Good and bad gifts: the communicative function of employee recognition

Smith, Charlotte (2015) Good and bad gifts: the communicative function of employee recognition. In: European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM) Reward Conference 2015, 10 - 11 December 2015, Brussels, Belgium.

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Through an interpretation of individuals’ accounts of their recognition experiences, this paper contributes to knowledge about employee recognition by offering insights into how individuals experience and understand recognition in the workplace and its possible social functions and implications.


In-depth interviews were conducted with individuals drawn from two research organisations, an insurance company and a local council, in order to understand how individuals experience and understand employee recognition within particular social and organisational contexts. To make sense of the co-constructed accounts produced in these interviews, an inductive, exploratory (thematic) approach to analysing the data has been taken which is consistent with the Social Constructionist assumptions guiding this research and its primary purpose to foreground the meaning that participants give to employee recognition, rather than the meaning given to it by researchers or the views that are expressed in the literature on the subject.

Insights from signalling models of gift giving (Camerer 1988; Prendergast and Stole 2001) and social exchange theory (Blau 1964) have been utilised as an interpretive approach to the in-depth exploration of employees’ accounts of their recognition experiences.


The paper discusses three previously un-researched social functions of employee recognition which have been identified through this study. These are:
1. To convey information about the perceptions and intentions of individuals involved in the process of recognition
2. To develop and maintain social exchange relationships between individuals in the workplace
3. To promote unity and solidarity within the organisation.
The paper also draws attention to the potential dysfunctional consequences of employee recognition in situations where individuals perceive such external acknowledgement and recognition of their contributions to conflict with their intrinsic motivation to perform their job, or are concerned that their achievements may pose a threat to others’ self-esteem and self-worth, and their interpersonal relationships. This research finds that, in such situations, employees may experience feelings of discomfort, including embarrassment and guilt, and respond through attempting to re-define their individual successes as collective achievements and/or demonstrating sympathy for individuals who they have outperformed.

Practical implications

Valuable lessons can be learned from the experiences of the two organisations discussed in this paper about those elements of scheme design and ways of implementing recognition schemes which are successful (and those which are not) which may, in turn, inform and guide practical design and implementation efforts. However, HR practitioners should be aware that employees may not respond to employee recognition schemes in the ways which are expected and intended by the organisation. Individuals may experience discomfort, embarrassment or guilt as a result of receiving recognition if they perceive that their achievements pose a threat to others’ self-esteem and self-worth, and their interpersonal relationships, expressing this “outperformance distress” through a range of different emotional and behavioural responses (Exline and Lobel 1999; Exline et al. 2004) which may disrupt the effective and efficient operation of the organisation.
This suggests that there may be circumstances in which private recognition may be favourable to public recognition. For example, where there is a strong sense of solidarity between employees, there is an increased likelihood of award recipients experiencing feelings of discomfort when their superior performance is highlighted through a receiving a public recognition award. Recognition which is delivered privately to recipients may allow organisations to recognise high-performing individuals and teams whilst avoiding the interpersonal risks of outperformance.

Research limitations

As is the case of all studies employing a qualitative strategy of inquiry, this research may attract criticisms from scholars working within the Positivist tradition regarding its replicability and generalisability beyond the confines of the particular contexts in which the research was conducted.


To the best of the author’s knowledge, this study is the first large qualitative study of employee recognition and is unique in its Social Constructionist approach and focus on exploring how the meaning of employee recognition is constructed and maintained within particular social and organisational contexts. Thus, this research advances existing literature on employee recognition by taking a different methodological approach to those usually applied to the study of employee recognition, providing in-depth interpretations of employees’ experiences of recognition in the workplace.

Through applying insights from the gift giving literature, and the methodological approach taken in this research, this study makes an original empirical and theoretical contribution to the literature on employee recognition by identifying three previously un-researched social functions of employee recognition. Thus, this paper extends the existing literature on employee recognition by drawing attention to its functions within the workplace beyond a management tool to reinforce organisationally desirable behaviours.

Furthermore, this paper makes an empirical contribution by offering insights into both positive social implications and dysfunctional consequences of employee recognition.

Additionally, this research has a positive impact beyond academia, with both research organisations using my findings to inform their internal review processes and making modifications to their employee recognition schemes based on my recommendations.

Keywords:Employee recognition, Signalling theory, Lived experience, Social Constructionism, Gift exchange
Subjects:N Business and Administrative studies > N600 Human Resource Management
Divisions:Lincoln International Business School
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ID Code:28884
Deposited On:04 Oct 2017 09:52

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