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Build a robust employee recognition program that motivates your team


Are you doing enough to recognize your employees? You may think you’re doing enough to show employee appreciation, but perhaps your company lacks a formal employee recognition program.

In a competitive talent market, it’s important that your people strategy includes everything from succession and workforce planning to enhancing DE&I and building a positive workplace culture. A big part of that workplace culture is employee engagement, which leads us to employee recognition. (Everything is connected!)

Before you set out to build a robust, successful program that hopefully will inspire your employees for years to come, what do you need to keep in mind?

Obstacles and opportunities

At the outset, it’s hard to imagine any downside to showing your team that you value their work.

After all, these are the people with whom you spend most of your days. It’s only natural to want to show them you appreciate their efforts. In so doing, you may encourage them to stick around.

Yet truly successful recognition efforts aren’t as simple as rewarding performance with a gift card or saying “Happy Birthday.”

Failing to align the programs with company values can cause your best-intentioned efforts to fall short of your goals.

It’s critical to clarify terminology around the awards program concept at the outset.

Employee recognition vs. appreciation

Employee appreciation and employee recognition may seem like the same thing at first glance, but there’s a nuanced difference. And it’s helpful to have a mix of them, since both types of programs contribute to the creation of a positive culture for your employees. There’s more to appreciation and recognition than meets the eye. Let’s take a closer look at the differences.

Employee appreciation programs

At root, these programs are designed to help employees feel good.

They tend to mark milestones, such as:

  • Employment anniversaries
  • Birthdays
  • Holidays

An appreciation program can enhance employee morale, even when this program is simple:

  • Bringing in baked goods monthly for birthdays
  • Presenting a card signed by top management

In smaller workplace environments, of course, recognition can be more personalized, like having an office lunch on someone’s birthday.

No matter what the company size, however, it’s important to ensure no one is overlooked. Provide appreciation consistently.

Centering your appreciation on dates significant to both the employee and the company can be a savvy strategy.

Employment anniversary milestones are a wonderful way to connect the dots between employee dedication, service and the company’s mission. They’re typically given at one-year, five-year and 10-year marks. More established companies may celebrate even longer tenures.

If yours is a newer company, or if you’ve been having trouble with staff retention, you could implement more frequent recognition programs to build enthusiasm. Of course, a thoughtful thank you note acknowledging months or years of service is almost always welcome.

No matter what you choose to implement, support for the program should start at the top. Employee appreciation efforts are most successful when senior management and leadership are actively involved.

Employee recognition programs

While appreciation programs are designed typically to make employees feel good, an employee recognition program is designed to reward employee performance that positively impacts the company.

For this reason, they should be aligned with your core values.

An employee recognition program should highlight your top performers, rewarding them openly while also encouraging others.

A successful recognition program helps all employees:

  • Understand what is important to the company
  • Celebrate individual employee achievements

It’s essential that managers and senior leadership agree on what laudable behavior looks like. Each level of the company needs to be on board with the program to ensure its credibility and respectability within your workplace culture.

Your company’s employee recognition program also needs to be simple enough to implement, maintain and repeat.

Recognition is a continuous effort, not a one-time solution.

Once you define the behaviors that warrant recognition, you can then address appropriate rewards.

Internal versus external rewards

Even if you’re clear on the “why” of recognition, determining what precisely to give a highly regarded, hardworking employee still can be tricky.

There may not be a one-size-fits-all reward that is of value to all employees.

Some people are motivated by getting more time off. Others are motivated by cash or gift cards. Still others enjoy formal presentations of recognition at an annual company dinner.

These rewards fall into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic.

  1. Intrinsic rewards include feedback and acknowledgement. (Think employee appreciation.)
  2. Extrinsic rewards include raises, bonuses, gifts and promotions. (Think employee recognition.)

For a new employee recognition program to have the desired positive impact on employee attitudes and performance – and on your business – it must:

  • Match staff motives
  • Help employees grasp which behaviors, levels of performance and attitudes are of greatest importance to the company

Surveying employees, even informally, can help determine what is best for your company.

It may not be feasible to give people exactly what they want. However, you might offer options, like a day off or a gift card equal to one day’s pay. (You’ll need to talk to your payroll specialist or accountant regarding potential tax implication.)

No matter what your recognition rewards include, you must set clear parameters for your program. By basing the award on your core values, you signal clearly what you seek to reward.

Employees shouldn’t have to guess.

The program must also be measurable so employees can recognize why the recipient was selected. The perception that someone is randomly selected or a choice is made based on favoritism can kill morale.

Management recognition versus peer recognition

As your company explores employee recognition programs, the topic of a peer recognition program may crop up in conversations.

Many companies offer peer recognition programs, encouraging employees to recognize their teammates for going above and beyond. Those efforts can build camaraderie and morale.

If you don’t have a management recognition program in place, however, you should ensure that that senior leadership has an opportunity to participate in the peer recognition program.

For example, peers can write notes and post them on their cubicle walls when an employee does something to help out a peer. This is something that management can easily participate in as well.

If your company has peer recognition but  management has no similar mechanism for rewarding excellence, it may come across that management doesn’t appreciate employee effort.

That said, and assuming you have a management program in place, building a peer-to-peer program can help build a culture of recognition overall.

Typically, peer programs tend to fall more in line with employee appreciation than employee recognition efforts. There’s some flexibility in what they look like, too.

They may include:

  • A bi-weekly award of excellence passed through the office
  • Handwritten kudos displayed on a bulletin board in the breakroom

Summing it all up

A robust strategy will incorporate employee appreciation and recognition. Senior leadership should embrace and embody this program, and it should support the company’s values and business goals.

What the means for your company might look drastically different from other organizations.

And that’s fine.

Whatever strategies you opt to fold into your company, employee appreciation and recognition efforts can positively impact your workplace.

To learn about other worthwhile benefits you can offer your staff, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to benefits.