Frontline Initiative DSP Recognition

An Employee Recognition Program Designed by Direct Support Professionals


John J. Sherlock is an Associate Professor and Director of the MS degree program at Western Carolina University.

Grant Morgan is a Research Associate at Praxis Research, Inc.

Four North Carolina organizations employing 500 direct support professionals (DSPs) recently completed a three-year project funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project in western North Carolina to reduce DSP turnover and improve job satisfaction. The project was originally funded to test the impact of providing less expensive health care coverage to DSPs. But after discussions with DSPs, the organizations learned that DSPs were interested in the creation and benefits of a new recognition program. As the project turned in this direction, the DSPs were instrumental is designing the recognition program. DSPs requested two types of recognition: cash bonuses and service awards. Cash bonuses of $125 were earned by DSPs who had attendance of 90% or better for one year. Service awards included items such as tote bags, fleece jackets, portfolios, mugs, and pins. All of these awards were printed with agency logos. The type of service award earned was based on the DSPs’ years of service.

What We Learned

DSPs who received a cash bonus or service award were very satisfied with their jobs. The recognition programs further increased their job satisfaction. It was also found that all DSPs, whether or not they had earned a bonus or service award, found the recognition program to be valuable. Recognizing DSPs for their work also improved recruitment. More than 92% of service award recipients and more than 98% of bonus recipients said they would “probably” or “definitely” recommend direct support work to a friend or family member. DSP retention also improved. DSPs who received merit bonuses or service awards were more likely to say they planned to stay in the field for one, two, and five years. DSP turnover declined from 30% in 2003 to 14% in 2007. DSPs valued the recognition program and had a genuine sense of pride in wearing the agency’s logo. DSPs also identified future forms of service awards, such as cash, gift cards or vacation time.

“…what I like is having the logos of the agency on it so people could recognize… I’m out there helping people and it’s very important for me to help people. I’d like to represent the company.”

Starting a Recognition Program?

This recognition program had a positive impact on both DSPs and employers. In addition to increasing DSPs’ job satisfaction, the items awarded increased DSPs’ sense of professional identity and pride in working for a particular organization. When DSPs wore items with the organizations’ logo on them, it also provided excellent visibility for their employer.

An employer who is considering starting a recognition program for DSPs should consider the following to increase their likelihood of success:

  1. Involve DSPs in selecting the awards.
  2. Hold organizational events where DSPs can gather and be recognized in front of their peers and family members.
  3. Remember the costs of a recognition program will typically be much less than the high cost of unwanted turnover.
  4. Establish and communicate upfront the criteria that will be used for recognition awards, such as attendance.
  5. Think creatively about the possible awards. DSPs in our study valued clothing items (e.g., fleece jacket) and other items (portfolios, pins) that they could use at work. DSPs in our focus groups also requested that future programs award paid time-off, based on years of service.
  6. Reward years of service with increasingly valuable awards to show the value you place on your DSPs’ loyalty to the organization.
  7. Enter a recognition program with the understanding that everything won’t go perfectly; you may have to make adjustments as you proceed. That’s OK—the DSPs will appreciate your efforts to recognize them!