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'Recognition is more important than ever for our wellbeing' – Debra Corey – Chief 'Pay it Forward' Officer at DebCo HR Ltd

28 Nov 2022

The people behind the voices:

Debra Corey

Chief 'Pay it Forward' Officer at DebCo HR Ltd.

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

The Employee Experience Podcast Season 2 Ep. 2

‘Recognition is more important than ever for our wellbeing’ – Debra Corey – Chief ‘Pay it Forward’ Officer at DebCo HR Ltd

This week’s guest on The Employee Experience Podcast is Debra Corey, Chief ‘Pay it Forward’ Officer at DebCo HR Ltd.

65% of people haven’t felt appreciated at work in the past year. 74% would continue working for their employer if they received more recognition. These are some of the statistics Debra Corey shared with Gillian in this week’s episode. 

But what are these numbers actually telling us? How crucial is employee recognition and appreciation to the employee experience – and how is that evolving? 

“Forget about the numbers and just look at us as human beings. Of course we want to be valued and be seen at work. Fundamentally it’s important.” 

Recognition is one of the most crucial aspects of a positive employee experience. To make an impact, leaders will need to get better at practising empathy and understanding, build recognition into their company’s core values, prioritize human connection, and invest in the right support tools.

“Everyone needs to wear their recognition glasses – whether that’s your managers, your leaders, or your peers; that’s when the magic happens. It doesn’t work if it’s only managers.”

Listen back now to learn how leaders can recognize their teams in the right ways and at the right time, why a lack of recognition can contribute to employee burnout, the key differences between appreciation and recognition, and more…

About The Employee Experience Podcast

The Employee Experience Podcast, hosted by Gillian French, is the podcast series for leaders pursuing innovative ideas to engage and connect with their employees. Listen to trailblazers across internal comms, employee engagement, and HR share the best ways to connect with employees, build healthy cultures, and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential.

Guests so far on Season 2 of The Employee Experience Podcast include:

  • Jane Datta, Chief Human Capital Officer at NASA, on employee experience, connection & leadership
Full Transcript

Gillian French (00:02):
Hi. I’m Gillian French from Workvivo. You’re very welcome to the Employee Experience Podcast. We speak to leaders and HR professionals on how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures, and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their full potential.

On this week’s episode of Employee Experience Podcast, I talk with Debra Corey. Debra Corey has over 20 years’ experience as an award-winning and respected HR leader at global organizations such as Gap Inc., Merlin Entertainment, and Reward Gateway. She made the move from corporate roles to set up her own business, DebCo HR Ltd, with the role of ‘Chief Pay It Forward Officer’. She speaks and provides assistance on a wide variety of topics relating to employee engagement, culture, reward: and recognition. She is also the author of four bestselling books: Appreciate it!: The Playbook for Employee Recognition, Bringing Your Values Out to Play, Build It: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement, and Effective HR Communication, where she has shared her expertise and learnings to help and inspire others.

So Debra, amazing to have you on the show. I’ve followed your work and have been very, very interested in what you’ve been doing over the past 15, 20 years. I was involved with you in your book Build It, which I loved contributing to. And I love the way you write, because sometimes when you read books it’s just the author’s perspective. But I love the way you go off and speak to lots of organizations and get different views and have lots of examples.

And to this day, I still hold it, oh, you can’t actually see it. Can you see it now? Build it. Yeah, yeah, I have my copy here, because whenever I sit down to do something or think about something, I pull it out and I have a sit down and I re-read some of the sections over and over again. So it’s a book I’ve kept with me many times over the years. And now I have your new book, Appreciate it!, which again is amazing because it gives you great frameworks, and then you have loads of plays, where you’ve lot of different perspectives from different companies. So well done, you, is what I want to say, and I really, really do enjoy your books.

Debra Corey (02:09):
Thank you. I actually have a book in between. I’m a bit of a masochist. My co-author from Build It, Glenn Elliott, he’s like, “You’re just a writing machine.” And it’s because I love it. You talked about, Gillian, how you like how my books are not just my perspective. And when I write a book, I sort of look at it from two perspectives, “What can I learn?” Because I’m an HR person, so, “What are the things that I need to learn to make me better at my job?” And then, “What can I share from all my years of experience?” And try to get that balance right. And I love it so much that it’s like I finish a book, maybe wait a year, and then I start working on it. As a matter of fact, my Appreciate it! just came out in March and I’m already working on a book coming out in October.

Gillian French (02:56):
All right. Yeah.

Debra Corey (02:56):

Gillian French (03:03):
No, they’re great. They really, really are good and well done, and they’re a great help to everyone out there. So, you’re a really great HR thought leader, so delighted to have you on the show. So I’ll get straight into it. Some of the perspective I wanted to look at today is obviously the book Appreciate it! What sort of was the inspiration around writing it now? Did you see something happening with everything that was going on with Covid? Were people coming back to you? Because I know you asked people, “What playbook would you like to see next?” What prompted you to write Appreciate it!?

Debra Corey (03:29):
Well, first of all, I am on a mission to write a book or at least something on each of the 10 elements of the Engagement Bridge, which is from Build It.

Gillian French (03:38):
Definitely, yeah.

Debra Corey (03:39):
And as far as how do I decide which one to write, at what point in time, I get to the point where sort of two things are happening. One is I see in the marketplace the data is just not where it needs to be. So for example, when it comes to recognition, one piece of data I saw was 65% of people have not been appreciated in the last year and don’t feel appreciated. Or 87% of people feel that their recognition program is stale or outdated or disguised compensation. So there’s a problem. So people like us aren’t necessarily getting it right. And I thought, “Part of the reason we are not getting it right is we maybe don’t have enough information on how to do it right.”

And there’s a model that I’ve been helping companies with for years, I’ve used it myself. And these, what I call them, the Golden Rules. Again, I’ve been using them for years and I thought, “Well, why don’t I just get those things out there?” And as you said, the stories, half of my book are stories. The easy part is writing my bit. The hard part is researching it and finding great companies to include in the book. And I thought, “This is the time. We need it now.” Recognition is more important now than ever before.

Gillian French (04:50):
Yeah, because I read that stat. I think I heard 60% of people, and I think now with the new landscape of people’s some being hybrids, some remote, fully remote, it is really, really challenging for leaders and organizations to ensure that people… Even when they were in the office, it was difficult to make sure that you were doing it in the right way. But now, with having such a sporadic landscape, it’s really, really difficult for leaders to ensure that they are recognizing their employees and recognizing them at the right time.

Debra Corey (05:22):
And I think there’s even different reasons. So there’s all the reasons that we used to do recognition before, but you’re absolutely right, Gillian. Things like we need to recognize our people so that they know we see them. In a world where we’re not working the same shifts, we might not be working the same offices, recognition is the way to say, “I see you. You’re doing a good job.” Which we might not have thought of.

Also, another reason that I think recognition is more important than ever is because of our wellbeing, which we’re all on a mission to support wellbeing. And it’s a way of supporting our people so that they get that feedback, they’re not worried, look over the shoulder. I’m sure we’ve all been there before, where you’re not getting feedback and you spend all your time being stressed or you get burned out because you’re not getting the feedback. So two areas that are more important now than ever before that I’m not saying recognition on its own will solve, but it’s a key contributor.

Gillian French (06:14):
Yeah. And you actually highlight in your book as well that there’s a difference between appreciation and recognition. I think that would be good to actually say for our listeners who are listening, what your definition of recognition really is and appreciation.

Debra Corey (06:27):
Well, it’s funny, because in my research I got a bit funny reading all the ways that people define the words and even things like gratitude and appreciation. And some people adamantly do not believe that appreciation and recognition are the same. Personally, and it’s the same thing when I wrote Build It, you probably remember. It’s like, “I don’t care if you call it employee engagement, just do it.” And I feel the same way about gratitude, appreciation, recognition.

To me, the appreciation is more about how you feel. And I start my book out talking about we need to really just focus on that feeling of appreciation. And to me, recognition is the mechanism to get there. So you recognize someone and then the output, the outcome, is appreciation. Similar to employee engagement; employee engagement is the outcome, and all the things that you do like recognition and everything else, is the input. But I like things really simple. I know a lot of books get really complicated. And I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but for someone like me who just likes to simplify it and then just move on and fix it, it works for me.

Gillian French (07:28):
Yeah. No, I love that. And I think in one of your books as well and you say, “Look. 70% of our employees are disengaged. 30 are engaged, that means 70 aren’t. So we’re doing a lot of things wrong. So just get on it and sort it out.”

But on the topic of recognition, do you think there’s a strong correlation between sort of the Great Resignation, about people, we’re talking about emotional connection now and people feeling emotionally connected to the business. Do you think that recognition is a key component that organizations and leadership have gotten wrong over the past couple of years?

Debra Corey (08:00):
Absolutely. And I’ll start with data again and then we can talk more about the philosophy behind it, but two pieces of data that I read about that. One is that 74% of people said that they would stay at their company longer if they were recognized. And I read a similar survey that said something like 80 something percent of people said that one of the key contributors for why they left was a lack of appreciation. And then, another survey looked at what was most important to people. And higher than pay, higher than training, higher than getting promotion, was recognition. So statistically, it’s something that people are saying that they want or they’ll walk out the door. But if you really just forget about the numbers and you just look at us as human beings, of course we want to be valued, of course we want to be seen, of course we want to have our organizations show us that they care and that we make a difference. So just fundamentally, I think it’s important.

I don’t know if you remember, but in Build It, I loved the very last part of the chapter, because my co-author Glenn had his mother read our book, and he said, “What do you think about it?” And she said, “Glenn,” I can’t do a northern accent but, “Glenn, isn’t this everything I taught you when you were a child?” And when it comes to recognition, it’s, “I taught you as a child to say thank you. I taught you as a child that it’s the thought, not the gift.” So those types of things we’ve all been brought up knowing that it’s important. And then, for some reason in the corporate world we don’t always get it right.

Gillian French (09:32):
And do you think as well there’s this busy trap where we’re just so busy all the time and we’re kind of going through the motions and getting through to the next thing. We’ve become very transactional, that these things have become less important. It’s kind of onto the next thing. And I think there’s actually a cultural thing in Ireland we’ve talked about as well, where we’re a little bit, don’t get too open yourself or too overly… And just move on to the next thing. I’d love to know your thoughts on that.

Debra Corey (10:00):
Yeah. I think a couple things that have held us back, and I’m just thinking of all the hurdles I had in different companies throughout my career putting it in place. And I think it was a misunderstanding of what recognition was. I think that a lot of people, when we first started doing it, and it probably was like this, it was just a bit touchy feely.

I can remember going to one of my managing directors and I wanted to put in recognition and they said to me, “Isn’t that what commission is for?” Well, what happens when the person doesn’t get the sale? What about all the work, where they did a really good job and you still want to thank them? It’s like, “Well, why? They didn’t get the sale type thing.

So I think part of the reason that we’re a bit slow in some companies is that there still is that mentality, which is why I think I have at least five pages, no actually, I’ve got a whole chapter in the book of why recognition is important, not because people like us need to know, because we know why it’s important, but so that the next time you have a CEO or an MD like I’ve had, you can show them, “Okay, these are the financial reasons why it’s important.” And then, even get into different things like wellbeing and everything like that. So yeah, I think that’s one of the things that’s slowed us down.

Gillian French (11:07):
Yeah. And I think that is one of the misconceptions, is that putting money behind it sorted that. “They’ve gotten a big massive bonus. What else do they need?” Or even if they don’t, as you said there, that’s enough. But money really, your research also shows, and I know this myself, in a lot of cases, it doesn’t matter to a significant volume of your employee base. It’s not the motivator for them. And I think that again is something that’s been lost in translation over the years.

Debra Corey (11:36):
Absolutely. And there’s one statistic, you can tell I like numbers, there’s one statistic from a study that said 72% of people said, “a simple thank you.” And it’s interesting because I told you I’m working on my next book. So my next book is taking Appreciate it! and turning it into something for managers. Because I spend a lot of time going into companies and doing workshops with them on recognition, and they’re like, “Ooh, can we get Appreciate it!?” It’s like, “No, it’s not really for you.”

And one of the chapters in the book is all about those no-cost or low-cost informal things that you can do. And it’s really fascinating, because I just did a session last week with a bunch of managers. And I got them in groups, and I said, “Talk about the things that you’re doing to informally recognize.” And I love this one story. This one person, she got up and she said, “I make sure that I use everyone’s name. I go out my way to learn everyone’s name.” And this is hospitality. They’ve got a lot of employees. “I know their names. I use their names. And it shows my employees that I care enough to do that.” And I thought, “Perfect. That’s going in the book.” Because it can be as simple as that.

Gillian French (12:45):
I remember when I started years ago in CarTrawler, and as it got bigger, more and more and I really wanted to know everyone’s name, I found disingenuous as a CPO if I didn’t. As so then I’d have to get Google Glasses or something over time, so it would come up on my screen who everyone was so I’d know a little bit about them. But yeah, I put a huge focus. I think that’s really, really important and makes a difference that people feel that you know their name, you know a little something about them.

And that costs nothing. And that’s the bit that confuses me sometimes. And I don’t know whether it’s are those leaders that sometimes are looking at recognition, those things don’t mean anything to them? Maybe they’re just oriented or motivated by money; therefore, they can’t understand why a note or something else like that would matter to someone else. And maybe in some cases that is true, that for some people it is just about money. But really, again the data, as you said you love numbers, it shows that it’s the smaller things.

Debra Corey (13:45):
So I love what you said about peer-to-peer recognition. I call this a crowdsourcing approach to recognition, and I’m absolutely passionate about it. I write about it. I talk about it in workshops. And the reason why I think it’s so important is that one of the reasons why a lot of people aren’t recognized is because we’re missing these recognition moments. So I always challenge people and say, “Everyone needs to wear your recognition glasses.” And if everyone’s wearing your recognition glasses, whether that’s your managers, your leaders, or your peers, as you said, that’s when the magic is going to happen. So no, I’m glad you pointed that out, because personally, I don’t think it works if it’s only managers. I think managers lead the way, inspire, role model it, but then we all do it together.

Gillian French (14:30):
Yeah. And I think it’s scarce today. My son came home from school and I was talking to you, so my antenna are up, listening to things. But he came in, I was like, “What’s wrong with you?” He was wasn’t very happy. And he said, “Well, it’s coming to the end of the year and the teachers are after picking out of sort of 28 guys in the class, five that are the best students.” And he goes, “Well, we were all chatting about it.” And four or five of the lads, they’re happy about. Well, one of them they’re not happy about. He did not deserve it. And I was like, “Okay.” And they were all talking about in the yard. And then again it got me thinking about recognition and the fact that when we reward people, ensuring as well that they’re the right people and not the wrong people and is lined up at your values. And you talk about that in the book too, but I thought it was interesting that he literally walked in the door before I came up to talk to you today.

Debra Corey (15:19):
Perfect timing.

Gillian French (15:20):
And he was quite disgruntled.

Debra Corey (15:22):
It is. And I use a couple, they’re very sophisticated terms, so I apologize for this. But I call it the eye-rolling factor, because I’ve seen it so many times where, “Oh, so-and-so’s winning an award” and everyone just rolls their eyes. And I’m on a bit of a mission to challenge people on this whole winners and losers. I’m not saying that you can’t have winners, but I think you need to challenge yourself, “Does it make sense to have winners or do I not?”

So for example, in the book I interviewed Chelsea Football Club. And they’ve got a quarterly award, and the way that they decide the winners is anybody who meets the criteria. So one quarter it might be five people, another quarter it might be 50 people. And to me, it just seems a bit more fair and it seems more genuine. So I don’t know about you, Gillian, but I’ve been part of committees before where we have to pick the winners and oh, it’s never obvious.

Gillian French (16:19):

Debra Corey (16:19):
Like your son, is that person, that sixth person, the right person to win? And is it worth it? If it’s sports and it’s a race, yes, you’ve got a clear winner.

Gillian French (16:29):
Yeah. And he’s disgruntled. He will get over it and he’ll head back into school tomorrow. But I think he’ll be a bit more demotivated. And I think you know really do, and it can be tiny things like I’ve seen in organizations where they’ve run awards and they said, “the best team” and they’ve actually called it Best Beam award. And then, everyone was like, “Oh. They’re the best team” or “this is.” And people… So it can be tiny things like that that really do motivate.

And I had a conversation on a previous podcast with Margaret Hepburn about competition and how she really views that competition should be, of course, kept to sports. But then, when you have competition in the workplace, there’s only a couple of winners and that’s not really great. So you have 90 or 95% feeling like losers in a sense. And running a business like that or your life like that, it’s very different to sports and we shouldn’t be trying to run life or work like sports.

Debra Corey (17:22):
Well, it’s interesting because I did competitive gymnastics, and maybe it’s just a different type of competition, and you compete against yourself, because you do the best that you can, you get the best score, you go up against someone else. If they get the best score then they’re the better person.

But in the book I actually, I was obsessed with MasterChef Australia when I was writing the book. I don’t know if you remember this part. And I love how they do the whole winners and losers, because although there’s ultimately a winner, I just think they just do it in such a lovely way. So there’s lots of different ways to win. If you’ve ever watched it, you know you can win in a mystery box or you can win in a group challenge, or you can win on something else. So it’s different people. You can definitely tell who wins. And even when you lose, you feel like you’re a winner, because they’re like, “This was amazing. Maybe next time you need to put a bit more salt in” or something like that. So I encourage everyone watch MasterChef Australia and learn from their lovely judges because I think they’re nice.

Lisa (18:25):
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Gillian French (18:55):
After all of your research and talking to all the companies that you did, what was the one stand out for you, or what do you think if you were to give a piece of advice to, say, a HR professional or CEO listening into this, what piece of advice would you give them regarding recognition?

Debra Corey (19:16):
I think a couple of things. What was really interesting is, so in my book I use a model called the Recognition Pyramid. And without going into too much detail, it basically has four levels, which are just my way of just categorizing different things for doing in recognition. And what was really interesting for the 36 companies that I interviewed, and I share their pyramids, they’re all different. And that was one of the goals of my book. I did not want everybody with the same four levels of the pyramid, the same types of programs. And I think the biggest lesson is that we all need to take a step back, challenge ourself as to why we’re recognizing. What are we trying to do? I give 15, 20 reasons for doing recognition. Which are the ones that make the most sense? Look at our culture and see what’s going to work.

And also, look at, I call them the steps of the Recognition Pyramid. What are the different things that you can actually do that should be recognized? When I’m in a company, what I do is I do a say/do exercise, again, not very sophisticated, where I get everyone in a room and we get Post-its and we’re like, “What are all the different things that you can do that should be recognized?” And it really helps you figure out how many different levels. If you think about a ladder. If you do this that has this scope and impact, is there another step in the ladder that’s here, or is there two more above it? Because in some companies there’s not that much difference. You can do something that helps one customer, you can do something that helps a hundred and that’s it

Other companies, and I’m sure the same with you, Gillian, where it’s a really complex company, there’s lots of different divisions, different countries, different products, you could end up with a lot of steps. So LinkedIn for example, just within one level they have seven different plans because it made sense for them. So I guess the simple answer is make sure you’re doing it strategically and then do it in your own way.

One of the other reasons I really wanted to write this book on recognition is I wanted a fun project. I wanted to write a book that was fun, and recognition is probably one of my most favorite things to do in the world. I love designing recognition programs because you can have fun. You can play around, you can try it for six months, try something else for six months. So maybe we need to be a little less serious about it. I’ve got some examples in the book that I put out there because they’re not serious. Like KFC, their Chief People Officer gives out a Culture Vulture award, which is basically goes to a pet shop and buys a squeaky toy that looks like a vulture. I think he said it costs three pounds, 99 and he sends it to you. Can you imagine getting that from the Chief People Officer?

Gillian French (21:58):
Yeah. But they’re fun and they’re good. And you know what it represents and you know what it stands for once you’re linked to the culture, and means a lot. I really like though, as well, and that’s why I like the way you write your books is because one size doesn’t fit all. That’s what I learned when I studied HR. One size does not fit all. So I always see people kind of searching for frameworks or what are other organizations doing. And of course, it’s great to do that, but you do have to think of the context of your own organization, at what stage of growth it is, what business line it’s in, and what your people want. And engage your people in the process as well, because they’re going to tell you what’s working, what’s not working. I love one of the companies you were telling me they were giving out watches for service, and then they saw them on eBay. They were being sold on eBay.

Debra Corey (22:45):
Yeah. We thought we were being really clever, and we hired this amazing designer in New York City. And we had these gorgeous… I still have my watch. And yeah, we had some people that sold it on eBay, because the whole idea was “thank you for your time.” And it was great, but it was the days before companies were learning about how you need to give people choice and everything like that. But I love that story because you’re right, it’s a perfect example of how it’s not the right thing.

Another example I’ve been sharing also is I think it’s really important when you get into reward and recognition is aligning the effort and impact with the reward. And you don’t have to have a lot of money to do it, but you need to think about going back to that feeling. So this one company, a healthcare company, what they did is they wanted to give their healthcare workers something for going above and beyond, and they got them coffee vouchers, which I love because you get out of the hospital, you don’t have to drink hospital coffee, you get coffee. And all the people at the coffee shop knew it, so you’d get the voucher, you’d feel great. You’d go into the coffee shop, you’d feel great because the person congratulates you. But then, some of the feedback that they got was, “I saved a person’s life and I get a cup of coffee.”

Gillian French (24:03):
Totally getting it.

Debra Corey (24:04):
So you can never get it perfect. And you know what? They got that feedback, they changed it, absolutely fine. They went out, they did it for the right reasons, get feedback, move on. But it’s always constantly checking and making sure that it still aligns.

Gillian French (24:19):
Yeah. No, I think that’s so important in anything you do, is keep sense checking with the people. But I think the reason you probably do love recognition as I do too, is that lovely feeling that you give to other people, that warm kind of fuzzy feeling when recognition is done and recognize that people just… You can see it in them that you’re doing something nice for somebody else and making their day.

Debra Corey (24:43):
Yeah. And it’s a win/win/win. So it’s a win for the person when you recognize them. I don’t know about you, but it’s a win for me when I give it. You know how in recognition happiness chemicals are released? So there’s three happiness chemicals and they’re released when you’re recognized. I genuinely believe that they’re also released in the giver, because I feel amazing giving it. And then, the third win is it’s a win for the company, because you’re getting people who are more productive, more engaged, everything like that. So yeah, how many things do you have that have a win/win/win? Not that many. Yeah.

Gillian French (25:19):
And also, I loved in your book about you saying, and again keeping it simple, but empowering employees, so you don’t put too many barriers or too many approval lines, that you can actually empower people to give, say, sort of vouchers. And there’s not this big long approval process. So by the time it’s done then that they’ve lost the goodness, which I think was another great tip and I’ve seen that work.

Debra Corey (25:44):
Well, I’m going to show the human side of me. So although I write books, I am the first to admit that I get it wrong quite often. And when I was at the company with Glenn, who I wrote Build It with, we were putting in a recognition program. And it was an award that you would get where I gave everybody 12 a year, and in the UK I think it was worth 10 pounds. So you could give 12 of these throughout the year. It was valued at 10 pounds that the person could then spend on the recognition platform. And I was all ready to do what I had done at every other company I’d worked at, which was it had to go through HR to sign off on it.

And Glenn, who was my CEO and the biggest rebel in the world goes, “Deb, what are you doing?” And this was in the middle of writing Build It. “We’re in the middle of writing a book about being a rebel and doing things differently. Why are you doing this?” And I said, “Glenn, I just don’t trust.” He goes, “Why don’t you trust your people?” I’m like, “I trust my people.” I said, “.I’m not sure I trust me,” because I had a global workforce. I’m like, “I don’t trust myself to be able to get it out there and make sure everybody understands it. And I don’t want them to misuse it in the wrong way.”

And when he finished laughing, because my first book I wrote was on communications, he goes, “Deb, just do it.” And do you know what? I’m so glad he said that. It worked well. If anything, I had to convince my people to use it because they were so precious about it because it was theirs to give. And to me, I share that story even though it’s embarrassing all the time, because I do think we need to get out of our comfort zone.

Gillian French (27:18):

Debra Corey (27:19):
And just try things differently. It would have slowed the whole process. It would not have worked as well, absolutely.

Gillian French (27:25):
But it goes back to when you were saying about Glenn’s mother reading the book and, “That’s everything I taught you.” I do think we have to give employees… They go, they have their lives, they cook their dinner and they go. They are capable of understanding and not misusing. But I think over the years, and I say this myself as well from years of HR, sometimes you’re like, “Okay. Well, the auditors, will they be okay with this? Or how will they feel if I do a bunch of… And will the managers be happy with this?” But really, it’s kind of go back to your human nature and say, “Look guys, just do the right thing. We’re empowering you.” And my experience to date is that 99.999% of people do the right thing. But we tend to policy make for the bottom percentage that kind of do misuse from now and then, whereas the majority of people are innately good and will do what you need them to do. And it is, it’s like taking those stabilizers off and just going for it.

Debra Corey (28:23):
Yeah. And Gillian, I’m glad you said that, because that’s something that we wrote about in Build It. And to me, I always think about that when I’m doing things. Don’t design it for that 1%, because you’ve been in HR long enough to know, and I’ve seen this myself, that 1% are not going to waste their time spending the 10 pounds. That 1% are going to be doing things like, and this happened to me once, somebody setting up a fake company and putting money through the fake company. These 1% are not going to waste their time on the little things that we’re worried about. They’re going to do things that we can never even imagine, to be honest with you. And they will get caught. They get will get caught sometimes.

Gillian French (29:03):
Yeah. And even though you wrote the book on communication, with Workvivo, obviously, it’s a platform for communication and it opens company communication and democratizes it for employees. And again, it’s really interesting to see how some leaders may react to that and, “Oh, we just opened it up.” And only lovely things happen. Absolutely wonderful things happen. People sharing bits of themselves, people getting recognized. It’s nothing but a good thing. But it is interesting that sometimes there’s just nervousness about opening it up to a vast employee community.

Debra Corey (29:37):
I think it’s until you get used to it, because I remember the first time I did social recognition and I was really nervous about it. And I remember the first week someone sent me, they posted on the online platform, “Thank you so much, Debra, for helping me get my employee a promotion and a pay increase.” I thought, “Oh, my God. Everyone’s going to be coming to me. This is a nightmare.” Nothing happened.

Gillian French (30:03):

Debra Corey (30:04):
At all, at all. But it was great. I’m glad that happened, because now I can use that as an example and say, “You know what? If that happened and nobody came to me, trust me, it’ll to work for you.”

Gillian French (30:15):
Yeah. It’s so funny, isn’t it, when you’re deepest and you think, ‘Oh, my God.” And then nothing, nothing at all.

Debra Corey (30:20):
We’re waiting for it to fall apart and it doesn’t.

Gillian French (30:24):
So I’d love to talk because I love the book, I do, Build It, a little bit on engagement because I think we have been obsessed over the last sort of 10 years with engagement. And it’s the buzzword, and now it’s kind of moving into employee experience but really not that different still. Do you think, we’ve had this obsession with it, but over the past two or three years, engagement has actually declined. What are companies missing? What is the big piece that they’re missing that they’re just not getting about engagement and they’re not getting it right?

Debra Corey (31:02):
Well, I guess I’m going to defend us first. I think part of the reason that it’s been difficult is because the ball keeps moving. So what engagement was five years ago, 10 years ago, is not the same as it is now. So in our defense, it’s been hard to keep up with it. But that being said, and this is why Glenn and I wrote Build It, I still think that there’s a lot of companies who aren’t brave enough, they’re not bold enough, they’re not strategic.

Your question before about recognition, “What do companies do about recognition?” I think for every element of the employee experience, we really need to take a step back, especially now more than ever before. Take a step back and think about, “What do we need to do now?”

I was at a HR summit yesterday, and there was a really interesting discussion about benefits and how the companies have been evolving their benefits. And this discussion would have never happened two years ago. The types of benefits that they were talking about giving their people, things that involved supporting women during menopause. One company put something in for domestic violence. Every single company was doing something around wellbeing. People were talking about time. And so, I think some of it is that we just really need to keep understanding what is it that drives engagement and not keep doing the things that we do over and over again. I know that in some companies I’ve worked at, we have our three year and our five year strategies, and we review it every three and five years. We need to be looking at it every six months, which I know is not easy, but it’s the only way that we’re going to be able to do it.

Gillian French (32:45):
Well, the landscape has changed so much.

Debra Corey (32:47):

Gillian French (32:48):
And what I’m seeing with some companies that I talk to, the reason they’re struggling is that they’re trying to still run their businesses the same way when everyone was in the office, whereas if you think about something like adding your Engagement Bridge, recognition and communication, you can’t do the same. It’s not the same now. People are in different countries, people are coming in two days, some are fully remote. You can’t communicate in the same way. You can’t do recognition in the same way. Everything has to be re-looked at and that’s a big undertaking.

Debra Corey (33:19):
Yeah, and it is hard. And when I talk about the Engagement Bridge and there’s 10 elements, I’ve been in people’s shoes. I know that you can’t do everything at once. But I do think you just have, not just, but you have to prioritize which are the most important things. But I loved when I interviewed you for Build It, and I use your example all the time because it’s about values and how you need to evolve your values. And it’s a perfect example. That’s one of the elements of the Bridge. As your business is changing, you need to evolve your values. And especially with the world changing so much, I’d be very surprised, not necessarily values changing as much, but behaviors. So I tell companies anytime I work with them on values and behaviors, “You need to look at your behaviors and see if there’s anything… You work in a hybrid world. There has to be some new behaviors that you need to add to your list.” So yeah. I think that aligns with what you’ve just talked about.

Gillian French (34:14):
One of the other questions I ask guests on my podcast is, what type of leader do you believe we require for the next phase of growth?

Debra Corey (34:22):
Because I write about appreciation and recognition, I would like to say that I think we need more leaders like my husband. It’s been amazing over the last couple years working from home with him and seeing the passion. I can hear him upstairs having conversations with his people. He’s passionate about his people. He cares about his people. He’s listening to his people. He has been able to turn people from disengaged to engaged just by showing that side. And he is a techie, he’s an engineer. And I think that if we could have more people that have that passion and that care, and they’re really there to support their people and mentor them, I think the world is definitely going to be a better place. So yeah, more Kens in the world, that’s his name.

Gillian French (35:06):
I couldn’t agree more. And I’m ever the optimist, and I think that definitely I’m starting to see a shift just from some of the research I’m seeing and some of the changes in leadership. And I think we’re starting to recognize that the results-orientated drivers, transactional, that is not a long-term strategic option for leadership. We need leaders that are conscious, compassionate, caring, and that really can put people first. And in the long term, that will benefit people, society, and profits, profitability and sustainability of businesses.

One of the values of Workvivo is, “Be yourself and bring your whole self to work.” And the CEO is amazing. When people come in, if they don’t like something or are not quite good at something, he’s like, “Well, that’s not their forte. Get them doing this.” And I think it’s so lovely to be around people that are fully themselves and feel they can be themselves and they don’t have to portray that they’re good at certain things when they’re not. It really, really does change the environment.

Debra Corey (36:11):
Yeah. And I love that value. And I’m going to pull from my values book for that, because my book is Bring Your Values Out to Play. So with a value like that, I would expect that in all of your benefit programs, you have something to allow you to be yourself. In your learning and development programs, you’ve got something for everyone. In your recognition programs, it’s choice. So I know you do that, but too often companies don’t do that. They have this amazing value.

Gillian French (36:37):
I know. They do the opposite and everything else.

Debra Corey (36:39):
Absolutely. So I challenge people to take your values and look through that lens in each of your elements of the Engagement Bridge, absolutely.

Gillian French (36:46):
Yeah. Because it creates disease, and internally then, you’re like, “They’re saying this, but this doesn’t really tally up.” And it starts breaking down the psychological contract then. Very good. So listen, I have sort of some questions that I ask guests every time they’re on and I’d love your favorite book. Well, your books are definitely my favorite, but do you have any books that you would recommend our readers to read? Of course, I’ll put links to yours on this podcast, but is there any other books that really resonated with you during your career that you thought were a great read?

Debra Corey (37:19):

Do you know, I have so many amazing books. I thought instead of saying a favorite book, instead what I would tell you what I like in a book and what I would suggest in a book. I like books that get me out of my comfort zone. I like books who challenge me and make me really think. So I just did a book club the other day with Kim Scott from Radical Candor, so perfect example. I love that book because everything she writes, I’m thinking “I’ve done that my whole career. Oh no, I can’t believe I’ve done that my whole career.” So I like books like that and then build me up to be a better person or a better leader.

Gillian French (37:54):
Do you have any predictions of the future of work? Is there anything that you think is going to change in the immediate future or any predictions that you’d like to share?

Debra Corey (38:06):
My crystal ball here, I think it’s going to continue to change. I told Glenn I wanted to write another version of Build It. But I wouldn’t want to write it now, because I just think that right now we are just going to be on this rollercoaster, and I think that things are going to change. So it’s almost like we need to just accept it, put our seat belts on, be flexible, be fluid. And who knows, maybe five or 10 years from now the world will get a bit more settled. Personally, I like a bit of a rollercoaster coaster. I think it keeps us on our toes. I think it makes sure that we’re really supporting our people. It’s a different mindset, but yeah, I hate to say it’s not going to stabilize for a little while, but I’m sure I’m not alone with that.

Gillian French (38:47):
Yeah, for sure. Listen, thank you so much for your thoughts today. I really appreciate you taking the time, and I think our listeners will have some great content there. And congratulations on your books. They’re really great and I can’t wait for the next one. So keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a great contribution to the HR profession, and I’m delighted that you took the time to talk to me today.

Debra Corey (39:09):

Thank you very much.

Gillian French (39:13):

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of The Employee Experience Podcast. Subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts and check out to find out more.

The people behind the voices

Debra Corey

Chief 'Pay it Forward' Officer at DebCo HR Ltd.

After over 20 years as an award-winning and respected HR leader at global organizations such as Gap Inc., Merlin Entertainment, and Reward Gateway, Debra Corey decided to set up her own business, DebCo HR Ltd, where she is the company’s Chief Pay it Forward Officer.

Debra is the author of five best-selling books, including Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement, Bringing Your Values Out To Play, and Appreciate It!: The Playbook for Employee Recognition. 

She speaks and provides assistance on a wide variety of topics relating to employee engagement, culture, reward and recognition, blending first-hand knowledge and real-life stories with practical tips and tools.

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

Employee Experience Officer

Gillian French is a veteran people leader and organizational behaviorist with over 10 years of experience as Chief People Strategist.

She is passionate about coaching, strategy, building resilient and sustainable organisational culture, and improving global employee experience. She has also contributed to Forbes and is a regular panelist on the future of work.

Gillian is also the founder and CEO of SISU consulting, a business that specializes in organisation development and design.