While we know that good things happen when employees feel appreciated, communicating appreciation to staff is not a miracle salve that cures all wounds.
Sometimes, well-meaning supervisors (and, sometimes leaders who don’t want to do the hard work of dealing with problems) try to use appreciation as a “quick fix" for deeper issues that need to be addressed. But, in fact, there are five sets of circumstances -- some of them outright disturbing -- when "appreciation" should not be the first action taken:
1. Employees are not getting paid regularly.
One time I was asked to train staff at a non-profit organization in how to show appreciation to one another. Throughout the training, the staffers I addressed were quite passive and difficult to engage. A few days later, I found out that they had not earned regular paychecks for three months! No wonder they were disengaged!
Without honoring your agreement to pay your employees for their work, no amount of appreciation will matter.
2. Other employees have recently been laid off.
When an organization has just gone through a staff reduction, multiple issues remain. The“surviving” employees are processing a lot of emotions:
- Relief that they themselves did not lose their jobs
- Guilt that they still have a job while some of their friends do not
- Lingering anxiety over whether there will be more layoffs or if the organization will continue to exist
- Anger at how the layoff was handled (who was laid off and who wasn’t)
- Frustrated because they believe other issues should have been dealt with (or still need to be) for the company to function well
3. Employees are being seriously underpaid.
This can include cost-of-living adjustments, raises or bonuses that have been put on hold. For most employees, receiving appropriate financial payment for their work is foundational to their sense of being treated fairly. While it is true that many employees tend to overvalue their own contribution and believe they should be paid more, there are clearly circumstances where it is obvious that staff is truly underpaid compared to their peers in the marketplace.
Until these issues are rectified, appreciation will feel more like a cheap substitute since the organization is not communicating value to the employees by paying them appropriately.
4. Significant job insecurity exists.
While employees may be grateful they currently have a job, when circumstances are unsettled in the overall economy, in their industry sector or in their company, they will have realistic concerns about whether they will continue to be employed in the future. Communicating appreciation to them, then, will fall on deaf ears.
Trying to say “we value you” while there are deliberations about letting people go is a blatant example of insincerity.
5. Employees have serious and valid questions about the trustworthiness of management.
There are times when management has handled situations or communication poorly, resulting in distrust. If management has been caught (or perceived to have been caught) in actions reflecting a lack of integrity (for example, handling toxic waste issues), any form of appreciation will bring skepticism and cynicism before any positive reaction can occur.
What to do?
If your organization is in the midst of these situations (or about to be), it is best to put any plan to implement any display of appreciation on hold.
Instead, deal with the more prominent, underlying issues. Pay your staff. Allow employees to heal after layoffs occur. Do what you can to create more job stability (and communicate with employees about it). Tell the truth. Act with integrity. Take action to rebuild trust with your employees.
Then, when the waters have calmed, reexamine whether it is indeed the right time to communicate how much you value and appreciate those who are still on your team.