How To Recognize Employee's Contributions

March 1, 2018

After reading Why I Quit Google to Work for Myself, I find it quite mind-boggling that an innovative company which appreciates talents can’t get employee retention right. TL-DR of the post:

  • Promotion evaluation is done by a committee who didn’t know you personally
  • All contribution must be measurable/recorded in order for it to recognized
  • Highly focus on involvement with high impact projects
  • When you are recognized as top 5% of the employees, you still don’t get promoted

The main takeaway is when a company created KPIs for promotion, everyone would optimize for the KPIs (gaming the system). If the KPIs are “incorrect”, it will motivate the employees to focus on the wrong things.

There must be a few better ways to recognize employee’s contributions.

Measure the good things: Not just one set of KPIs

A company needs many good things to thrive, so there shall never be one set of perfect KPIs. There should be a different set of KPIs to evaluate all the good things which shall make the company better, financially and culturally. A company should focus on:

  • Contribution to high impact projects
  • Ability to make existing system better: reduce work (simplify or automation), increase performance, increase stability, etc.
  • Willingness to maintain boring and painful legacy system. Everyone loves to work on new shiny projects, but not many are willing to sacrifice for this.
  • Helpfulness: we don’t want to motivate a selfish culture where everyone only cares about their own projects as sometimes we need cross-projects collaboration to make something work. When helpfulness occurred, it shall be noted.
  • Positive energy: there shall always be that someone who is not a high performer, but other people are happier and more productive with him or her around. This person wields the magic to jell the team together.

Star Merit: Promotion is not the only recognition or reward

It is strange that we tie promotion as the only recognition of employee’s contributions. The problem with a promotion is that it usually involve a change of role or scope of work. When someone is promoted to Senior, they are expected to lead the juniors. When someone is promoted to team lead or manager, they spend less time on the work they are most competent at. At the very least, we should allow promotions to position without a major change of role.

Bonus or increment is a nice reward, but it doesn’t have the social recognition that comes with a promotion. Though a lot of us would appreciate more money without increase of responsibility or workload.

Beside promotion and monetary rewards, I would suggest a merit system with awards. Rather than waiting for yearly promotion interview, managers or colleagues would quarterly recommend a Star review for someone based on earlier KPIs (e.g. I would recommend a star to John for his helpfulness, attaching my explanation and reasoning). A person who received a star recommendation from more than 50% of his or her team members would receive an official star (maybe each star would entitle some small perks). At the end of the year, we would give awards to employees with the most stars (e.g. Most Helpful 2018 Employee, Most Loveable, Most Energetic, Most Innovative, etc).

In-house Scout: A third party observer perspective

If the company is big enough (such a Google), it should employ scouts within the company whose main job is to go around the company to understand the challenges faced by each project. They would try to identify what are the bottlenecks, who are the positive and negative contributors, and how to improve the projects.

Employees should not know who the scouts are, else they would spend their time trying to impress the scouts. Scouts should work on each project for at least 3 months in order to have a deeper understanding of the projects and the people involved. As scouts are involved in various projects, they have a better grasp on which project and who is performing relatively better. Scout report their findings into a system, which is used to compare with the report sent by the project manager to check for discrepancies.

An alternative to scout is to rotate new employees between projects every 3 months for 1 years as part of onboarding process, where they are required to submit their evaluation and findings for each projects (anonimity is allowed). New staffs tends to be more observant and yet to be numbed by the bureaucracy and corporate limitations.

A system of multiple parties to decide on your promotion

Promotion should not be the sole responsibility of a committee whose main job is not to recognize employee’s contribution (these people just carve some time out of their busy schedule to participate in the committee which they might not like). The committee doesn’t know you in person and depends on how well you can sell yourself within an hour, which gives more advantage to an extrovert personality. Having the final decision made solely by the committee seems like a pretty flawed system by design.

I would suggest a 3 party system comprising of Committee (Higher Management), Scout (Colleague) and Manager (Middle Management). If you get a 2 Yes out of 3, you shall be entitled to a promotion.


It would be very strange for a company not exploring innovative new ways to increase employee retention by recognizing the employee’s contributions. There might not be a straightforward answer, but there are many rooms for alternative experiments which could go in parallel with the existing system. The question is, does your company care?

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