FORTUNE — Employee appreciation may seem common in corporate America. Almost 80% of employers offer some kind of employee recognition program, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Yet workers feel unappreciated — a whopping 71% are disengaged, according to Gallup. What gives?
“When I talk to workers about their employee recognition programs, there’s a lot of disdain and cynicism,” says Paul White, a Wichita-based psychologist and co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. “They distinguish between authentic appreciation and going through the motions.”
Employers and managers may think they’re showing gratitude for the contributions of their staff, but more often than not, those thanks are not heard or believed. If you’re trying to bridge the gap this Thanksgiving, you can start with these steps recommended by White and other experts on workplace thanks.
Make it personal
Employers like to brag about the $25 gift cards they give to their employees, or staff celebrations and team-building exercises. But for a thank-you to be perceived as meaningful, it should be specifically connected to the recipient, her preferences, and her accomplishments.
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“The number one thing that will make you successful in gratitude is really knowing the person or team that’s going to be thanked,” says April Kelly, Omaha-based author of Gratitude at Work: How to Say Thank You, Give Kudos, and Get the Best From Those You Lead.
Rebecca Blouin, marketing lead at Burlington, Mass.-based Davies Murphy Group, recently received a summons to an off-site meeting with her team, only to show up to a wine-fueled lunch at Legal Seafood and a $500 debit card for each team member, on the company. “It was a great gesture: heartfelt, kind, and a good surprise,” Blouin recalls, noting that the 10 women on the team all love shopping and dining. “It was spot-on for the group of people. We all ended up in Nordstrom’s at the shoe area and there was not one person complaining.”
Similarly, when John McManus was looking for a way to thank one of the wealth advisors at his estate and tax-planning firm for pushing through a recent deluge of work, he decided on a trip to Le Chateau Frontenac, a Quebec hotel that captures the Old World charm of Europe. The employee has children the same age as McManus’, who loved their own Canadian vacation, and she met her Europe-born husband in a similarly charming venue: Prague. “That connection had even more meaning to her,” McManus says.
Speak the same language
White’s co-author Gary Chapman identified five “love languages” that resonate differently with different individuals: words, time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. In the same way people prefer one or two language types in personal relationships, they do in the workplace as well.
“If you got thanks and appreciation in all the ways but the ones you prefer, over time you’d still feel a little bit hollow,” White explains. Employers should avoid loading up their employee appreciation programs with gifts and words, while forgetting the other three languages. That even applies to physical touch, kept within appropriate workplace bounds, of course.
Someone who prefers to be appreciated through acts of service would simply get angry if she received praise but no help with a heavy workload. For instance, White heard a story from a woman in billing who was buried with paperwork. A colleague spent her lunch hour helping return phone calls. “The gal that was the recipient said, ‘It wasn’t that big a deal, but it was nice to know somebody cared and saw that I was stressed,’ ” he recalls.
But just because appreciation is in the right “language” doesn’t mean a gift should be generic. Someone who values time may enjoy watching sports with a supervisor — or dread it like the plague. You still need to tailor the gesture to the individual or team in question.
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A team of librarians or administrative assistants may not necessarily enjoy receiving public recognition in front of a large group of people, while a sales force is more likely to relish the spotlight, White notes.
Make it regular
It’s not enough to have a summer picnic and holiday party and consider your employees thanked. You should build into the weekly and monthly routine some regular methods of appreciating colleagues, subordinates, and supervisors.
When Kelly was leading a new call center for LinkedIn
, she carved time out of her schedule to thank her staff. She sent text messages to the younger workers and handwritten cards to older employees. And she stayed late many evenings leaving personalized voice mails acknowledging how individual people contributed to the team, so the thanks would be the first thing they heard the next morning. “I knew the first thing they would do the next day was log into their voice mails,” she says.
Whenever possible, connect the appreciation with something specific the individual did and how it contributed to a positive outcome.
“A global attaboy or ‘good job’ doesn’t cut it. You have to talk about what they’ve done specifically and how it impacts you or the organization or the customer,” White says.
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Instead of thanking someone for showing up on time every day, connect the actions to the character and values that the action demonstrates. “Say, ‘I really value that you are dependable; I know you’re going to be here,’ ” White suggests.
Over time, careful attention to how and how often thanks are delivered can turn around even a poisonous corporate culture. “It’s rampant, the amount that people don’t feel valued and appreciated,” White says.