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Learn how you might go about celebrating colleagues, whether you're surprising them with an award or just leaving notes of thanks on coworkers' desks.


  • Who are your colleagues?

  • Why honor colleagues?

  • Who should honor colleagues?

  • When should you honor colleagues?

  • How do you honor colleagues?

At the annual meeting of a coalition of adult educators, a high point is always the announcement of the Teacher and Administrator of the Year awards. In a recent year, the administrator chosen was the long-time director of a program in a correctional institution. Both the director and the program as a whole had the reputation of being both caring and effective - difficult in a prison setting - and unfailingly supportive of staff members. Those staff members had nominated him, and their tribute to him was read as part of the presentation.

When the award was announced, the administrator was stunned and deeply moved. He thanked his staff and the coalition for the honor, swallowed the lump in his throat, and made a brief acceptance speech. "You have no idea how much this means to me," he said, "because it comes from people who really know what I do, who know me for what I am. To know that I'm appreciated is wonderful, but to know that I'm appreciated by colleagues I respect is gratifying beyond words."

Whether you're surprising a colleague with a major award, as above, or just leaving notes of thanks on coworkers' desks, honoring colleagues should be an important part of celebrating and publicizing the work you do. This chapter is about celebrating and rewarding the accomplishments of health and community work. In this section, we'll discuss why and how you might go about celebrating colleagues.

Who are your colleagues?

You may think of colleagues specifically as co-workers, and your coworkers certainly are your colleagues. There are many contexts in which you have coworkers, however; they're not only the people who work with you in an organization, or people on the same level within that organization. There are a variety of ways to define "colleagues":

  • Others in your organization. Like the "standard" definition referred to above, this applies to those you work with. But it applies to all those you work with, not just those who do the same job as you or something similar. Line staff (those who work directly with participants, or fulfill the day-to-day mission of the organization), administrators, support and clerical staff - all are colleagues.
  • Leaders and/or staffs of other organizations in your field or community. If you're the director of an agency, you might consider the directors of similar agencies, or the directors of other agencies in your community to be your colleagues. Or you might consider anyone who works in your field, or in health and human services in your community, to be a colleague. The link is the common focus to your work.
  • Co-members of a coalition or community group. This might narrow down further to those with whom you serve on committees, those with whom you work directly to organize an event, etc.
  • Fellow volunteers, or fellow members of a community board of directors.
  • Co-collaborators on a project. The Community Tool Box team, for instance, is made up of colleagues who are academics and non-academics - teachers, students, administrators, writers, and human service professionals - from both Kansas and Massachusetts, many of whom are involved in other projects as well.
  • People with whom you work on an initiative or campaign at the local, state, or national level. Whether you're committed to "Save Our Neighborhood Park," Greenpeace, or an effort to elect a legislator or get a bill passed, you have colleagues there.

The people you consider colleagues might be paid staff or volunteers, from your own community or from all over the world, professionals or unemployed. The key is that they care about and work for the same things you do.

Why honor colleagues?

It goes without saying to let them know you appreciate them and that they've done a good job. In addition to that, however, there are other good reasons to honor colleagues. Some of the best:

  • They deserve it. The best reason to honor colleagues, of course, is that they deserve it, for reasons such as:
    • They have done something particularly praiseworthy. Colleagues may have come up with a new prevention strategy that's had an effect on community health, written a terrific anti-violence curriculum that's being used in the schools, or convinced developers to set aside and protect large tracts of open land.
    • They have been mainstays of the community or field over a long period. You know who they are - the folks who always show up when there's work to be done, who take responsibility and always follow through, who never worry about whether they'll get the credit, and who keep at it, year after frustrating year, to make things better for everyone. They deserve some recognition.
    • They have initiated something successful. An intervention that really worked, a new program that everyone knew was needed, a community coalition - they've had a real impact on the well-being of the community, and ought to be thanked for it.
    • They've turned something around. Perhaps they've taken over an organization or program in trouble and made it successful. Perhaps they've finally brought those two warring agencies together on a project, and shown them how they can work together. In any case, they've earned their colleagues' respect.
    • They've been responsible for achieving a particular goal. A colleague may have headed up that fund drive that went way over the top, or a group of colleagues may have been responsible for that city council ruling that saved the community center. Those and similar accomplishments are worthy of appreciation.
    • They've been persistent. Sometimes someone deserves recognition simply because she has done her difficult job competently and well for far longer than anyone had a right to expect. It's fitting to reward that kind of dedication.
    • They've been good leaders. Good leadership is often a rare quantity, and should be acknowledged. The staff of an organization may honor a colleague for leadership within that organization, or a group may honor a colleague for exemplary leadership within the field. (The Administrator of the Year award described at the beginning of this section is actually a combination of the two.)
  • Honoring colleagues motivates them and others. Seeing their work recognized is good not only for those who are directly honored, but for all of those who do similar or related work. The fact that those in the field or in their own organization understand that they're good at what they do, that what they do is important enough to deserve notice, can help keep people going. Frustration, exhaustion, and their ultimate result, burn-out, can eat up people's energy and send them looking for other types of work. The opportunity to honor colleagues, or to be honored themselves, reminds them of why they still care, and why the work is important.
  • Honoring colleagues creates role models. For people new to the field or the community, or for those who may be realizing that the way they've been operating simply doesn't work, a colleague who's clearly successful can represent an ideal to strive for. Honoring a particular colleague makes the statement that she is to be emulated.

The fact that those honored may function as role models is only as positive as the choices of whom to honor. Many organizations or professional associations or community groups reward only those who cleave to a party line, or who uphold an accepted, but not a particularly effective or functional, way of doing the work. Setting up as role models only those who do things in predetermined ways isn't likely to produce any new and better methods or inspire anyone on the verge of burnout. Unless those honored are truly exemplary - whether they subscribe to a particular system or not - they won't be of much value as role models

  • To celebrate and publicize the work of the organization, initiative, or field. Celebrating what you do is important. A little self-congratulation helps to confirm that what you do is necessary, that it needs to continue, and that those who do it are worthy of respect and recognition. It energizes those doing the work, renews their commitment to it, and gets them ready for the next challenge.

At the same time, an occasion when colleagues are honored is also an occasion for public celebration. It affords an opportunity to explain what you do and why, offers an example of someone who does this work exceptionally well, and puts everyone doing the work in a good light. It also gives you the opportunity for some community advocacy, reminding the public that they can provide your work with support of many kinds, or asking them for help in a specific effort.

Who should honor colleagues?

What kind of position do you have to be in to honor colleagues? The most meaningful recognition comes from those who work closely with the person honored. As the adult education administrator quoted at the beginning of the section noted, they're the ones who really know what he does and how he does it. If they believe that he's deserving of recognition, he must be doing something right.

There are a number of ways in which a group may honor a close colleague, and a number of different groups that may choose to do so. Some of these groups may be close colleagues themselves, and others may act as middlemen, presenting honors suggested by close colleagues. Still others may honor people in the field without knowing them directly.

Some groups that typically honor colleagues:

  • An organization
  • Staff members of an organization. In this situation, there may not be an "official" event, but simply something people want to do for a colleague
  • A coalition or initiative
  • Co-members of a board of directors, or the board itself
  • A professional association
  • Practitioners or organizations in a particular field
  • Community groups or institutions

When should you honor colleagues?

Although any time is a good time to honor colleagues, there are some occasions when it's particularly appropriate.

Special occasions

These may have to do with the life of the organization, the life of the person being honored, or both. Some examples:

  • Retirement. Unfortunately, the reality is that most organizations and groups seldom honor colleagues until they leave.

If it is worth honoring a colleague, it is worth doing it before she is about to move on. It's great to have support for your work after it's done, but it's a lot better to have that support while the work is going on.

  • A significant anniversary. A number of years on the job, for instance, or a particular anniversary of the organization itself.

The staff members of an organization decided to honor their director, who had been in his position for ten years. To thank him for his leadership, his support and mentoring of staff, and his activism in the field, they held a reception to which they invited not only everyone in the organization, but directors of many other similar organizations, funders, and state bureaucrats - colleagues from several different contexts. The staff and others presented him with gifts, and many of the guests spoke of his contributions to the field and to their lives.

  • A personal milestone - a birthday, a wedding, the birth of a child.

We tend to think of pleasant occasions as the appropriate ones to honor colleagues, but others may provide a truer test of our respect for them. To have the support of colleagues at a funeral or while going through a difficult divorce may be honor of a different kind, but it's the kind that isn't forgotten.

  • The attainment of a personal or professional goal - a long-sought degree, a promotion, a certification.

The conclusion of something successful, or the achievement of a goal

The opening of a new facility, the culmination of a fundraising campaign, the passage of a favorable town ordinance - all might be good times to honor the colleagues who made them possible.

Regularly scheduled occasions

The annual meetings of coalitions, organizations, community groups, and professional associations are often times when colleagues are recognized or given awards for the work they've done in the past year. The adult education coalition mentioned earlier is a prime example, but the Human Resource Center and the North Quabbin Community Coalition, just to cite organizations that appear in other sections in this chapter, did or do the same thing. When reviewing a year's accomplishments, people often find it fitting to honor those responsible for them.

To say thank-you for a job well done or for support and mentoring

Despite the fact that there are particularly appropriate times to honor colleagues, sometimes it's right to honor colleagues simply because you want to. The realization that a particular colleague has been working effectively for a long time with no acknowledgement, or that she has been consistently helpful and supportive to others over a long period, might lead to a gift, or to some formal ceremony. This sort of appreciation is often the most powerful, because it is so obviously sincere.

Honoring colleagues doesn't have to be formal. It can happen every day in small ways. One coalition director used to send "thank-you" postcards to people to let them know she had appreciated something they did, or their ongoing work. A spoken word of praise, an acknowledgement of someone's hard work - perhaps most prized when that work hasn't yielded much - can make someone's day or week or year. Everyone needs to know she's valued, and it's important, both to an organization and the individuals who work in it, to remember and act on that as much as possible.

How do you honor colleagues?

There are a variety of ways to honor colleagues, but there are some general guidelines that apply to all of them.

General guidelines

Make it personal

Unless this is an award presented by a national or statewide organization to someone most of the members don't know personally, honoring colleagues is, in fact, highly personal. By honoring her, people in an organization or field are telling a colleague, someone they work with closely, that they appreciate her and consider her worthy of special recognition. Feelings of affection, gratitude, mutual dependence, and respect all come into play to varying degrees.

That being the case, any ceremony, gift, or simple recognition should be tied to the person receiving it as closely as possible. It's often a good idea to involve those closest to the honoree - close family, colleagues, mentors - and to make sure that the occasion includes stories about the person's significant accomplishments, about her personality, and about her as a human being. A gift should be something that fits both the person and the occasion. Every effort should be made to show that you're honoring this particular person, not just her achievements.

Give the honoree something

It may be a meaningful or significant gift (a photo of her with participants, a beautiful book or print, a super-light backpacking tent, etc.), a plaque or certificate, or a humorous gift with a personal story behind it. Whatever it is, there should be something material that the honoree can keep and look at later to remember the occasion.

A gift like this can be almost anything. At one celebration, the director of an organization was given a number of hats - a chef's hat, a baseball cap, a football helmet, etc. - to represent the different hats he had to wear to do his job. Another director, who collected them, was presented with a number of small, inexpensive wind-up toys that did silly things (a walking building, a tiny Godzilla that lurched and breathed sparks, a marching band of gorillas).

Obviously, whatever you give will be limited by your resources. Organizations sometimes collect from each staff member to buy a gift for an honoree, where that's appropriate (more common for a personal occasion - retirement, birthday, etc. - than for an organizational or professional award). Resources also have to be considered when deciding what kind of ceremony or celebration to have.

Record the occasion

Not only is this an important part of the work life of the person honored, but it's important in the life of the organization as well. Make sure to take photographs, or make a video or audiotape of the occasion, and give the honoree a copy, as well as keeping copies for the organization. If you have a digital camera or digital video camera, you can easily put photos or video on computer disks or CD's.

Think about the guest list

Whom will you invite? Who are the important people in the honoree's life? Will you invite dignitaries - politicians, people important in the field - or will you restrict the list to those who have real personal and/or professional connections to your colleague? Will you invite people he doesn't like because they "should" be there?

Consider inviting the media

If you want to publicize this occasion or award, if you want to use it to draw attention to your work or your organization, then the media should definitely be there. If honoring your colleague is a more private issue, and you feel that using the occasion for publicity would be exploitation, then you probably would not invite the media to be present. That doesn't mean, however, that you shouldn't issue a press release or try to get a media story about the honor after the fact. It's both a further honor to your colleague and a chance to let people know more about what you do.

Specific ideas

There are as many ways to honor colleagues as there are those who deserve to be honored and organizations or groups to do the honoring. Your options are really limited only by your budget and your imagination (and some considerations of taste: mud wrestling is probably out).

Make a personal gesture to show your colleague you appreciate him or her

A mention at a staff meeting and in the newsletter, a small gift left on a desk or chair, or an e-card are all ways to say "thank you" to a valued colleague. Small, personal gestures - especially if they're sincere, and not just a means to keep people satisfied - are an important way to let colleagues know you appreciate the work they do.

Present an award. There are really two choices here:

  • An award presented at regular intervals (usually annually) for a general purpose - Teacher of the Year, Innovation in Youth Work, etc.
  • A special award presented to the specific person for his unique contributions to the organization or the field

An annual award is usually more formal, more competitive (in that only one person a year gets it, although many may be worthy), and more prestigious. The other type may be more meaningful to the honoree, however, because it recognizes his personal talents, skills, and value to the presenting group.

Sometimes, a group may combine the two by occasionally presenting, along with its "regular" awards, a special recognition award to someone whose accomplishments don't necessarily fit into any category, or who has achieved something extraordinary. One coalition, at its annual awards ceremony, always presented several personalized awards to unsung colleagues who had made a difference that year in the life of the community.

Give a gift

We discussed gifts above, and the possibilities here are almost limitless.

In addition to the expected or ordinary, there are gifts you may not have considered:

  • Name something for them. A room, a program, a scholarship, a grant, an award - any of these and a host of other prospects might be fitting candidates to be named for an honoree.
  • Have a day in their honor proclaimed by the legislature, the county or city council, the Board of Health. In many states, the governor, if asked by the legislature, or the legislature itself, can proclaim a single day to be named in honor of a deserving person. If you know your state representative and/or senator, it's likely that she would be willing to sponsor such a proclamation for your honoree. The same may be possible - and more appropriate, depending upon the accomplishments and the person being honored - at other levels of government.
  • Give them time. Extra vacation time, more flexibility, or a backup for evening work might be the best gift you could give someone.
  • Grant a wish. Has she always wanted to perform at a local club? Is his dream to take batting practice with the minor (or major) league baseball team? If you ask the right people, there's a good chance you could make it happen.

Particularly meaningful are gifts that indicate colleagues' respect. An item that has some significance to the person's work, or a scrapbook, signed by everyone she works with, may mean much more than an expensive book or print. By the same token, something that was obviously carefully chosen with the person in mind has more emotional impact than something that might be more expensive, but is also impersonal.

Whatever you give, make sure, as mentioned above, that there's at least a small tangible item attached to it, even if it's an in-joke, so that the person will have something to commemorate the occasion.

Throw them a party

Once again, the potential here is boundless. Depending upon your resources and how much work you're willing to put into it, you could stage anything from snacks after (or during) work hours to a small dinner for staff to a huge bash for lots of people. Even the latter doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot - a barbecue in a public park can be inexpensive and fun, and the food can be great.

A party might be particularly apt when you're honoring a group of colleagues rather than an individual. A team that has accomplished wonders, an entire staff that's worked long hours at difficult jobs to make an organization effective - these groups deserve recognition in the same way that individuals do, and a party is a good way to make sure you can invite all the appropriate people, and have enough different activities so that everyone can have a good time.

Elements to consider:

  • Food. Let's face it: a party's not a party without food and drink. Does your colleague love ethnic food (burritos, or the Korean food he ate as a child), or is there a particular flavor of ice cream he craves? This is his party - he should have a chance to eat what he likes, and introduce it to his colleagues.

The issue of alcohol invariably comes up here. For some organizations, it's not an issue at all - get-togethers include alcohol, and everyone's comfortable with that. For others, it's not so simple. The staff of a drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment center may not feel comfortable having alcohol at any organization-sponsored function: it sends the wrong message to participants and the public. Any organization whose participants or target population may have alcohol problems should seriously consider making organizational events alcohol-free, both because that allows the organization to act as a role model, and because participants may attend events without being tempted. What's the organizational message you want or need to send about alcohol use?

  • Music. You might hire a band or DJ, but you might also find that some people in the organization might be able to provide the music for little or no cost. What does the honoree like? If she hates loud rock or rap, or doesn't like to dance, then that should be taken into account in your planning.
  • The special interests of the honoree. Perhaps your party should include watching the local college play basketball, or should take place on Demolition Derby night at the racetrack. Perhaps it should happen on a hilltop under a tree, or on a cross-country ski trail. Or it might entail an excursion to see the latest Star Wars film, or be a party with a particular theme close to the heart of your colleague.

Hold a formal ceremony

In this situation, there are usually speeches, perhaps by the board chair of the organization or by other organizational or community dignitaries, and probably by the honoree as well. The ceremony may or may not accompany an award, but is a formal recognition of your colleague's contribution to the organization or the community. The media are generally present, and are, in fact, far more likely to cover a formal event than an informal one.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this type of ceremony. It carries the weight of seriousness, and therefore may feel more important or more of an honor than something less formal. On the other hand, it gives the honoree less chance to enjoy the appreciation of and socialize with his close colleagues. It is less likely to include the sorts of stories and anecdotes that bring laughter and recognition, and strengthen the bonds of those who work together.

One way to reconcile these differences is to hold both types of events: a formal ceremony followed or preceded (usually not immediately) by a more informal one. Another is to have a reception that encompasses elements of both.

Honor colleagues every day

You don't have to put on a special celebration or give an award to let colleagues know how grateful you are for the work they do or the support they give you. Everyone needs to know how much his efforts mean to the community and his colleagues. The work of health and community development is often hard and frustrating: it's vital to know that someone cares, and cares enough to celebrate a colleague's contributions.

In Summary

Honoring colleagues - those who work with you toward common goals in an organization, a community, or a field - is important in several ways. It properly expresses appreciation for those who do their work well; it energizes and motivates others doing similar work, while providing them with role models; and it publicly acknowledges the importance of the work to the community and society.

While a colleague might be honored by any group affiliated with her, the honor is usually more meaningful if the group includes those who work closely with her. The occasion might be a milestone - personal or professional - for the honoree; the beginning of something the honoree was instrumental in starting, or the achievement of a long-sought goal; a regularly-scheduled award; or simply the need to say thank-you to a valued, and perhaps unacknowledged, associate.

Regardless of what sort of event or presentation you employ - whether a personal gesture, an award, a gift, a party, a formal public ceremony, or some combination - there are general guidelines to follow.

  • Personalize. Structure the situation or occasion so that it's clear that the honoree is being recognized as a person, and not just as a representative of his work or his colleagues
  • Give the honoree something tangible
  • Record the occasion, on video- or audiotape, in photographs, with a guest book or journal, etc.
  • Consider the guest list carefully, with the preferences and relationships of the honoree in mind
  • Consider inviting the media, unless media coverage of the occasion would seem exploitative

Finally, honor colleagues every day. The hard and emotional work of health and community development is made easier if people know their contributions to it are appreciated by their colleagues.

Online Resources

Recognition of colleagues' accomplishments and honors by the California Emergency Nurses Association.

Recognition provides tips on recognizing colleagues in small ways from the Human Resources Department at the University of Arizona.