HR Leads Business

May 22, 2019 | Ginny Engholm

3 Ways to Improve Your Employee Recognition Program

Everyone wants to do good work, but the work itself often isn’t enough because we also crave a feeling of purpose and accomplishment, and a sense that others see the work we do and value it.

Employee recognition programs are one way to try to meet this need, but creating one that hits the target can be tricky. “There's a difference between rewards and recognition. Recognition doesn't equate to rewards,” says Gaby Thompson, senior vice president of human resources, acquisitions and total rewards at Cisco. “Recognition could come with money, but it doesn't necessarily have to be money at all. It could be as simple as a thank you. It could be public recognition, or it could be recognition through a development opportunity.”

Whatever path you take as an employer to recognize the work of your employees, here are three strategies you can use to create a meaningful recognition program that increases employee happiness and engagement.

Create a Culture of Recognition

A successful employee recognition program starts with cultivating a culture of appreciation and a celebration of people’s successes. Letting your employees know that you’re invested in their success encourages them to reach their full potential, says Alexander Noren, co-founder of Forgeant, an employee engagement platform.

But it’s also important to celebrate people’s successes as an organization, because the way in which an the employee is given recognition can have a significant effect on their satisfaction and engagement. Thompson calls this creating a “moment that matters.”

“To have money simply show up in a paycheck, without celebration, doesn’t result in the most return for that investment that you're making in that employee you're trying to recognize,” she says. “If managers and peers are not making it a moment that counts for the person they're recognizing, that’s a missed opportunity.”

Personalize Recognition

Recognition is most powerful when it’s individualized and based on what your employee population values, Noren says. “We do ourselves a disservice when we show up to a conference or read a great article or listen to a fantastic podcast and think ‘This is it, this is what I have to do,’ ” he says. “Each organization is different and unique.”


Thompson suggests identifying what your employees value and thinking creatively about what would be a meaningful way to recognize their work, then delivering personalized experiences as part of your recognition program. Beyond cash or a gift card, an experience connects you and the employee, she says. Maybe it’s a weekend at the Ritz-Carlton for an employee who likes to travel, or tickets to NCAA tournament games for a college basketball fan. The goal is to provide a positive experience that shows you understand them — and that you value their contributions.

Focus on Consistent Engagement

Thompson says her research indicates that strong recognition programs correlate with improved employee engagement — and that giving consistent recognition is important for keeping employees engaged and happy. “When employers continuously recognize employees throughout the year, it reinforces over and over again that they are appreciated for their work,” she says.


Even small awards, when given more frequently, cause employee engagement to go up, Thompson says.


Highlighting your recognition program by communicating about it actively also helps improve engagement, Noren says. “In order to increase employee engagement, organizations have to be more transparent about the effort that they are making,” he says. Consistently communicating about employee successes and recognizing their efforts helps create a positive culture of appreciation across the company.