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A Little Gratitude Goes a Long Way in the Workplace

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page K01

My housemate Rachel gave me a really good idea for a column the other day.

Come to think of it, she has given me lots of great ideas in the past couple of years.


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Nobody works in a vacuum, but how best to give others credit when they inspire, motivate and help us to do our best work isn't always obvious.

Hordes of career advisers push the importance of "tooting your own horn" and selling your accomplishments and skills. However, it takes more than me-me-me to get ahead. You'll also need some thank-yous along the way to thrive. Most people are happy to help their co-workers and friends, but those who help you are likely to feel used if you don't make conscientious efforts to show a little appreciation.

So what's the most appropriate way to convey gratitude? It depends on your relationship and on how big the favor is.

"There are hundreds of ways to express thanks: thank-you note, letter, photos, meal, verbal, award, surprise, etc.," said Trudy L. McCrea, an executive coach at Achieve-it LLP. "Sometimes the event deserving thanks is so big that a special memento is warranted -- [an] engraved gift. Using the elements of surprise or humor are especially effective."

Many industries, and individual organizations, have ethics rules about the value of gifts that can be exchanged, so you'll need to be mindful of that.

If you're the boss, the most direct way to say thanks to someone for going above and beyond the call of duty is to, well, show them the money. "The most direct and powerful methods of showing appreciation include a favorable performance review and recommendation of a promotion and/or increased compensation," said Jane H. Marantz, a Bethesda-based career coach who specializes in helping younger workers.

If co-workers help you out, you can play a part in getting them raises or promotions just by putting in a good word. "If the helper is a co-worker reporting to your supervisor, you can speak with and/or send an e-mail to your mutual supervisor with recommendations for additional rewards, as appropriate," Marantz said. "If the helper has a different supervisor, you can send an e-mail of recognition to the helper's supervisor with a copy to your supervisor."

If you have good bosses, don't take them for granted, either. "If the helper is your supervisor, an e-mail of appreciation can be sent to your supervisor's supervisor. If your organization uses 360-degree performance reviews, you can express your appreciation in your review of your supervisor," Marantz said.

"At all levels of help, it would be appropriate for you to send an e-mail to your supervisor and others in your department letting them know about the great work this person has done. You can also verbally recognize the person's efforts at staff meetings," Marantz said. "Many organizations have special awards, and you could recommend that person for such an award."

Oh, and don't forget food. Nearly everyone appreciates being taken out to lunch. The bigger the favor, the nicer the restaurant -- within the limits of your budget, of course. If you're the boss, spring for a catered lunch for the whole department if they've done an outstanding job.

Finally, never overlook the power of simply returning the favor. "For example, if someone has helped you by covering for you during a time of serious illness in your family, you can offer to cover for that person at a time of need," Marantz said. Ditto for a co-worker who makes a Starbucks run when you're swamped, or who runs interference with the boss when you're straggling on a big project.

The most important thing is to make the thank-yous ongoing. "The trick is to be proactive and stay in touch with these people before you need them," McCrea said. "In big project teams, sales teams or client organizations I have found it important to cultivate those relationships -- and not just high-level people. Include those who have administrative tasks as well. Then the team is ready to work hard together."

E-mail Mary Ellen Slayter at slayterme@washpost.com. Join her for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. June 7 at www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company