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3 Ways Sephora Did Employee Appreciation Wrong and Why It Happened

Navigating the complex world of employee recognition is a bit like walking a tightrope. Lean too much towards minimal gestures, and you risk plummeting into the abyss of employee discontent and disengagement–and a whole lot of bad press. Lean too far the other direction, and you have a slate of ERG’s to manage, rituals to keep up with, and lots of employee celebrations on the calendar.

Sephora bag - How  Sephora Did Employee Appreciation and Recgonition Wrong

Recently, Sephora North America found itself walking this recognition tightrope, but they didn’t do it well. Sephora decided to celebrate a monumental revenue milestone by merely sending cookies to its employees, a gesture that was meant to say “thank you” but instead was received by employees as “is this it?”

At Talent to Team, we care deeply about talent strategy, fair and equitable practices, and people management that’s aligned with company values and culture. When missteps like this happen, the root cause usually has to do with a lack of strategic thinking around how the people strategy maps back to the business strategy. 

For instance, while the marketing and finance teams were obviously excited to celebrate this milestone publicly, they missed the opportunity to thoughtfully collaborate with their human resources team to make sure the significance of this moment was united internally and reflected throughout departments, not just in the media. After all, a company is about people, not just products and profit.

Understanding Sephora’s Misstep

In 2023, Sephora celebrated hitting $10 billion in revenue in North America. A significant achievement, no doubt. How did the company acknowledge the hard work of its employees? They sent a box of twenty cookies to its stores. Not bonuses, not additional vacation days, but cookies–with a note that essentially said, “Thanks for helping us achieve our greatest year ever” and a request to keep the specifics confidential.

3 Ways Sephora Did Employee Recognition Wrong

Let’s break down where Sephora’s well-intentioned gesture went wrong and how applying our Build, Borrow, Buy mindset could have strategized a more meaningful employee recognition program. 

Recognize the Individual As Part of the Company Milestone

Employees aren’t a monolith. What motivates and appreciates one person may not resonate with another. Ways to recognize the individual include:

  1. Invest in Meaningful Rewards: invest in rewards that genuinely matter to your employees. This could mean bonus structures, stock options, or other financial incentives that reflect the significance of their contributions.

  2. Develop a Culture of Recognition: Appreciation can be part of the daily workflow. Regular shout-outs, peer recognition programs, and career development opportunities can make employees feel valued over the long term.

  3. Temporary but Impactful Gestures: Sometimes, a temporary gesture can make a significant impact. Special events, team outings, or temporary perks (like an extra day off) can offer immediate joy and a sense of appreciation.

Find The Sweet Spot of Employee Recognition Versus One Size Fits All

Finding the sweet spot for employee recognition means understanding the diverse needs and desires of your team. Sephora’s cookie debacle underscores the necessity of personalized, meaningful recognition strategies over one-size-fits-all gestures. 

In an era where the workforce values authenticity and personal growth, the one-size-fits-all approach to appreciation not only falls flat but can also inadvertently signal a lack of genuine understanding and respect for employee contributions. 

To move beyond this, companies should embrace a more nuanced approach to recognition, one that mirrors the complexity and richness of its workforce. This involves actively listening to employee feedback, understanding their motivations, and tailoring rewards to fit the individual. 

Whether it's offering flexible arrangements for a parent, recognizing the extra effort with a personalized career development plan, or simply expressing gratitude in a way that resonates with each employee, the goal is to make recognition a deeply personal experience that validates their unique contribution to the company’s success.

From Cookies to Careers: Rethink What Appreciation Means

Let’s learn from Sephora’s misstep. Recognition should be more than a stale cookie; it should be as dynamic and personalized as the talent strategy we champion. It’s about seeing the individual behind the achievement and rewarding them in ways that foster their growth, engagement, and loyalty. 

By crafting recognition programs that are as unique as the individuals they aim to honor, organizations can cultivate a culture of genuine appreciation. This approach not only uplifts employees but also strengthens their connection to the company, encouraging a sense of belonging and motivation that drives both individual and collective success.

Sephora’s Perspective On The Situation

In response to the feedback on their gesture, Sephora emphasized the critical role its team played in achieving a remarkable year. The company expressed pride in its employees, and highlighted its commitment to rewarding those efforts through a comprehensive package, including competitive benefits, performance bonuses, educational opportunities, brand perks, and substantial product discounts, underscoring a deep appreciation for the hard work and dedication of its workforce.

While the delivery of appreciation in the form of a cookie may not have resonated as intended, the company’s statement does reflect a broader commitment to valuing employee contributions through meaningful benefits and perks. 

How To Move Forward

Moving forward, it's essential for companies, Sephora included, to engage in open conversations with their workforce to understand their needs and preferences. Soliciting direct feedback on recognition methods can help tailor approaches that genuinely appreciate and motivate employees. This dialogue is the cornerstone of building a recognition culture that aligns with employees' values and the company's goals, ensuring that future efforts to celebrate achievements are received as intended and contribute positively to the company's culture.

In essence, while Sephora's comprehensive benefits and rewards program illustrates a structured approach to employee recognition, the cookie gesture serves as a learning opportunity. It's a call to action for all organizations to continuously refine their recognition practices, ensuring they are as personalized and meaningful as the contributions they aim to celebrate.

Whether you have an in-house HR department, or hire a fractional HR team, like us, to work with you, being thoughtful and sensitive around employee recognition is important. It matters to your public perception and reputation as much as it does to motivating the people who come to work for you everyday.

If you are seeking guidance on how to elevate your HR strategy to build employee retention and loyalty, please reach out. We’d be happy to jump on a call with you.


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