Recognition & the Shadow Employee

James McGreggor
3 min readJan 16, 2023

Following up on my previous post (about leadership), I wanted to focus on something that may not be so obvious to people who are in management: shadow employees.

It is easy to recognize those who are outgoing, vocal, and always involved; however, we need to be sure that we are recognizing employees who may not be as “extroverted” as others.

You may have been there and witnessed people who are overlooked because they may not be the best at promoting themselves. These shadow employees work quietly in the background, keeping everything running while rarely asking for anything. The idea that to be recognized you need to “speak up” or learn how to “step out of your comfort zone” is outdated and flawed. While it is true, that you do have to learn to do these things to get ahead, this paradigm places the onus squarely on the person who deserves recognition, when a cultural change is really what’s needed.

The responsibility should be shared.

People may not be good at promoting themselves for several reasons, for example:

🔹 They may not be comfortable talking about themselves.

🔹 They may not be comfortable speaking up, especially around other dominant personalities, or perhaps they have to mask to simply speak up.

🔹 They may come from a previous employer who looked down on self-promotion.

🔹 They may feel like they are not ‘part of the group’, or perhaps they feel like they do not fit in with the current demographics or social makeup of the team or company.

🔹 They may also need special accommodations and may not feel comfortable asking for them.

🔹 They may not know that the work that they do is valued.

🔹 They simply may not think about it.

🔹 Your company or team may have established (deliberately or not) a culture that makes the person not feel safe or comfortable speaking up.

As managers we need to break down these walls. We need to be sure that we have an inclusive and accommodating environment (culture and processes) that allows all employees to have the opportunity to be recognized and feel valued. We should have an environment and framework that allows employees to reach out and express their needs, but we should also be looking out for those employees. If people are not comfortable self-promoting, then we need to have ways of recognizing them that they are comfortable with. For some, recognition may be being nominated as employee of the month, for others it may be a day off, while others it may just be a simple ‘thank you’.

As a poor analogy, some people hate the idea of the birthday celebration song at the local chain restaurant; but for others, it could be traumatic.

We need to be more attune to the needs of others and we need to make sure that we are doing it in a fair and equitable way. If you are not sure if you are doing just that, look around at your staff and ask the question: what would happen to person X if they were to leave? Are they essential to your team or company? If so, are you compensating them appropriately? Are you giving them adequate recognition?

As managers we need to do this; as leaders we need to take it a step further.

🔹 We need to step up and ensure that people are being recognized, even if those people are not our subordinates.

🔹 We need to read more about the needs of each generation, the development and recognition of neurodiversity, and what it really means to be inclusive.

🔹 We have to be honest with ourselves, open to critical feedback, and ask others who are not like ourselves about how we are doing in this area.

As leaders, we have the experience, we jumped through the hoops, and we know the challenges that they may face. More than just ensuring that our people are being recognized today, as leaders we need to be mentors and guides, looking at the strengths and needs of our people, and working with them to help navigate their careers, and develop the confidence to know that that not only are they valued within their current team or company, but that they are valued period.

--

--