Webcast Q&A – Boosting Morale and Community: Merck’s Story

August 4, 2022 Aaron Kinne


Merck's Story Recap

Workhuman® recently presented a webcast titled: Boosting Morale and Community: Merck’s Story,” featuring Michaela Leo, director of compensation at Merck, along with Workhuman’s Erica Santos, people analytics consultant, and her colleague, Jennifer Reimert, vice president of solutions consulting.

Drawing on their combined decades of HR expertise, the latest research, and real-world experience at Merck, these thought leaders explored proven methods for building and sustaining the human connections that can help businesses thrive, especially in today’s new reality. Here are some highlights of the compelling themes they discussed:

  • Positivity in times of uncertainty – In times of stress, human connection and gratitude makes us more resilient. Building connections and showing gratitude drives emotional, physical, and social benefits. 
  • The power of communities – Drawing on community detection algorithms from Workhuman research, Merck learned that a single community can represent multiple, cross-functional teams – uniting departments and countries.
  • Recognition and retention – New hires that receive recognition are 5x less likely to leave within the first year; recognizing someone early has a huge impact on their career trajectory.
  • Gratitude drives engagement – Harnessing the power of gratitude impacts engagement in a dramatically positive way.
  • From silos to collaboration – When we talk about collaboration, what we’re really talking about is the transformation from silos to networks, and openly sharing information. 

And now, on to your questions

Because Michaela, Erica, and Jen filled the entire program, they only had time to take just a few questions during the live program. However, they’ve graciously agreed to review and answer some of the questions you submitted online following the event. And while they couldn’t answer them all, here’s a representative sampling:

  1. How do you facilitate peer-to-peer recognition globally? How do you track the engagement level? 

Michaela: We use our monthly newsletter, internal sites, and other communications to remind colleagues of the power of recognition and how easy it is to appreciate each other using our program. 

In our monthly newsletter, sent out in the United States, we have a section on recognition. It’s either a quote or something pertaining to what’s currently happening at the company. There, we remind people of the power of gratitude and the power of recognition, and then point them to our INSPIRE Social Recognition® site.

We also use our intranet site that has a slider banner. It reminds people about the power of recognition – complete with a link to INSPIRE. Also, on our internal HR portal landing page, we have a slider banner at the top. Right now, the slider banner announces that Merck has hit a million recognition moments! We rely heavily on internal branding and internal reminders. 

Now on to the second half of the question: How do we track engagement levels? We’ve had surveys that we launch every other year, and engagement is one of the things we measure. The survey also asks employees for general feedback about rewards, career development, inclusion, and so forth. We use the results of the survey to inform us going forward. 

We’ve seen a 12 percentage-point increase over prior years with employees responding very favorably on our use of recognition. Having INSPIRE as our recognition program has definitely accounted for a significant increase in that favorable rating.

Jen: When talking about facilitating a peer-to-peer recognition program, we should probably also mention the importance of executive buy-in. The tempo starts from the top, and the way to sustain it is to have executive involvement. Michaela, is there any wisdom you could share with respect to what that looks like at Merck. For instance, who has been supportive from senior management?

Michaela: The head of total rewards and one of the VPs of HR were our sponsors for the program from the very beginning: initial discussions, during the RFP, all the way through implementation. And they continue to be our strongest sponsors. Our leaders have definitely been strong proponents of recognition.

  1. After the big launch with your aligned ambassadors, how do you keep the spirit of recognition up throughout the global market, and ensure employees continue to use the Workhuman platform to recognize? 

Michaela: As I mentioned, we use our monthly newsletter and other internal sites and communications to remind colleagues of the power of recognition and how easy it is to appreciate each other using our program.

We reached out to our internal recognition ambassadors right before we hit the one-year mark and got some feedback from them. We then created a short video having employees and ambassadors answer 3-5 questions about INSPIRE. What is it that they like about it? What is their experience with the redemption process? 

We then put together a video and launched it on the one-year anniversary of the program. And we continue to use milestones along the way to keep employees engaged.

We recently celebrated the millionth recognition moment at Merck. To mark the occasion, we reached out to both the nominator and recipient. We got their permission to use their photographs and a brief blurb about them in our newsletter. It enabled us to showcase that milestone recognition moment – and all the ones that came before. 

  1. Is recognition more often peer-to-peer or manager-to-subordinate? If you have the data, can you tell us if recognition is more effective if the recognition comes from above versus from peers? 

Erica: In a strong recognition culture – one where more awards and a greater percentage of the population is receiving recognition – the recognition naturally becomes more peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer awards with monetary value drive greater impact when compared to more traditional manager-driven programs or peer e-thanks (which have no monetary value). 

To leverage the full value of a recognition program, monetary, peer-to-peer awards are necessary. Peer-to-peer awards build connections between employees, and the monetary value associated with them makes an employee feel rewarded, recognized, and keeps them engaged.

A strong peer-to-peer recognition culture is emblematic of a culture where employees feel empowered to recognize their co-workers. At the same time, managers and peers have insight into a range of successful behaviors. That’s because teammates and co-workers are more likely to see the collaborative aspects of their work, while managers see more of the execution and career development. 

When an employee receives recognition from both their direct manager and peers, we see lower turnover when compared to receiving recognition from just one source. The greatest impact and effectiveness results from a combination of manager and peer awards. While the manager is just one person, multiple peers can see a lot more – especially when these moments happen over the course of a full year. Together, they provide a full view of the performance that should be recognized, and they deliver a more holistic awards experience. 

Another point relating to effectiveness and impact: More active participation translates into higher levels of engagement and lower turnover. Employees who are not just receiving, but also giving recognition show lower turnover. When employees both give and receive, they are actively engaging and promoting their company’s culture. And that is the definition of engagement.

  1. Our HR department is showing gratitude during these times – using gift cards, in some instances, just to say, “Thank you.” But there has been some negative feedback from hourly employees. How can we in HR show gratitude without employees thinking it’s not genuine? 

Jen: It is great that HR wants to show gratitude for employees, however recognition cannot be just from HR. It has to involve the crowd. And to be the most successful, it has to be organic and authentic. the way to drive a culture of gratitude is  want to rely solely on a single group of people to be the culture champions. Everyone in your organization is a culture champion.

As we saw in the vast communities that were inside Merck, if you empower people – encourage them to give recognition when they’re working together as members of cross-functional teams – that’s when recognition works best. You’ll avoid negative feedback because the gratitude is genuine. It’s coming from people with whom the employee works – day in and day out. 

Whether I get recognized by a direct manager, by a colleague, by someone who’s on my team, by someone who’s not on my team … the more ways recognition can flow, the better and more effective it will be for all.  And that’s how you keep it authentic.

  1. Michaela, you mentioned there are points and cash incentives that can be added to recognition. Can any employee send points and cash, or is this limited to just management? 

Michaela: Our non-monetary recognition can be given across all levels; anybody can send non-monetary recognition. And likewise, all employees can use our lowest level point award to recognize each other. Then, as we move further up on points and cash, we limit it to people managers and certain management levels.

While we’re on the subject, I’ve also been asked about the value we see in cash versus non-cash recognition. How do they compare in terms of lifting and building engagement?

When we designed this program, we incorporated a points system because we realized we could have lower-value awards available. These could be given more frequently and could drive more peer-to-peer recognition. 

In our previous program, we had just a single base value level. Anything higher than that was just a range. It was not specific to certain types of awards. And there was no consistency in how the awards were given.

With the points awards, it was our intent that people could give recognition more frequently. And it would enable peer-to-peer recognition. 

Those receiving recognition could choose to either spend their points immediately, or bank them to get something more expensive. Perhaps they prefer to use them at certain times of the year – maybe during the holidays. Perhaps they want to get something special for themselves or families. That was the intent behind us having a mix of points and cash.

We believe points are more valuable than cash, and research has also shown that to be the case. There are so many different touchpoints for recognition, including the memory of receiving the award, and using those points to purchase something special. It’s all a reminder of the great work the employee did, and the recognition received for it. In this way, recognition lives longer than cash. Cash awards might simply be included in a paycheck. And for those people who have direct deposit, they might not even see it! Points extend, amplify, and close the gratitude loop.

  1. I love the idea of peer-to-peer recognition. How do you suggest using a similar program for a small business (about 70 employees)? With a smaller pool, could enthusiasm be easily lost?

Erica: It’s really about receiving recognition from both managers and peers, and how engagement is increased when an employee both gives and receives recognition.

We know from the data that employees are much less likely to leave an organization when compared to their unrecognized co-workers. In fact, it can be even easier in a small business to be connected – especially if the circle is smaller and employees are connected to each other every day. 

Certainly, all of that goodwill can get lost when it’s simply a “thanks” over a cube wall. But when small organizations have these moments stored in a system, it allows the positive cycles to flow continuously. And that’s when we see positive impact and true culture change.

Jen: My advice to any small business is this: Recognition is valuable no matter what its scope. I urge you to just get started. It will have an impact, and it doesn’t have to be a large-scale program. The idea is to just get started and empower people. Then measure it and nurture it.

We’ve seen the profound impact recognition can have across all different demographics, industries, salary grades, tenure, job function. It works, no matter what size or type your organization is.

About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.