The Value of Winning Functional Excellence Awards

The very best strategic recruiting and talent management leaders are continually looking for ways to improve their results, their credibility, and their business impacts. One of the most powerful tools for reaching those goals and for developing an excellent function is to apply for and win functional awards.

Some mistakenly think that applying for awards is strictly for ego gratification, but that would be a major mistake because the application process itself helps to drive functional excellence. This is because the award process focuses the entire team, and the award criteria themselves serve as excellent guidelines as to what does or does not impress business leaders. The award process forces you to understand metrics and to compare your practices and results to the very best. Applying and winning awards can build team cohesion and eventually it can lead to significantly higher internal credibility and larger budgets.

If you’ve been suffering through years of down budgets, the awards competition can give your team a spurt of energy and it can force them to pay more attention to the external talent competition, because recruiting and talent management are already daily external competitions.

Awards to Consider

If you excel in the area of recruiting, retention or talent management, I recommend that you first consider applying for the prestigious ERE Recruiting Excellence Awards (note: they have a January 11 deadline). Other awards in recruiting to consider include and the awards. As a long-term senior judge of these ERE awards, I can assure you that they display the very best practices from around the world. If you are anticipating a surge in recruiting or retention, now might be an opportune time to use the award process as a stimulant for beginning your turnaround.

After you win one of these functional awards, you should next consider applying for a local, regional, or national “best place to work” employer brand award. The most prestigious one is sponsored by Fortune Magazine and winning it can dramatically impact your recruiting results. Workforce magazine also sponsors a prestigious set of HR awards known as the Optimas awards cover each of the functional areas within HR.

Potential Benefits From Winning Functional Awards

Applicants, finalists, and winners all receive many benefits from the awards process. I have broken the benefits into two categories: company benefits and functional team benefits.

A) Company benefits

Even though the award may be won by a single function, the impacts can be much broader.

  • Improved employer brand-building and recruiting — the visibility that comes from winning or even being listed as a finalist will dramatically help your retention and recruiting efforts. If you conduct surveys during onboarding, you will frequently find that external awards, recognition, and media coverage are major factors that influence a candidate’s job search and acceptance decision.
  • Increased media and Internet exposure — not only will the awards themselves result in more exposure, but the follow-up local and national media coverage can also be powerful. The awards will also be talked about on social media, in tweets and blogs, and they will also appear on Google searches.
  • An assessment and improvement tool — you can’t win awards without first completing a broad assessment of your program in order to identify your areas of strength and weakness. The resulting assessment and follow-up changes will not only increase your chance of winning the award but they also will likely result in continuous program improvement and significantly better program results.
  • Awards force you to use metrics and to identify your impacts — although some awards are a public popularity contest, most of the elite ones are metric driven. In order to even qualify, you must include metrics and place a dollar estimate on your business impacts. If you use innovations like predictive metrics, you will further improve your chances.
  • Awards force you to innovate — because award criteria focus on innovation, the process forces you not to settle on continuous improvement but instead, to strive to be first with innovations.
  • Improved benchmarking — by winning awards you improve your visibility and value as a best practice benchmarking partner. As a result of your participation, more firms will be willing to trade best practices with you.
  • Role model for HR — when a single function like recruiting or employer branding wins an award, they serve as a positive role model for other HR functions to improve to the point where they can also win awards.

B) Team and individual benefits

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Some of the benefits that can accrue to your functional team include:

  • Increased team cohesiveness and pride — putting together the award application by itself builds team cohesiveness and winning certainly dramatically tightens those bonds and increases team pride.
  • Increased internal credibility — winning an award or even showing that you rank among the very best will definitely build your team’s internal credibility as well as your personal brand.
  • Increasing your planning — preparing to win an award requires a plan, and that plan can be a driver to increase other formal planning efforts that will allow you to better identify upcoming problems, competitor actions, as well as upcoming needs and opportunities.
  • Improved recruiting for your team — in addition to helping company-wide recruiting, the recognition from the award, coupled with the follow-up writing and speaking opportunities, will drive top talent in your functional area to consider joining your team.
  • Decreasing the impact of any team negatives — winning external awards provides you with authentic credibility. This credibility may help your team to successfully counterbalance any negative publicity that your team has had as a result of losing key staff, layoffs, and budget cuts.
  • The award process can improve learning — simply reading the award summaries or even volunteering to serve as a judge are both excellent ways to learn and to identify potential learning partners. Interactions with other applicants and judges at the award ceremony can also lead to long-term learning relationships.
  • Career benefits — winning awards can help your personal brand and may lead to salary increases, promotions, and external speaking opportunities. If you strive to help your profession, winning awards can help you become a best practice and thought leader.
  • Budget impacts — last but certainly not least, the external validation that comes from awards will likely help to support any requests for budget increases.

Tips for Winning Awards

As a longtime judge, I have reviewed thousands of these applications. From that experience, here are some tips to help you improve your chances of putting together a great application and winning.

  • Develop an award criteria checklist — the award review process is often quite structured. As a result, follow the criteria exactly and to avoid violating any rule that could disqualify you. I recommend that you put together a checklist to guide your work and to ensure that your application covers and exceeds each of the important assessment criteria.
  • Pretest your award application — you need “fresh eyes” to periodically review your application at several stages in order to ensure that you’re covering the right elements and effectively selling your accomplishments.
  • Work with marketing and communications — not everyone in talent management excels at writing and selling. Work closely with your firm’s marketing and communications professionals. Ask them to review and read your primary application and get their help in polishing your application so that it reads like an integrated compelling story.
  • Focus on metrics and numbers — all prestigious awards require that you provide proof of business impact using numbers and dollars. Even if you don’t have precise numbers, you need to unfailingly use professional estimates, because failing to use numbers will result in you losing.
  • Include ROI — showing that you reduced costs simply isn’t as impactful as showing that you got higher business impacts as a result of wise investments in HR programs. As a result, provide an estimate of the ROI of each of your major subprograms.
  • Make the application easy to scan — as a senior judge, I often have to review hundreds of applications within a single week. So make your application easy to scan. Using bullet points and highlighting key accomplishments helps to ensure that nothing important is missed during the judging.
  • Include comparison numbers — numbers and metrics that are provided in isolation have a lower impact than when you provide a comparison number alongside it. That comparison number can include improvement over last year, compared to an industry average or best number, or show a comparison by merely stating that you are the first to implement a program feature.
  • Put together a “story inventory” — the most effective applications include at least one powerful story to illustrate your excellence. In order to ensure that you are aware of all of your “stories” within the firm, put together a corporate-wide story inventory that can be used for applications, media inquiries, and that can be accessed by your employees for employee referrals.
  • Include key quotes — including positive comments or quotes from senior executives, employees, and applicants can also be powerful.
  • Include links to examples — to illustrate your work, also include web links to compelling videos, photos, and support information to supplement your application. These links can be especially powerful when applications contain word limits.
  • Avoid failure factors — in addition to the positive factors that you want to include in your application, avoid negative elements. These negative elements can include using acronyms that outsiders won’t understand, using words as opposed to numbers to describe results, and including programs and results in your application from outside of an individual award category. Making the award application appear like a “one-person show” can also be perceived as a negative, so be sure to include the names of several team members that have made major contributions. And finally, the most common but damaging error to avoid is to allow a vendor to write your application or to have their product dominate the content of your application. Remember in most cases, the award is for a corporation not a vendor.
  • Read relevant articles — continually identify the “leading-edge” of practice in a functional area (in order to show that you are a head of it). As a result, read articles and blogs by thought leaders, judges, and award winners in order to know where the leading edge in a functional area is and where it will be on the due date of your application.
  • Understand the judges — it is not considered tampering to review profiles of the judges and read their articles and blogs about their best practices in order to understand their preferences and their assessment focus. If you attend the event where the awards are given out, talk to the judges personally to gain tips and indications of what will be needed to win next year.
  • Speed up your learning curve — if you want to win an award on the first try, consider using past judges (using current judges can be taboo) or award winners as pre-reviewers or coaches to help you improve your programs and your application before it is submitted. In some cases, past winners will let you see their old application (with the numbers redacted).
  • The next step — if you win, don’t forget the important follow-up step of working with your firm’s PR function to maximize your press, social network, and Internet coverage. Place the award on your corporate careers webpage and encourage team members to include a mention of the award in their social network profiles. After winning, next year aim higher and try to also win broader or more prestigious awards. If you lose, conduct a failure analysis to identify what went wrong, which areas need significant improvement and how much higher the “winning bar” will be next year.

The Authenticity of External Assessment and Validation

In my experience, there is no single action that has a greater impact on your brand image then by winning a major external award for excellence in your people-management programs. It is the equivalent to winning an Oscar for a movie. This external assessment sends a message to everyone heralding the quality of your work and the fact that you have “excellent people management programs.”

That message is judged to be “authentic” in large part because the message verifying the quality of your work came from a neutral third party conducting a side-by-side external competition between multiple firms. Potential applicants don’t automatically believe what they read on your corporate website but your believability goes up significantly when your message is supported by this external award. If you fear that executives are unsure about their assessment of your performance or level of innovativeness, an external award can quickly dispel any doubts that they might have about the quality of your work.

Final Thoughts

If your first reaction to the proposal of applying for awards is negative (“that’s bragging”) or even neutral (“our work should speak for itself”), realize that the world of HR has changed dramatically over the last few years. Almost all firms have become significantly more aggressive and proactive in spreading their people management employer brand. Boasting and even bragging about a firm’s best people management programs has become commonplace as a result of actions by aggressive firms like Google, SAS, and Zappos. Also, other business functions have long been active in award competitions because of their many benefits.

The award application process may initially seem daunting, but if you approach it scientifically, the learning curve can actually be short. If you’re unsure about the advantages of winning awards, contact leaders from lesser-known firms that have dramatically improved their external brand image as a result of the competition (i.e. DaVita, Sodexo, Infosys, Aricent, Wegman’s Markets, and CACI). Applying for the awards costs nothing other than the time it takes to put together the application, so the ROI can be extremely high. Not only can the competition make you better but you will likely also find that it is both rewarding and fun.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



3 Comments on “The Value of Winning Functional Excellence Awards

  1. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. Call me old-fashioned, but as a recruiter, what excites and motivates me are things which:
    1) Increase my money, benefits, stability/security, QoWL, autonomy, creative work, and future prospects or
    2) Decrease my commute, micro-management, rote/routine work, paper work, work instability.

    Somehow, having my company win some sort of award doesn’t readily translate into these for me. Here’s modifying one our friends’ at sayings:


    If a pretty corporate award plaque and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.”

    Fundamentally, I’d say for recruiting heads should spend more effort on trying to make it better for those people who work for them, and less on trying to win a prize.



  2. I can verify that winning a “best place to work” type of award has a significant impact on attracting talent and simply makes recruiting easier. In partnership with Workplace Dynamics, we have conducted and published a Top Workplaces special section going on 4 years. I have multiple testimonials (including from the C-level at Fortune 500 companies) as well as first-hand stories of a sudden influx of talent (including hard-to-find IT professionals) that demonstrate how powerful such recognition is.

    The recognition can put a company “on the map” of prospective employees and give an indication of what the culture is like – why it is a great place to work. And, it is the employees who are identifying their organization as a top workplace, giving the award a certain “street cred”.

  3. Again a very well founded and thought provoking article from Dr Sullivan, and one that contain a lot of value and wisdom.
    @Jeff Perry; absolutely correct, I have in Microsoft had the fortune of working in and for a division that 5 years in a row won the local in country Best Place To Work and I tell you it is a ‘talent magnet’ like nothing else. 80% direct hire rate due to this fact.

    As fo the deeper and wider implications of excellence awards, this is what I like the most about Dr. Sullivan’s article. One thing is what it does for the individual nominee and winner, but at the same time it spurs teams and individuals on to excel, to apply metrics while at the same time enable learning and development. In that way this is not only a question of benefitting the immediate excellence award community but much wider and deeper. It becomes a tool to not only provide internal focus and quest for excellence, but in fact enable a whole industry to strive for more and according to best practice.

    Whether the yearly Oscar Academy Awards nominations and winners has contributed to motion pictures reaching a higher and higher standards throughout the years is difficult to say, I would however think that their presence and influence has had something to do with it. Any awards in relation to Talent Acquisition should be able to do the same.

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