The Audrey Hepburn guide to employee recognition

The actress’s letter to Henry Mancini, the composer for ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ is a prime example of how to acknowledge employees for a job well done.

(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2015. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)

What are your top five favorite movies? I won’t admit all of mine, but “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is definitely one. I’m a huge Audrey Hepburn fan.

I share this because of a book I recently read called “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.” by Sam Wasson. The book is about the making of the movie, including the making of Audrey Hepburn as an actress.

What does this have to do with employee recognition? A letter that Hepburn wrote to Henry Mancini (the man who composed the music for the movie) is a case study in how to write a good recognition message.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Henry,

I have just seen our picture—BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S—this time with your score.

A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun and beauty.

You are the hippest of cats-and the most sensitive of composers!

Thank you, dear Hank.

Lots of love,

Audrey

Without heartfelt, detailed praise, many employee recognition efforts fall flat. I call these half-hearted efforts “drive-by recognition.” They are when the manager breezes past an employee’s desk, calling over his shoulder, “Great job, Louise. Thanks!”

Hepburn’s letter illustrates what a recognition message should include, specifically:

1. What the person did.

What Mancini did is obvious; he added music to a movie, lifting it above what it was before. How can you apply that at work?

Imagine that Louise helped you on a client project requiring significant research on a tight deadline. Your message might begin, “Louise, we couldn’t have completed the Smith project without your contributions and deep knowledge of available research.”

2. How that effort went above and beyond.

Work that goes above and beyond is especially worthy of recognition. Hepburn addresses Mancini’s work through a beautiful illustration of how music lifts us all.

In our example, continue your message to Louise with: “You dropped other high-priority work to fully commit to the Smith project. You recognized the project’s importance to the team and did not hesitate to help.”

3. A mention of the skills the employee demonstrated.

General recognition doesn’t help a person improve. Specific recognition, however, makes it clear which behaviors an employee should repeat.

Hepburn describes Mancini’s work as “imagination, fun and beauty.” In our example, you would say: “Not only did you pull research to support our position, but you carefully reviewed it for the most relevant arguments, whittling down copious amounts of supporting data to the information that mattered most. That takes both attention to detail and a willingness to immerse yourself in the client’s mindset.”

4. A connection to the work.

To those who are not fans of the movie, the phrase “hippest of cats” might just seem like a reference to the decade in which Hepburn penned the note. It’s not.

Hepburn brought in words that her character, Holly Golightly, used, which tied her praise even more firmly to the movie.

You might tell Louise: “You are our research guru. We might as well call you ‘Google’!”

5. A sincere “thank you.”

It seems obvious, but it’s important to use the words “thank you.” They have a deep, heartfelt meaning. Hepburn concludes her note with those words, and so should you.

Check out this post for other excellent recognition examples.

Lynette Silva is senior recognition strategist and consultant at Globoforce. A version of this article originally appeared on Recognize This!

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