IT IS a common problem in businesses everywhere, says world-renowned employee recognition expert and author of The Carrot Principle, Mr Chester Elton.

His research shows that some 65 per cent of employees in the United States do not receive any form of encouragement or direct appreciation from their managers.

Furthermore, 79 per cent of people who leave their companies do so for that very reason.

"We don't coach managers on how to get their employees engaged, how to properly say 'thank you'," Mr Elton laments.

But fortunately for Singapore employers, the problem is also a simple, and cheap, one to solve.

Just as your mother may have swapped television time for efforts around the house, so employers can reap the rewards of positive reinforcement.

"We grew up with our parents giving us encouragement," says Mr Elton. "But somehow we go to the business place and we just kind of forget these things."

He adds: "Importantly, recognition doesn't have to cost anything."

Taking just a few minutes to pen a handwritten note, managers can let their staff know they are appreciated and that their input into the business is acknowledged.

Other cheap and easy recognition tips in Mr Elton's arsenal include remembering children's birthdays and even one-off rewards like washing the employee of the month's car.

What's most important, he advises managers, is to ensure recognition is "frequent, timely and specific".

Generalised statements every morning or Friday won't be enough. Rather, employees need to hear specifically what they have helped to achieve and to know that the boss has seen and appreciates it.

"General praise has no impact. Specificity does," he stresses.

As a special guest plenary speaker at the upcoming HR Summit here in May, Mr Elton will explain in detail how encouraging employees is something that everyone, managers included, inherently knows how to do.

His presentation, entitled Everything You Need to Know about Recognition You Learned from Your Mum, will show how simple rewards and active encouragement could be the difference between success and failure for businesses in the downturn.

Of course, keeping staff in their jobs is not the only reason why businesses should adopt an effective recognition strategy. Mr Elton says praise and encouragement can also have a direct effect on a business's bottom line.

"It's a bigger problem than most companies will admit to. Turnover rates cost companies billions of dollars a year. But more than that is the disengagement," he says.

He tells participants at his conferences and presentations: "If you use more carrots and fewer sticks, not only do you have happier employees, you have happier customers. And that means you get better business results."

That's why he advises managers to keep up their recognition and appreciation activities, even as the world economy falters.

"If you're starting to eliminate things like your service awards, you might as well just close your doors - at least that's the message your people are going to get.

"I think the dollars that you spend on recognition are those that multiply the fastest out of anything you do. Saying 'thank you', saying 'I appreciate you' - that's priceless. And those should be the last budgets that get eliminated," he says.

Of course, employees have to deserve it. Praise should not just be a "gimme" that staff receive - regardless of their output or attitude.

The downturn means both managers and their staff will need to bring their best to the office.

"It's all about your attitude - you should be the one who's upbeat and enthusiastic," Mr Elton tells employees. "If you can be that spark, it goes a long way to fire-proofing your job."

In the end, it is a case of chickens and eggs.

A little bit of encouragement goes a long way in ensuring staff stay with an organisation and go the extra mile for their boss.

At the same time, that extra effort during a tough period can sometimes be enough to wake managers up to the need for recognition.

At this year's HR Summit, Elton says the plenary presentation, expected to attract some 3,000 of Singapore's leading HR professionals, will be a fun, dynamic and informative session.

"You're going to find out that it's not brain surgery. And when you do it right it actually is a lot of fun. It's really engaging," he says.

In addition, participants will leave with some key take-home strategies they can begin using right away.

Those ideas will go a long way to shoring up employee loyalty and engagement.

Mr Elton says they will help to remind staff why they like working where they do and what attracted them there in the first place.

It will not stop them scouring the job ads. But employees will start looking with more curiosity than a determination for change.