respondents said they believed that these programs had a positive impact on employee engagement; approximately 80 percent also said employee recognition programs “increased employee happiness, added humanity to the workplace and improved employee relationships.”

And who do most employers decide are best qualified to nominate employees for special recognition? The survey found that a full three-quarters of respondents said that anyone in their organization is often given the authority to either “nominate or recognize” a colleague for his or her exceptional work.

Another interesting method identified in the survey as a means of recognizing employees’ contributions was the celebration of ‘service anniversaries’; the SHRM survey found that over 90 percent of companies celebrated an employee’s five-year service anniversary. This policy was also heartily endorsed by most HR professionals, with about 70 percent of HR respondents saying that they viewed their company’s employee service anniversary recognition program as “excellent or good”.

And what was the most common goal/result of conducting these employee service anniversaries? About 88 percent of HR professionals said they believed that employee service anniversaries are designed to “make an employee feel appreciated and valued.”

In addition, the survey found that the actual cost associated with conducting employee “service anniversaries” is fairly small; on average, over one-third of organizations said they spent $50 or less for an employee’s service anniversary recognition, while 31 percent said they spent between $51-$200, and 22 percent of companies spent more than $200 on an employee’s service anniversary.

At the end of the day, the business reality is that a healthier economy translates into a lower unemployment rate, which in turn translates into less skilled workers seeking gainful employment.

That’s one reason why devoting the time, effort and resources required to recognizing employees’ noteworthy contributions just makes good business sense. When a company develops a reputation as being an organization where exceptional efforts by its employees are recognized and valued, it becomes an ‘employer of choice.’

And being seen as an ‘employer of choice’ is a most desirable title for any growing company, especially in an economic period when skilled individuals have a expanding array of employers from which to choose.