A reader writes:

I am in my first formal HR job and I have a question about something that may not need action, but does feel a little off to me.

Our office manager is excellent — seriously. We have really prestigious folks walk through our office, and every one of them will remark on how wonderful she is at greeting them, making them feel welcome, and getting them where they need to go. Our employees adore her.

However, her emotional currency is public praise. Honestly, she’d prefer to be publicly recognized more than a raise or promotion. And she needs a lot of it, which we’re happy to give to retain her. However, I know that some folks bristle at seeing her get flowers on her anniversary/birthday cakes/cards signed by everyone at every work anniversary and administrative appreciation day, etc. because they’re not getting those things (departments typically do celebrate birthdays with lunch out, but don’t do much else). In all, it’s probably about 4-5 times per year that an actual, physical gift is given, but we also constantly praise her publicly at meetings, in emails, etc. The fact that nobody else gets this sort of attention makes others feel left out, and plus some folks also are tired of the show we put on for her.

To be clear: HR is not the one officially doing these things, but as I’m the most junior coordinator of our team, I am the one asked to deal with the logistics and I think people assume that HR is the one running the show. My boss (head of HR) also dislikes the attention we bestow on her, but isn’t really in any position to fight this any more than he’s already tried.

Personally, I dislike the lengths to which we bend over backward to give her attention, but I understand that’s what her supervisor does to keep her happy. On the other hand, I get why folks are mad, but in all honesty I think this is not a big deal — almost everyone is paid more than our office manager, have more opportunity to stretch their skills, and have the chance of actually climbing up the ladder. Our office manager will likely always stay an office manager (both because she likes it and also because her skills are best suited for that job). If periodic, but consistent, gratitude is what she wants, it’s difficult to come up with a reason not to give it to her. I try to tell people that, but it seems like an empty excuse.

So, what say you? Should we rein it in? What should I say to folks who are envious of the PDA? Does this matter?

I’m a big fan of rewarding people in the ways that are meaningful to them, so on one hand your office is getting part of this right: They’re noticing that your excellent office manager cares deeply about this kind of recognition, and they’re ensuring that she gets it.

But that’s only great until it starts feeling out of whack to others. It’s similar to any other type of reward in that way. For example, if you had a good employee who was strongly motivated by professional development opportunities, it would be smart to find ways to offer those to her — unless it became a situation where others who wanted those opportunities too (and whose work was good enough to warrant them) weren’t getting them and had to watch her getting handed a steady flow of training, conferences, and plum assignments.

So ideally your organization would be looking for ways to even this out. Why is she the only one who gets all this public praise? Can other managers be nudged to do more public recognition of their own people? Why not circulate birthday or anniversary cards for everyone (at least among their own teams if it’s a large office)? Etc. etc. etc.

And at the same time, the office manager’s boss should be thoughtful about the impact that the disparity in treatment has on the rest of the organization. Are there ways to tone it down a bit so it’s not always a public spectacle every time — like taking her to lunch one-on-one at a nice restaurant instead of doing the birthday cake, or giving her a heartfelt, detailed letter about her contributions on her work anniversary instead of a card signed by everyone? (I do realize that you said she thrives on public praise in particular, but I wonder if there’s a way to mix it up a bit.)

And frankly, it might make sense for her boss to say to her at some point, “Hey, I’m going to pull back on some of this because it’s such a contrast with what we do for others, and I don’t want people to feel neglected that we don’t do it for them. But please know it’s no reflection on your value, and we’ll continue to find other ways show our appreciation.”

On the other side of the equation, it’s also reasonable to say to others, “Jane is in a different type of role than everyone else here. You get recognition from clients/in your paycheck/at industry events, and her job doesn’t come with those perks. This matters to her, and we want to appreciate her in the ways that are meaningful to her.”

But this is all theoretical because it doesn’t sound like you really have standing to do anything about it. Your boss has tried to push back against this and failed. So from a practical standpoint, I doubt there’s a lot you can do here. I mean, you could try to make some of these points to your boss — especially the point about more praise for other people. And if you have credibility with the office manager’s boss (which you may not, as a junior person) you could try to talk to her about some of it too. But ultimately, it sounds like you’re going to have to be a bystander to the way they’re choosing to operate, at least for now, and just use it as an interesting demonstration of how even good intentions can come with complications.

our office manager wants constant public praise, and other people are starting to resent it was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.