Brain power

Peer recognition programs carry risks at work

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

In dynamic and ever-evolving professional settings, employers are always on the hunt for innovative approaches to acknowledge employees within the workplace.

Nevertheless, recent findings1 from the University of Waterloo indicate that public peer recognition, while well-intentioned, may inadvertently trigger unfavorable consequences. The study suggests that the facilitation of comparisons among employees through such recognition can lead certain individuals to perceive themselves as being subjected to unjust treatment.

“Employers have sought out various peer recognition systems in an effort to promote employee helping behavior,” the researcher explains. “When employees feel that they deserve recognition from their peers but do not receive it, employees can conclude that they are unfairly treated, and this makes employees less willing to help other co-workers, not only the co-worker they feel treated them unfairly.”

Unfair situations

In practical terms, situations perceived as unfair by employees can arise when there are discrepancies in defining the criteria for behavior worthy of acknowledgment during public peer recognition. Furthermore, some employees may exhibit a tendency to offer recognition exclusively to those with whom they share close relationships.

To delve deeper into this phenomenon, a research endeavor conducted within a three-employee context—the recognizer, the helper, and the worker—examines the impact of peer information divulged through peer recognition systems on subsequent willingness to assist.

The study employs a scenario where both the helper and the worker extend their aid to the recognizer, yet only the helper receives recognition from the recognizer. Notably, the worker demonstrates a diminished willingness to assist both the recognizer and the helper when perceiving their initial assistance to surpass that of the helper.

Willingness to help

Conversely, the worker exhibits a higher level of willingness to help the helper when perceiving their initial assistance as being less than that of the helper. Evidently, the worker’s reduced inclination to aid the helper stems from a reciprocal response to the recognizer’s failure to provide recognition.

These findings represent the inaugural empirical evidence highlighting the adverse ramifications of peer recognition systems on helping behavior. They carry significant implications for employers seeking to implement peer recognition strategies within the workplace. Although peer recognition is often advocated as a tool to foster a more altruistic attitude among employees, this study underscores the importance of vigilance among managers regarding the potential drawbacks associated with its implementation.

“The research provides a first step in cautioning managers about a potential unintended consequence of using public peer recognition, and that is the perceived unfairness that reduces helping behavior,” the author concludes. “It may be helpful for managers to communicate with their employees and come up with some agreed-upon guidelines on what should be recognized via public peer recognition and what does not need to be recognized via public peer recognition.”

Article source: Peer Recognition Programs Carry Risks At Work.

Header image source: Marco Verch on Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


  1. Wang, P. (2023). When Peer Recognition Backfires: The Impact of Peer Information on Subsequent Helping Behavior. Accounting Perspectives.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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