How to Recognize Employees the Right Way in Today’s Workplace

Find out what studies reveal about the types of employee recognition programs workers like and dislike — and common mistakes employers make in offering them.

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Employee recognition programs can either please workers or turn them off, studies show. But some business leaders think employers need to recognize workers today more than ever, with an ongoing pandemic, massive exodus from the workplace, general unrest in the labor market, and historically high inflation.

Why are some employers doubling down on offering recognition programs rather than cutting back? And what are studies revealing about the types of programs employees like or dislike and common mistakes employers are making in offering them?

It may be easier for big companies to offer all kinds of recognition programs and scrap those that don’t work. But the risk of offering the wrong recognition programs may be greater for your small business (SMB).

Employees want more recognition from employers

Workers may give some recognition programs the thumbs down. However, a new national report shows that employees want more recognition, not less.

The 1,347 employed adults in the Eagle Hill Consulting Job Well Done survey said that recognition programs make them go above and beyond their job responsibilities.

The 1,347 employed adults in the Eagle Hill Consulting Job Well Done survey said that recognition programs make them go above and beyond their job responsibilities.

However, these are just a small fraction of the employees’ responses.

More Job Well Done survey results

Employees think recognition programs should be more:

  • Frequent (38%).
  • Proactive (36%).
  • Widely shared across their organization (30%).
  • Easier for employers to offer (26%).
  • Free of bias (24%).

When recognized for their work, employees say they’re more likely to:

  • “Go the extra mile” on the job (53%).
  • Remain on staff (48%).
  • Support their team (43%).
  • Perform beyond expectations for customers (38%).

Most employees prefer being recognized through:

  • Gifts or cash (54%).
  • Time off (34%).
  • A thank you note or email (32%).
  • A reward program (23%).
  • Perks for experiencing opportunities, like tickets (22%).
  • Public recognition (20%).
  • Employee of the week or month programs (19%).

Employees say being recognized:

  • Motivates them (32%).
  • Makes work seem more meaningful (60%).
  • Reflects a supportive team (51%).
  • Offers career potential (29%).

More than 1/3 of employees say their employer has created new ways of recognizing them in the past year. That’s great news for employees who want employers to be more proactive about employee recognition.

Employers can use the Job Well Done survey as a blueprint for developing ways to appreciate workers. But there’s a major drawback in the survey results: employees say that only 1/4 of employers ask them how they want to be recognized.

Why not just ask employees how they want to be appreciated? Otherwise, recognition programs become a game of hit or miss.

When recognition programs go wrong

If employers didn’t know the value of showing workers appreciation, 80% of them wouldn’t have recognition programs. They know these programs can lower employee turnover rates and boost employee morale, for example.

But recognition programs fail when employers don’t capitalize on the benefits, according to CoreCentive, a global recognition and incentive company. Here are reasons the company says programs fail:

1. No transparency

All employees in your organization should understand how the recognition program works and be able to view it as fair and unbiased.

2. Unclear or no goals

Without clearly set goals, a recognition program will fail before it starts. Also, you won’t be able to track the program’s progress unless it has clear goals.

3. Mistaken rewards

Without knowing how employees want to be appreciated, the program could end up offering the incentives they don’t want. Employee engagement surveys and pulse polls can help you select the right rewards. The program will be ineffective unless workers are motivated.

4. Poor program promotion

Just setting up a program without constantly promoting it is a major mistake. To take advantage of the benefits a recognition program offers, promoting it must be a priority. Remind everyone in your organization of the program by promoting it in in-house publications, managers’ meetings, and all-staff meetings.

5. No follow-up

You’ll need a commitment from your entire team to make an employee recognition program work. Developing the program is just a first step. Management’s follow-up with action is critical. Also, leadership should set an example by regularly recognizing employees.

6. Inconsistency

Having some managers use the recognition program while others do not is the kind of inconsistency that can frustrate employees. Consistency, along with transparency and continuous promotion, helps employees see the program as fair. It also creates a culture of recognition.

7. Complicated process

The employee recognition program should be a quick and easy process to use. People are less likely to use the program if it’s too complicated. Recognition software can simplify the process.

You’ll want to avoid these mistakes so that your SMB can offer a recognition program that works for all your employees.

What are recognition ideas that SMBs can implement?

LinkedIn has no- and low-cost employee recognition ideas for SMBs. However, the social media platform recommends that you consider 3 things before setting up or adding rewards to your program:

  1. The events and behaviors you want to recognize.
  2. How much time/resources you have for running the program.
  3. How you plan to track the program.

Some no-cost ideas are:

  • Team meetings. Allow managers and supervisors 5 minutes at meetings to recognize their employees for their work.
  • Written praise. Send employees a handwritten note or email describing in detail why you’re recognizing their work.
  • Special occasion or event cards. Send employees birthday greetings, get well messages, or an acknowledgement of a family member’s birth or death with signatures from everyone on the team.

These are common recognition ideas, but they can be effective for employers on a tight budget.

Do workplace recognition programs work?

They’re successful enough in boosting performance, engagement, and productivity. Companies with recognition programs have 14% higher rates in these areas than companies without recognition programs.

Statistics show that 80% of employees report working harder when their performance is recognized.

On productivity alone, recognition makes employees happy — and happier workers are 13% more productive than unhappy ones. Also, 80% of employees report working harder when their performance is recognized, compared to just 40% who are plagued by a bad boss or fearful of losing their job.

The key is recognizing workers in ways they find meaningful. This may require scratching cookie-cutter giveaways for more personalized rewards, like tickets to an activity an employee enjoys or a donation to the employee’s favorite charity.

How can employers get recognition of employees right?

Workest asked business leaders for their insights on effective employee recognition programs. They include Israel Gaudette, CEO of Flawless SEO, Affiliate Marketer at IG Marketing Inc.; Marc Werner, CEO and founder of GhostBed; Jamie Aitken, vice president, HR Transformation at Betterworks; Michael Podolsky, CEO and co-founder of PissedConsumer.com; Arnaud Weiss, head of Strategy — Employee Journeys, at Lumapps; and Aaron Rubens, CEO and founder at Kudoboard.

Here are some of their responses and recommendations:

W: Are employee recognition programs merely nice-to-have gestures or do they have a real, measurable impact on your organization’s success?

Weiss: Deep inside each and every one of us there is a craving for recognition. This hunger takes its roots in our past. For thousands of years, humans were part of tribal societies, where being considered a valuable contributor to the group was a matter of life and death. This is probably why even today we long for recognition so much.

As a result, employee recognition programs have a direct impact on engagement and retention. As you probably know, it’s never been so hard for companies to hire and retain talent. In 2022, 44% of US-employed individuals were looking for a new job. There is more and more fluidity in the job market, and companies able to create a superior employee experience will win over others. Recognition is a core component of it.

W: Why do you think some recognition programs work and others don’t? Is the problem structure? Planning? Money? Company size?

Gaudette: I think the problem is that most companies don’t take the time to figure out what their employees really want. Most recognition programs are based on what the company wants and not what the employee wants.

Companies create a program, and then they tell their employees about it. The employees may or may not be interested, but since there isn’t much choice in the matter, they will usually participate for whatever reason — maybe because it’s easier than doing nothing, or maybe because they really want to receive whatever prize is being offered.

Aitken: Company recognition programs should be fair and accessible across the entire organization, otherwise it’s tough to adopt and employees won’t buy in. Whether it’s tangible rewards like gift cards, or recognition that doesn’t cost anything on a public forum like a company’s Slack channel, they are all meaningful forms of recognition.

When these programs fail, there is some level of disconnect between the people, performance, and rewards. Investing in employee engagement software allows companies to automate much of the reward distribution process, avoiding this problem altogether.

W: What programs work best based on your experience?

Podolsky: Experiential and compensatory rewards have worked best within our organization. We don’t make public recognitions such as employee of the month because this is not applicable within our type of organization.

The same concerns the growth rewards because growing and development opportunities are part of our beneficial package. Career moves are always welcome. Anyone within our team can change their role if they are eager to develop and improve the necessary skills.

Werner: The best way to thank and reward employees is to provide them with a sense of achievement. At GhostBed we treat our employees as part of our extended family, it’s what has worked for this 5th generation family business.

W: What recommendations or precautions would you give employers?

Rubens: Your program will fail if it is simply a last-ditch effort to keep employees from leaving your company or to make sure your top talent is happy. A successful recognition program has to take every single employee into account and be about THEM — not your bottom line.

When in doubt, ASK your employees. Do they feel appreciated? What parts of their work are going unacknowledged? Who are the unsung heroes of the organization? Then start building your program around uplifting them.

At Kudoboard, we have found that peer-to-peer recognition is particularly effective. Top-down approaches tend to favor the same key players and lay the responsibility at the feet of HR or managers. Instead, recognition that is embedded in the culture and is carried out by fellow employees means more to everyone and is more sustainable and scalable.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

Remember to track the progress of the program

Remember to track your employee recognition program’s progress. You won’t know what’s working, what needs revising, or what needs overhauling without a metrics system.

LinkedIn recommends software programs for tracking like Microsoft’s Excel; Trello, a free tool; and guHRoo, its own platform.

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