Employee recognition done right


By Kelly Kass

When Internal Communications Manager Catherine Cox helped to re-brand the Vice-Chancellor’s Awards program at the University of Hertfordshire, little did she know the impressive campaign would wind up winning its own Internal Communications award at the 2008 Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) Awards.

To establish itself as the UK’s leading business university, the University of Hertfordshire had been undergoing a series of changes. On a 21,000 pound budget, the university sought to become an exemplar for other academic institutions in the sector by putting an appropriate structure in place in regards to their mission, values and new brand proposition.

Among the core set of values the university introduced were enjoyment in learning and work, innovation, creativity and professionalism and putting students first.

“The awards were a means of trying to embed some of these elements, rewarding people for going the extra mile and doing it appropriately where it successfully fit our strategy,” Cox explains.


For the University of Hertfordshire, that meant showing employees that their work is valued – no matter what the job – and that everyone had a role to play in delivering the new business strategy. Prior to the re-branding, the Vice-Chancellor’s Awards had only been eligible to academic staff (which comprises fifty per cent of the university population) and little was done to promote or celebrate the honour.

The awards’ re-branding would also be centered around peer nominations, creating a real sense of community for students and employees. For example, students were able to vote for their favorite tutor of the year

There were nine categories in total making up the Vice-Chancellor’s Awards judged by a 9-person panel which represented different areas of the university. Trophies would be presented to one winner and two ‘highly commended’ in each category.

“The whole idea was to create awareness and buzz around the awards – to find examples of best practices and present a positive overview of what was going on at the university. Awards are worth so much more when people are recognized by people they work with.”

Building momentum via multiple channels

Promotion of the awards started in January with a desk drop of ‘Happy New Year’ cards to each employee. Cox and her team included information about the awards and directed people to a website which contained additional info on the awards process, such as the judging selection and the timescale to vote (two months), as well as nomination forms.

From September to December 2007, the university used existing in-house resources to create the site – a microsite of their current website – however they did consult with an outside agency to help build the initial design.

“At the time, we were trying to embed our new re-branding process so we had to put a lot of thought into the design to meet those guidelines. We also wanted the look and feel to appeal to many different audiences.”

She says the university was presented with four different concepts before finally settling on a design.

“We wanted our microsite to exhibit a feel of importance illustrating the value and worthiness of the awards without a lot of gravitas and stuffiness. We sought to create an element of prestige.”


To drive staff and students to nominate qualified candidates, mobile road shows were organized to target highly-trafficked areas at each of the three University of Hertsfordshire campuses. Among the stops on the February tour: reception areas, learning resource centers and student union buildings.

Social Media

To appeal to the Gen Y’ers, the university encouraged students to use Facebook to nominate their favorite candidates. Using the interactive site, students chatted about who their favorite tutors were and why they were voting for them.

Even the Vice-Chancellor himself, Professor Tim Wilson, got into the social media act. On his personal blog, he wrote about the various awards’ entries and also updated readers on the status of the awards campaign.

Again recognizing students as perhaps its strongest resource (and audience), the university placed promotional ads on its radio station and also used Studynet (the university’s virtual learning environment) to inform and educate people about the awards.

“This was a good learning experience for us. Having all these different tools, we didn’t even need to use our printed brochures to promote the awards. We relied strictly on our website and electronic communications.”

The vast promotional efforts resulted in an impressive increase in nominations, jumping to 247 from merely 37 the previous year. Nominees were posted on the microsite in April; each one received congratulatory letters from the Vice-Chancellor while their line managers were also notified of the honour. Then came the short list process in May.

Getting to know you

To generate buzz for those 17 candidates, the university initiated a poster campaign around campus, using storytelling to personalize the nominees. Comprising the text were quotes and testimonials extracted from the nomination forms.

The envelope, please

Come June, it was showtime. Honoured candidates and their line managers took part in the awards ceremony – a lunch attended by 200 staff and hosted by the Vice-Chancellor, celebrating recognition of excellence in the workplace. The diverse group of awards’ recipients included alumni staff honoured for their contributions to the well-being of others in the university community to car park associates who won for their outstanding service in directing traffic around campus. Other lucky recipients were awarded for their excellence in research, international work and business engagement.

Following the luncheon, a garden party was held on campus, this time open to all university staff. 500 employees attended the large-scale event complete with bucks fizz and strawberries and cream.

“It was a real talking point for staff and helped to generate good word-of-mouth about the awards,” Cox remembers.

Four months later, Cox and her team would be sipping more champagne at the PRCA Awards ceremony in London.

“This was the first time they opened the awards to in-house communications teams so we were really pleased. It was a bit surreal and certainly was inspiring for the future.”

On to next year

Promotion for the 2009 Vice-Chancellor’s Awards has already begun. Much like the 2008 campaign, staff and students can expect to see strong use of social media, digital signage, even video.

The School of Education – winners of the 2008 Strategic Business Unit of the Year – will be featured in an upcoming video to be partially shot at an English country estate. Included in the piece will be interviews about their ‘winning ingredients’ as well as a tour of the School of itself. The video is set to be posted on the university’s microsite.

So, will the second time also be the charm for the University of Hertfordshire? Only time will tell but for now, Cox is enjoying her first PRCA Award.

“This win was particularly special for me since I only began working in internal communications eighteen months ago!”

A wise career move indeed.

10 Top Tips for a flawless awards scheme from the simplygoodadvice team:

1) Is the link to overall business goals clear?

Perhaps you want to support values or current priorities, but you always need to make the links obvious – you can’t count on people working it out for themselves.

2) Do leaders really get it?

Invest time not just in getting leadership approval but in getting them to understand their role in promoting the programme and how it works. Senior leaders can easily create or destroy the credibility of an awards scheme so make sure they’re properly on-board – perhaps with the help of a powerful sponsor.

3) How much administration????

Don’t under-estimate the administrative burden that comes with an awards programme. People never fill in the forms properly, the paperwork mounts up no matter how you plan things and leaders ask for endless reports. And whilst no one praises good admin you can bet they’ll notice when it goes wrong.

4) Make the rules and the process as simple as possible – and then simplify some more!

It’s tempting to invent rules so that every whim or worry at head office is anticipated – but the result will be fewer entries or some strange decisions that no one understands. Make sure that the scheme is very clear and set out what people need to do to win with total simplicity.

5) …but it’s always someone from Sales who wins!!!

Look at your judging criteria to make sure that the same awards don’t always go to the same people.

6) Don’t be afraid to have too many

You have to balance administrative concerns with making sure that everyone gets a chance sometime! OK you don’t want to sink to announcing an award for the Tidiest Stationery Cupboard but if you only have two awards for tens of thousands of people once a year, it may not seem relevant to all that many of them.

7) Widen participation

It’s always easy to spot the senior or high profile people who the leadership team want to award prizes to year in an year out. But it’s so much more credible when someone relatively unknown is recognised. Be ready to invest time talking to middle managers and supervisors selling in the scheme and getting them to promote it locally.

8) Make prizes worth winning

You don’t have to give everyone a trip to Barbados but winning should be something to shout about. So make the winning experience special – be that a gala event, a week on the CEO’s yacht or a special edition of the newsletter. It’s surprising how dull some organisations make awards!

9) Senior people care about different things

Beware imposing the tastes or prejudices of senior leaders on the rest of the organisation. That goes for the awards themselves – top bosses may not understand why a tiny change in a factory is so exciting – and for the final prize – your CEO might not understand how a team dinner in a local Pizza Hut is actually quite good fun!

10) Communicate

The value of awards is in showing everyone what matters in your organisation so plan the exploitation carefully. Think about profiles of the finalists before the winners are announced, case studies of the winning entries and “how winning changed my life” stories when you launch the scheme next year.