In The Workplace

I’m a department manager at a small factory trying to explore how to motivate the workers. We can’t afford to pay good money. Taking a cue from what you’ve written about zero-cash motivational strategies, please teach me how to write commendation letters. Do you have a template? I checked the internet but what I found was confusing, if they don’t direct me to suspicious links. Please help. — Unsatisfied.

Your concern reminds me of the problems of consumerism — many of us spend money we haven’t earned yet, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like. That also applies to work relationships. Whenever I discuss employee motivation, it’s clear that I stress that money isn’t everything, but don’t take it as a license not to give workers their rightful due. Zero-cash motivational strategies have their limits and come with expiration dates. You can’t keep on using them indefinitely.

In the meantime, master the form and substance of the written commendation. Depending on the nature of the worker’s achievement, the least you can do is to write encouraging marginal notes in their reports. In the absence of a hard copy of the document, you can recognize workers’ efforts by answering their e-mails or texts in a positive and encouraging manner.

For a written recognition to be acceptable to the recipients, it must be at the very least documented for visual impact and record-keeping. Further, in order for a written commendation to be substantial, the recognition must be done in front of the employee’s colleagues, either in person or via online. As I’ve said in many of my articles — commend in public, castigate in private.

When we recognize employee efforts, we take into consideration both the form and substance of the tools you intend to use. You don’t simply check the internet for some template you can copy and paste as your own. Imagine the damage if the employee-recipient discovers your plagiarism. You must take care that the letter is applicable to your organization, as much that can be found on the internet is prepared for the Western context. What is successful in other cultures may not be acceptable to us and vice-versa.

So let’s start with the form. Should we use a letter or memorandum format? The answer is the memo form. This is to emphasize that the appreciation is focused on current employees, not former workers being recommended for a job in another organization. In that case, then it’s called “recommendation” letter, and not a “commendation.”

Going back to the memo, it must contain the following elements: “To” — addressed to the recipient-employee, their job title and department. “From” — from you as the boss and your job title. “Date” — when the commendation was done written, not when it is given. The “Subject” heading can simply contain the word “Commendation” or “Appreciation.” The “Cc” section lists down the names of pertinent managers or other officials who we were issued a copy. You can also use the “Bcc,” which does not name other recipients of the memo.

Now that we’re done with the format, let’s talk about the ideal contents or the body of a commendation memo. To this end, you must use your own words and not the words of others harvested from the internet. To guide you, touch on the following essential elements to create a lasting impression in the mind of the recipient:

One, start with a big, impactful positive statement. The word “Congratulations!” means nothing unless you come out with an initial declaration outlining what the commendation is about. It could go something like this: “I would like to commend your efforts for reducing our raw material inventory, which saved the organization $10,000 every month.”

Two, document specifically the employee’s achievements. Cite how they solved certain problems without requiring the company to spend money on a solution. Or, point out the leadership skill that accounted for an employee’s performance. Paying attention to the “how” aspect means you’ve paid enough attention to the worker’s accomplishments. This approach can also be used by other employees.

Three, keep the length reasonable. Don’t be thrifty with accolades lest you be seen as reluctant to give praise. Write to express your happiness, and you really should mean it. A good rule of thumb is around five paragraphs or at least 250 words. Don’t worry about being verbose. Make your memo free of grammatical and spelling errors. Every recipient should cherish reading one.

Four, create a sense of expectation for similar future performance. A closing remark like “Keep up the good work” is empty. You can invigorate your future work relationships by promising workers a bright future in the organization. One caveat though: Don’t give encourage false hopes that you cannot deliver on.

Last, circulate the commendation to other employees. You can post the memo on a bulletin board. You can also spend a little money on banners or tarpaulins highlighting the employee’s achievement in prominent areas of the workplace. However, this applies only to workers who have done something monumental.


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