In The Workplace

Ive read two of your articles on low-cost employee motivational strategies. However, I think you missed one important aspect of motivation — the writing of commendation letters. Aren’t such letters a type of low-cost motivation? — Sun Flower.

I agree. As I’ve said in that article, praising people is akin to sunlight, available and free to all. So why can’t we do the same thing to our workers? All we need to do is discover what’s readily available, easy and practical. This includes writing commendation letters to those who deserve it.

In my Oct. 23, 2020 column, I wrote the following: “(F)ocus on giving non-monetary rewards that motivate. There’s no shotgun approach for this. You must tailor-fit your zero-cash reward to employees who value them the most.

“This includes the right to choose and manage a project, a letter of praise signed by the CEO, a testimonial plaque from peers signifying their high regard for the employee, and the opportunity to help develop an important new product for the company.”

As you can imagine “a letter of praise signed by the CEO” is something out of the ordinary, say when the concerned worker has done something monumental that’s favorable to the image of the organization. It could be that an employee who loves bowling may have excelled in a national competition.

At one bank, an employee was given more than a CEO’s commendation letter when she got a bronze medal in the last Southeast Asian Games. I’ve used this example many times to explain the principle of “self-actualization” — the apex in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Ordinarily, commendation letters are signed by the department head and co-signed by the worker’s immediate boss. The higher the position of the signatories, the better as it lends credibility and significance. That must happen when the achievement is pertinent to one’s particular job and the worker has exceeded many times over the prescribed job requirements.

But tell me, when was the last time you wrote a commendation letter to a deserving employee? I imagine almost never, other than to verbalize or write bland marginal notes like “thank you,” “well done” and “keep it up,” which to me are purely mechanical in nature.

Commendation letters must not be taken for granted by line management. You don’t need much time, money and effort to write it. However, we’ve lost the fine art of writing such commendation letters, mainly due to the allure and convenience of social media.

When you received such praise through the social media, how did you feel? Elated, perhaps, but not for long. That’s because praise on social media has become routine, especially when they are informal and accompanied by emoticons. Such pro-forma expressions are akin to polite applause for ordinary achievement. Nothing more, nothing less.

That means you did something acceptable to management but not enough to merit a well-crafted commendation letter. So what’s missing here? The ideal commendation letter must, first of all, show an incredible amount of sincerity on the part of the signatories. When you receive something like this, it should make you feel elevated.

Therefore, to manifest sincerity in your commendation letter, you must consider the following:

One, be specific about the employee’s accomplishment. In general, it must address what makes this accomplishment stand out compared to the achievements of other employees who are similarly-situated, and how the accomplishments stack up against the actual job expectations, as verified by independent sources, like the accounting department.

Two, emphasize the impact of the achievement. Be clear how it benefited the organization. Say something along the lines of: “Your discovery of a low-cost solution that eliminated oil waste in our operations saved us $3,000 every month or $36,000 a year is very much appreciated by management.

“What was remarkable was the fact that you used the lessons of our recent kaizen problem-solving workshop in making it happen.”

Three, issue the commendation letter as soon as possible. Don’t delay. Delay signifies that such a letter is not important to management. Apply the “hot stove” rule in employee discipline to writing commendation letters — the moment you touch a hot stove, the penalty will be immediate. And every time you touch the stove, the pain will be repeated.

The same should apply to praising people.

Four, write the commendation letter the old-fashioned way. That means issuing a printed, original copy of the letter to the employee, in the presence of other employees in a casual set-up, like in an afternoon pizza party. This signals the importance of the occasion to the receiver and provides a pretext for picture-taking or an item in the company newsletter.

A copy of the letter must be forwarded to the human resource (HR) department for the employee’s file.

Last, don’t encourage false hopes. If you’re elated by an employee’s above-average work performance, don’t be tempted to promise a promotion or a merit increase even if that employee deserves it. Better to keep silent about things that are beyond your authority to grant. Or even if it’s within your authority, unless you intend to act on the promise immediately.

If you’re limited only to giving commendations, it’s best to keep mum as anything coming out of your mouth could be taken the wrong way.


Contact Rey Elbo for his unique program called “Superior Subordinate Supervision” designed as a preventive approach to workplace conflict. Or chat your workplace questions via Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or e-mail them to or via