What is employee recognition?

Employee recognition is all about acknowledging hard work. The accomplishments of the individuals and teams in your organization should be celebrated.

At its core, recognition is strong, positive communication that builds and strengthens relationships. It’s a message that says, “I see you and the good work you’re doing, and I care about you.”  Praise is a highly effective way to reinforce good behaviors and company values.

Authentic recognition of your employees’ contributions begins with your leadership and serves as the foundation for strong teams and collaboration. A thriving employee recognition program is essential to creating a positive company culture.

Feeling undervalued is a huge motivator to find a new position elsewhere. It’s human nature to seek validation. In the current employment market, attrition, along with attracting and retaining talent, is paramount. With the right executive sponsorship, a strong recognition program can be a powerful motivator that inspires people to do their best work—and to stick around.

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” – William James, American philosopher

Benefits of employee recognition: why is it so important?

The global talent marketplace remains incredibly competitive. How can you create a culture of recognition that leads to engaged, productive, and loyal employees who feel appreciated and valued? What measurable results can you expect your efforts to yield?

Organizations that acknowledge and reward hard work realize both qualitative and quantitative benefits. When employees feel a sense of belonging at work, organizational performance benefits, according to 93% of respondents who participated in Deloitte’s 2020 “Global Human Capital Trends” survey.

“Praise does wonders for our sense of hearing.” – Arnold H. Glasow, humorist

Benefits of an employee recognition program

  • Drive inspired work
  • Boost employee morale
  • Attract and retain top talent
  • Build collaborative relationships
  • Reinforce a culture of respect and caring
  • Encourage enthusiasm and engagement
  • Create a sense of purpose
  • Cultivate joy and loyalty

The importance of psychological safety in the workplace

Creating a culture of psychological safety in the workplace is a challenge faced by many companies, whether employees are back in the office, on a hybrid schedule, or working remotely.

A safe workplace is built on a foundation of belonging. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — illustrating how all humans require their basic needs to be met before reaching their potential — employees must feel accepted before they are free to engage fully and authentically. It is not enough to simply acknowledge good work and build strong teams, it is one step toward creating an open, inclusive, and safe workplace.

Measurable outcomes: encourage great work

  • 56% percent of HR leaders told the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that employee recognition programs help recruit top talent.
  • For 65% of employees who planned to switch jobs, lack of recognition was the number one culprit in driving their decision, according to an Espresa internal study. In addition, 71% would have been more likely to stay if their employers offered more rewards and recognition.
  • Recognition also correlates with a team’s sense of meaning and purpose, says Gallup, which found that 74% of U.S. employees who said their teams receive praise also strongly agreed that they felt what they were doing was both valuable and useful.
  • Employee recognition programs increase employee happiness, according to 82% of HR leaders in the SHRM study. These programs also improve organizational culture (86%) and elevate the employee experience (89%).
  • Three-quarters of professionals said a simple “thank you” is all it takes to make them feel recognized, according to a two-year study by Deloitte.

How to build an effective employee recognition program

No effort to appreciate your employees’ hard work should be wasted. Measure your recognition by these standards and reap the benefits of building a culture of appreciation.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

Know what to celebrate:

  • Exceptional work
  • Embodiment of company values
  • Taking initiative and solving problems
  • Loyalty and tenure
  • Collaboration and supporting others
  • Thought leadership and mentoring
  • Going above and beyond

3 types of positive praise:

  • Process: Supports and encourages progress, not just accomplishments. Fosters a growth mindset that everyone can improve through effort, self-study, and strong mentorship.
  • Pro-social: Reinforces the importance of caring for others. Examples include helping, sharing, and cooperating. Strengthens morale, fosters connection, supports wellness, and reduces stress.
  • Product:  Celebrate those accomplishments! Completion and mastery are the culmination of effort, skill, and strategy.  The end goal should be acknowledged and applauded.

Positive feedback should be:

  • Timely: Be prompt. If you wait too long, you may forget, or the recognition could lose its meaning.
  • Regular: Embed recognition in your company’s culture. People can benefit from support and encouragement regularly, not just when they’ve done something especially praiseworthy. Until it becomes second nature, a recognition calendar can help you to appreciate employees’ hard work on a regular basis.
  • Specific: Tie praise to the behavior you want to reinforce. Provide praise and rewards for actions within an individual or team’s control, such as their level of effort, collaboration, and innovative strategies.
  •  Personalized: There is no one-size-fits-all. Your company’s recognition program should be varied and fit your people and their situations. Don’t be afraid to ask your employees what matters most to them and what kinds of rewards they find most appealing.
  • Connected: Help your people see the value of their work and how its impact connects to the work of others. Encourage pro-social behaviors like helpfulness and cooperation and help motivate your people to meet challenges, take risks, and adjust when mistakes are made. Tether employee recognition to your company’s culture. Show that their work is valuable and useful.

Avoid the 5 pitfalls of praise:

  • Easy or generic praise. Can be interpreted as cluelessness about the simple nature of the task. Or worse, it can be misread as revealing low expectations and taking little to impress. Undermines leadership.
  • Valuing ability over effort. Intelligence or talent is seen as something a person has or doesn’t. Subverts the belief that people can improve and succeed through hard work.
  • Over the top praise. Setting an impossibly high standard leads to fear of failure and risk aversion. The team loses out on future creativity, problem-solving, and innovation.
  • Comparison praise. Prioritizes competitive standing over mastery. The only motivation is to outperform others, not to realize one’s full potential. Pits team members against one another. Results in challenge avoidance, loss of motivation, and “sore losers.”
  • Insincere praise. A flatterer is viewed as patronizing or manipulative. Shows an absence of understanding or caring. Corrodes trust and weakens relationships.

An effective employee recognition program need not be filled with grand gestures or expensive gifts. A simple thank you goes a long way, and even small acts of appreciation show your people their work and contributions are seen and valued. The key to a culture of employee recognition is supporting the process of doing good work through approval, acceptance, and regular encouragement.

What types of recognition do employees want?

People crave appreciation for their efforts. But everyone doesn’t want to be recognized in the same way. Some would be mortified at a company-wide shout-out, while others relish public praise.

The better you know your people, the more effectively you can tie meaningful recognition to desired rewards for a thriving culture of appreciation. They know themselves and what they need. You just have to ask and understand individual employee motivations.

21 creative employee recognition ideas

  1. Words of praise. Positive feedback in the form of a handwritten note, a shout-out, a voice memo, or a thank you are simple yet powerful gestures. “Process praise” can inspire people to feel confident working through challenges, feeling overwhelmed, or fearing failure. Words of praise should always be tailored to individual preferences and tied to the desired reward for maximum impact.
  2. Peer-to-peer kudos. Affirmations and acknowledgment can’t only come from leadership. A thriving culture of recognition makes peer-to-peer support and encouragement easy. A great platform will deliver points for kudos and allow people to cash in their praise for whatever reward they choose versus forcing what the company thinks the employee wants. Espresa’s data continues to showcase that employees crave peer-to-peer recognition over that of their managers.
  3. Knowledge and expertise sharing. Inviting your people to share their wisdom is not a burdensome task but an affirmation of their hard work and unique skill set. Placing growth, effort, and progress center stage allows others to pursue a similar path to mastery. This benefit can extend organically into a formal mentoring program that pairs your seasoned employees with new talent to share wisdom and experience, fostering connections and building trust.
  4. Ask for input. Show that leadership can improve and is putting forth the effort. Care about what your people have to say. Value their perspectives.
  5. Provide professional development opportunities. Coursework, conferences, leadership training, certifications, technical skills training. Investing in your people’s long-term growth and development is mutually beneficial. Consider this new benefit: Lifestyle Spending Accounts (LSA) and tuition reimbursement.
  6. Support personal growth
  7. Make it more rewarding to go the extra mile
  8. Craft an inclusive “About Us” page. Your organization should value the work of everyone on your teams.
  9. Make work a welcoming and inclusive space.
  10. Spend time. Facilitate access to leadership, share a meal as a team, and celebrate personal milestones.
  11. Regular town hall meetings – not top-down, but inclusive. Involve all teams.
  12. Offer to recommend a team member on LinkedIn. Show you’re invested in their success not only within your organization today but in the real world and in the future.
  13. Cultivate fun
  14. Invest in total wellbeing, including and especially mental health support
  15. Team bonding/team building
  16. Celebrate milestones. Teams can celebrate birthdays, growing families, retirements, and personal achievements. Providing a budget for these activities shows you value these strong relationships and taking the time to support personal
  17. Acknowledge and reward tenure. Mastery of one’s profession is a laudable goal. Celebrate work anniversaries and retirements, offer sabbaticals to long-term employees and promote from within. Show your teams that loyalty and commitment are valued and rewarded.
  18. Let people choose thoughtful gifts. Gift cards and cash bonuses are widely appreciated, and company swag is surprisingly beloved. But there are times when choice is powerful.  Show your people you care about them and value their work by letting them choose a gift to celebrate their achievements. Important to consider in an HR tech partner – look for zero markups on gifts.
  19. Cheer big successes. Projects completed, new business landed. Don’t wait for the end-of-year celebration to mark exceptional effort.
  20. Experiential rewards. From virtual experiences like travel to epic adventures like learning to surf – there’s a unique experience for every employee.
  21. End-of-year awards and celebrations. The company party shouldn’t be the only time you recognize hard work. Feel free to cap off the calendar or fiscal year with a celebration of annual accomplishments and stand-out performances. Thoughtfully executed public praise, along with all of your other recognition efforts, can feel incredibly affirming in an inclusive culture of recognition.

These ideas can be a jumping-off point for your employee recognition program. When you think about creative acts of recognition, consider the desired outcome. To motivate employees, boost morale and support healthy risk-taking, opt for process praise. To cultivate collaboration and teamwork, choose pro-social praise. To encourage productivity, employ product praise.

Employee recognition: your most powerful culture tool

Building your employee rewards and recognition program shouldn’t be a burdensome task for your Human Resources team.

Don’t be afraid to ask your employees what matters most to them and what kinds of rewards they find most appealing. Make the effort to gain insight into the best staff appreciation ideas by talking to your team members.

Remember, meaningful praise + a desired reward = successful employee recognition. 

Learn how Espresa can help your company build its own employee recognition program today.


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