February 7, 2023
September 18, 2019

A Quick Guide to Rewards and Recognition in the Workplace: Then & Now

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As an employer in today’s business environment, you know the value of appreciation in the workplace. On a basic level, employee rewards and recognition (or R&R) help create positive company culture and keep employees motivated and engaged at their jobs.

On a higher level, rewards and recognition in the workplace can help add value to the workplace and purpose to a job and to a career. Where and when did recognition start in the workplace? What did early workplace R&R look like back in the day? From ancient Greece to the modern workspace, we explore recognition's origins below.

A Brief History of Reward Management: Workplace Recognition Beginnings

When did workplace recognition first begin? Although there is not one single event that pinpoints the birth of workplace recognition, some early forms of rewards can be found in the first Olympic games in ancient Greece. The winners of Olympic events were awarded with various prizes, including laurel (or olive) leaf crowns, horses, and bronze tripods. These athletes were also honored in the host cities with statues and stone inscriptions of their victories. Olympic medals became a part of the modern games, starting in 1896. Moreover, what was true in ancient Greece is still true today—athletes consider it a great honor to participate and be recognized for their Olympic achievements. In fact, there is still no prize money associated with Olympic events!

"Last one to the Parthenon is a rotten egg!"

In addition to the Olympics and other competitions in those days, early work recognition was really a barter system, where a person must give something—a commodity, service, etc.—and receive something in return. People were trying to earn a living and provide for their families, which at that time was rewarding enough. (Let's be real—sometimes that's STILL rewarding enough, right?)

Though we've come a long way from the barter system and the Parthenon, R&R in the workplace still have a crucial role to play. In very basic terms, employee rewards and recognition are things that call out specific behaviors by individuals or teams and then reward them for that. Now, this reward doesn't always have to be monetary. If it can be monetary, great. But it doesn't have to be in order to be effective. Any recognition is generally valuable recognition, but if you can make it specific, timely, and genuine, that's going to take you farther than anything. Be careful though that the reward you give matches the accomplishment. If someone crushes a sales quota time and again, a simple gift card may actually devalue the recognition more than anything.

Scientific Reward Management

With the Industrial Revolution came a new way to manage and divide workers for better productivity and efficiency. Enter Frederick W. Taylor and his Scientific Management theory. Taylor studied factory workers and what made them more or less productive and motivated on the job. What he found was that having the promise of employment the next day was not enough motivation for workers to work more efficiently. Behold the beginnings of employee rewards and recognition to help motivation and engagement! 

The actual workplace reward Taylor believed in was monetary since he theorized that workers were mostly motivated by money. It made sense that those that were more productive were paid more. This scientific management practice was a necessary in the advancement of leadership, motivation, and incentives.

20th Century

During the 20th century, most workplace recognition programs were based on B.F. Skinner’s study of positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner was a groundbreaking behavioral psychologist who's theories still influence our lives today. Skinner theorized that employers only reward employees who exhibited hard working behavior every time they observed it in the office or within their business results, and that’s why pay incentive plans were popular during this time period.

In addition, service awards recognizing work anniversaries were also heavily influenced by employee tenure. From jewelry to trophies and plaques, employees were rewarded but didn’t have much of a choice on what they received, and most of it was based off tenure with the company. Rewards also came in the form of promotions, as status in the office was very important to Baby Boomers at that time.

The birth of the internet brought about an increased focus on more personal/lifestyle awards that employees could use daily.

Why Is Employee Recognition Important in the Workplace?

Right off the bat, here are a few of the benefits of a recognition-focused workplace:

To sum up, over 80% of employees agree that recognition and rewards improves their experience, their relationships, their engagement levels, and their happiness—which means you get some awesome ROI. Sounds pretty good, right?

But in order to reap those rewards, you have to build a culture of recognition through every level of the business. People have to intrinsically know that they’re valued, and that if they do good work, they’ll be rewarded. Building a culture like that may sound hard, but it’s actually relatively simple!

How Do You Build a Culture of Recognition?

There are a couple ways to make employee recognition the keystone of your company culture, and none of them require any sort of sweeping reforms. Here are the ways to get people excited to adopt employee recognition.

1. Make Recognition Easy to Do

Recognition should be as easy as one, two, three. One, quick digital recognition for on-the-spot celebrations. Two, in-person conversations to meaningfully convey value. And three, social and public shoutouts (if the recipient doesn’t mind).

With an employee recognition platform, you empower employees to quickly and easily spread the love through peer-to-peer, manager-to-peer, and on-the-spot recognition programs. And you can create other customized recognition programs to fit your needs!

Bonus tip: With Awardco and our AwardCodes, you can recognize offline and frontline employees just as easily as online employees. Just sayin’.

Whatever you do, make it easy, fun, and rewarding for everyone to recognize the people around them. 

2. Make Recognition Specific, Timely, and Genuine

Recognition is meant to make people feel good, and when they feel good, they’re more willing to recognize others in turn. However, those good feelings only come after a specific, timely, and genuine comment.

Recognize someone for a specific action or behavior. Make it timely by complimenting them as soon as you see the action/behavior. And genuinely convey why they impressed you. These types of recognitions will go a long way to building a culture of appreciation.

3. Tie Recognition Into Company Values

Want to drive behavior and strengthen your employees’ interest in your company values? Recognize them when they exemplify the values. When you recognize or reward someone for a specific action, they’re more likely to repeat that action.

For example, at Awardco our company values are to recognize the good, do great things, and be even better. So we try to recognize the people who accomplish amazing things, push boundaries, and focus on the positives. What are your company values, and are you supporting them with recognition?

4. Use Recognition to Rethink Compensation

Compensation is the original recognition. An employee comes into work for 40 hours a week? Here’s a paycheck to thank them for their effort. Right? But in today’s world of modern tools, recognition has come a long way.

Reward compensation is a great way to involve employee recognition in your compensation plan. You can take your existing budget (recognition budget, birthday budget, bonus budget, or anything else) and divvy it up into a regular cadence of rewards for everyone. Recognize employees regularly throughout the year with Reward Compensation.

The importance of rewarding employees can’t be overstated. Recognition and appreciation should be the backbone of your organization, and with these tips, they can be. But what employee recognition programs should you choose?

What Are Employee Reward and Recognition Program Examples?

While recognition itself should be specific, timely, and genuine, employee recognition programs come in all different shapes and sizes, which gives companies the freedom to choose what fits their needs and their culture the best. Here are a few examples to keep in mind:

  • Life event program. Every single employee at every single company in the world goes through life events. Things like weddings, graduations, having a child, or even simple birthdays, these life events are awesome and deserve to be celebrated! With a life event program, you can recognize employees for their personal milestones and achievements, and you can provide customized rewards to fit the theme (wedding gifts, baby shower gifts, etc.).
  • Wellness program. When employees feel good, they work better. What better way to drive healthy behavior than a recognition program that gets people excited to be active and eat healthy? This type of program may include a wellness stipend each month to pay for gym memberships or healthy meals. Then, as employees  record their wellness efforts, leaders can recognize them for it.
  • Peer-to-peer recognition program. When leaders recognize employees, that's awesome. But it's even more awesome when a coworker recognizes their peer! A peer recognition program allows friends and coworkers to recognize the good work they see around them without needing to report it to a manager or wait for approval. Plus, this type of program can get every excited about recognition, which massively improves business culture.
  • Volunteering or charity program. Employees want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and a this type of program is a great way for them to do that. You could plan out a company-wide volunteer opportunity and then recognize those who show up. Or, if you use a reward points system, allow employees to donate their points to a charity of their choice. This type of program contributes to a healthy, positive culture.

Businesses have nearly unlimited options when it comes to creating employee reward and recognition programs. Find out what is most meaningful and impactful for your employees and culture, and then plan a recognition program around it! If you work with Awardco, we can help you customize any program to fit any need.

What Are the Best Rewards for Employees?

Employee rewards can have a powerful impact on an employee's wellbeing, attitude, and productivity—but only if the reward is fitting and meaningful for that person. So how do you choose which reward is best? This is a tough nut to crack because for as many people as there are on the planet, there are an equal number of "best rewards" for each individual. Does Joe want a branded jacket? Does Mary like coffee enough to use an insulated mug? It's hard to say what will be the most effective reward, but in our experience with our clients, here's what we've found:

Allowing employees the power to choose their own reward is by far the most effective reward you can give. That's why gift cards are such a popular items, because they can allow for a little bit more choice than a limited catalog of boring old windbreakers can provide. But even gift cards aren't the best. If people are used to using Amazon to get anything they like in their daily life, why wouldn't you offer them the same experience for their rewards? And little plug here: Awardco is the only employee rewards and recognition company to partner with Amazon to offer millions of redemption options for any reward system, so you can do just that.

When you recognize your employees with points, they get all of the good feelings from being recognized and appreciated—plus, they then get to buy themselves a tangible reward that means the most to them! No more guessing which reward is best or agonizing over a reward catalog. Just simple, effective, recognition and good feelings all around.

Modernized Employee Rewards & Recognition Programs

What do modern employee recognition programs look like today? Successful programs should at least include the following aspects: personalization, timeliness, socialization, peer-to-peer, unique to company culture, etc. Furthermore, employers should reward employees with items that they actually want/will use and make sure employees also recognize great work being accomplished by other coworkers.

Theses programs will continue to evolve with the new and incoming workforce, so it’s important to take the time to understand what your current employees value and how they would like to be rewarded and recognized. It's also important to remember our history when it comes to recognition so we can avoid the pitfalls of the past!


It's the future. But which is the boss, and which is the employee?

All in all, as your programs continue to evolve in the coming years, look to see what improvements you can make today that let employees know how valued they are within the organization. And don't forget, Awardco is here to help! Get started!