by Paul White

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 solution for deeper issues that need to be addressed. Here are five sets of circumstances when appreciation should not be the first action taken.

Employees are not getting paid regularly. One time I was asked to train staff of a non-profit organization in how to show appreciation to one another. Throughout the training, they were quite passive and difficult to engage. After a couple of days, I found out 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.

When there has been a recent layoff. When an organization has just gone through the process of staff reduction, multiple issues still remain. The surviving employees are processing a lot of emotions such as:

  • Relief that they did not lose their job
  • Guilt that they still have a job while some of their friends do not
  • Lingering anxiety over if 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

When employees are seriously underpaid (or cost-of-living adjustments, raises or bonuses are 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 many employees tend to overvalue their 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 this is rectified, appreciation will feel more like a cheap substitute since the organization is not communicating value to the employees by paying them appropriately.

When employees have serious, reality-based questions about the trustworthiness of management. There are times when management has handled situations or communication poorly, which has resulted in distrust. If management has been caught (or perceived to have been) in actions reflecting a lack of integrity, any form of appreciation would bring skepticism and cynicism before any positive reaction will 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 employee appreciation on hold.

First, 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 down, reexamine whether it is time to communicate how much you value and appreciate those who are still on your team