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June 28, 2022
January 20, 2021

9 Tips to Build Successful Employee Recognition Programs

Employee Recognition for a Modern Workforce
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Developing a successful employee recognition program in your organization might sound like a tall order, especially if you’re starting from scratch. Even if you’re not, revitalizing old employee recognition programs (looking at you, “here’s a birthday card that four people signed”) can be equally as daunting. We’re here to help you build a world-class employee recognition program, and we break it down into 9 simple tips that will help you reimagine recognition and build a culture of employee engagement you previously only daydreamed about.

Employee Recognition Program Best Practices

Ah yes, best practices. The age old, tried and true business phrase we all love. If you’re ever in a meeting and don’t know really how best to contribute to the conversation, just say something like “these ideas are great, but do they follow best practices in the industry?” and everyone will think you’re incredibly smart. Jokes aside, best practices are there for a reason: they help direct our efforts. They help us be efficient and effective, which is a good thing. 

What are some simple employee recognition best practices we’ve found in our work with hundreds of companies around the globe? Companies like Zillow, Texas Roadhouse, Hertz, and more? We'll go over a few ideas for employee recognition programs that you may want to consider adding to your organization.

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#1: Start Where You Are

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to recognition. Think about the lowest hanging fruit (how’s that for another business phrase?) that you can take advantage of. For most organizations we work with, this means celebrating work anniversaries. 

Highlighting employees for their years of service is a great way to build company culture, boost employee experience, and show your whole organization that you care about every one of your people.

Pro tip: Consider celebrating work anniversaries every year. The median tenure for employees aged 25-34 is about 2.8 years. Maybe celebrating every employee more often than every 5 years will lead to more employees making it to that 5 year mark!

#2: Try Public Recognition

Once you’ve got the ball rolling with service awards, develop another recognition program to recognize good work throughout the year. When an employee feels more cared for, we guarantee they’ll care more about their jobs.

If you’re worried about the budget for public recognition, think about this: recognizing someone doesn’t have to include a monetary amount. In fact, some studies show that a non-monetary recognition has just as much power as one with money. Think about that—saying “great work!” to someone can have just as much impact as giving them a bonus.

Bonus Tip: Be Specific When You Recognize Employees

When you recognize someone, whether that’s for years of service or just for staying after to complete a project, be specific about why you recognized them. Specifying why you’re recognizing employees will make the recognition that much more powerful. “Hey Jenny! I saw that you took time to go the extra mile in helping Scott. That was pretty awesome” will mean so much more than “Jenny is a good employee.” Next time you recognize someone, put as much specificity in there as possible!

#3: Involve Employees

“But wait!” you might say, “recognizing employees IS involving them!” What we’re talking about here is more than that. It’s including employees in their own recognition and encouraging them to recognize others. Peer-to-peer recognition has an incredible impact on productivity, team culture, and overall workplace happiness—and all it takes is an invitation for employees to recognize team members and celebrate each other. Nothing will build company culture faster than employees supporting each other through recognition.

While these are only three simple tips to help you build the best employee recognition program, they’re powerful enough that they shouldn’t be overlooked. Too often we see organizations doing the bare minimum, whereas if they put a little more effort into recognizing employees, they’d see some great changes for the better in their workplace.

What Makes a Successful & Effective Employee Recognition Program?

As you’re working to build a culture of rewarding recognition and engagement, it’s always a good idea, as with many things, to start out with the end in mind. In this case, that means knowing how to measure your employee recognition program and what the indicators are of an effective, powerful program.

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#4: Recognition Programs That Are Measurable

While any recognition is good recognition, it should be measurable. Can you tell how many employees were recognized? Can you see which departments recognize the most and how their productivity is compared to other departments? Can you determine how retention in your organization has changed since implementing a recognition program? Food for thought as you create your own. 

When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and then reported, the rate of improvement will accelerate. Even the most basic of measurements need to be in place for you to build a successful recognition program.

#5: Recognition Programs That Are Rewarding

While it’s true that not every recognition program needs to have rewards attached to it (see above), we simply can’t ignore that we as humans like to be rewarded. Most employee recognition programs have some form of rewards. The most common are gift cards because gift cards are the most universal for the most people. Everybody likes a good gift card, right? Do you know what almost everybody likes even more than a gift card? The power to choose their own reward from millions of options. That’s actually why gift cards are so well-loved—they provide a small amount of choice. But if you could give employees even MORE choice, why wouldn’t you do it?

Enter Awardco and a shameless plug. When you use Awardco, you get access to millions of rewards choices because of our relationship with Amazon. Add hotels, tickets, custom company swag, bonus boxes, gift cards, and much more...and you’ve got something truly powerful on your hands. With all that, you can DEFINITELY give employees more choice.

#6: Recognition Programs That Are Used

This should be a no-brainer. When something is used, it’s successful. Think of it this way: how do you know if your idea for a new recipe is successful? People like it and they use it. They might even share it with others or talk about it with their friends. Same goes for a recognition program—if people are using it, enjoying it, and talking about it, it’s successful.

So how do you get employees to use the program? The best ways we’ve found are the following:

  • Introduce it. Introduce the program to everyone in a meeting. Let them know what it is, what they can use it for, and how to use it. 
  • Remind everyone. Send reminder emails to employees to redeem their points or recognize someone for a job well done. 
  • Lead by example. Make sure managers lead out in recognition—the more managers recognize others, the more their teams will do the same.


Pro tip: One of the best ways to track program success in the Awardco platform is what we call “redemption rate.” This is the rate at which your employees are redeeming the points they are awarded. If the rate is high, your program is getting great use!

Whatever your form of recognition, be it service anniversaries, peer to peer recognition, public recognition, or even just birthdays, remember these employee recognition tips when determining the success of your programs.

What Is the Best Reward for Employee Recognition?

Everyone wants to know what the best reward is when you’re recognizing an employee. Is it cash? Is it a vacation? Is it a gift card? All of those things are great, yes, but we’re going to say it again in case you didn’t read the section above: the best reward for employee recognition is giving employees the power to choose their own reward.

#7: Give Your Employees the Power of Choice

When someone is given a choice for their rewards, it increases the likelihood that the reward will be more appreciated, used, and valued. When you were a kid and your Grandma gave you a personalized keychain (much like a service award, coincidentally), that was nice, right? However—when Grandma gave you a gift card, or better yet a gift card AND that plaque, the ability to choose your own present ended up being way more valuable and memorable.

Which Companies Have the Best Recognition Programs?

Thankfully we know some of the best companies in the world that have award winning recognition programs. And in case you were wondering, it’s not a coincidence that the best recognition programs also lead to the best organizations.

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#8: Unite Your Programs in One Place

Global defense contractor L3Harris has operations and employees located all over the world. Unifying recognition on a global scale is an incredibly daunting prospect, but L3Harris jumped right in and created something that is as easy to use (and redeem rewards!) in Dubai as it is in Dublin or Dallas. One recognition platform to rule them all, so to speak.

The best recognition and reward platforms allow you to customize your programs for regional considerations and offer redemption options in different countries.

#9: Unite Recognition With Incentive Programs

Zillow is the online real estate engine of choice for millions of people, and they created an incentive program for their employees that helps in participation and engagement in their internal safety programs. Because of the way they tied recognition and incentives together, Zillow has seen an incredibly high eNPS over the last year. It’s not a fluke, either. Recognition and incentives make for excellent bedfellows.

How to Make Your Recognitions Extra Effective

Now you know some of the best practices to build recognition programs that will boost employee engagement and happiness. But what about the really nitty gritty details of each recognition? Do you know exactly how to reach out to a peer, a direct report, or a leader and recognize them for their work? Here are some best practices to keep in mind within the previously mentioned best practices (think Inception but less confusing):

  • Timely. Recognition for a project completed weeks ago is not as effective as one that is given in the moment. When you recognize others, try to be aware of the timeframe and be as punctual as possible.
  • Appropriate. Some employees may not wish to be recognized in front of others but will still appreciate a private, sincere recognition. Consider the person you are recognizing and what you're recognizing them for, then customize your method to be the best fit.
  • Specific. We've said it before and we'll say it again. Recognizing with specifics such as what project was completed by whom, how it impacted the organization, and what specific efforts were given by the employee will be much more impactful than a generalized "thanks."
  • Personal. While some employees might really appreciate that five-year service award plaque, others may want something else. Knowing what your employees actually value is an important part of effective recognition. And with Awardco, employees have the power to choose from millions of options on Amazon with zero markups.
  • Genuine. Be as genuine in your praise as possible. Think about what the person will appreciate the most and be yourself.
  • Impactful. Think about what sort of goal or accomplishment has what sort of impact on the company. Consider quarterly sales awards compared to a service anniversary or spot recognitions. Match the bigger impacts with the bigger rewards to avoid any resentment or unfairness.

Get Started Building Your Program

No matter where you are in your recognition program journey as an organization, remember that it’s important to start somewhere. And if you’re doing something and it isn’t quite working, maybe it’s time for a change. Start somewhere and try to be a little better.

If you’re wondering how to start an employee recognition program, Awardco can help with that by showing you how simple recognition and the largest reward network on the planet can take your employee recognition initiatives from good to truly great. Wherever you are on the path to more rewarding recognition, we want to help you get to where you want to be. And we’ll do it working side by side with you and help you develop programs you can be proud of—and programs your employees will love.

Schedule a demo to get started.




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