A recognition program is a vital part of keeping your employees motivated. Salary isn’t enough to say “thank you” — without authentic appreciation for the work they do, employees will see a paycheck by itself is an impersonal reward. After all, if you want their work to go beyond “by the numbers,” your recognition needs to do the same.
But fancy gifts and fabulous perks can be out of your reach if you’re a small business or still-growing start-up. Or maybe you’re a successful company, but you can’t imagine how you’ll afford an iPad for each one of your hundreds of employees.
Fortunately, great employee recognition ideas don’t have to break the bank. Knowing when and how to use your resources will help you create valuable recognition without being a big spender.
Sometimes, a “thank you” really is all you need. Here are some good situations when you should go verbal with your recognition:
Regular tasks: No one expects a gold fountain pen for their everyday projects. Elaborate gifts every week will just end up being a distraction. Instead, just use your words to let your employees know you see the effort they put day in and day out.
New employees: In the same vein, lavishing gifts on brand-new hires is unnecessary (and possibly disruptive). Use verbal recognition to be clear about the kind of work you appreciate, and you’ll benefit by having an employee who really knows what you want.
Sensitive matter: Maybe you have an employee who handled a delicate personnel issue well, or someone who worked with a very difficult client. In this case, it wouldn’t be really appropriate to publicize things with gifts.
Joseph Flahiff, president and CEO of Whitewater Projects, has a creative technique for raising the value of your verbal recognition. “Verbal acknowledgement is one of the strongest forms of recognition and is completely free. But it can be hard to do,” he says. “Try this. Ask one of your team members, ‘Can you help me out? Who are two people who have done something that you really appreciate?’ They will name a couple. Then you go to those people individually. In conversation, share, ‘Oh, by the way, Bob said he really appreciated how you handled the recalculation module.’ Then later ask them the same question, ‘Can you help me out? Who are two people who have done something that you really appreciate?’”
As Flahiff describes it, “It is a pyramid scheme of appreciation. It has the additional benefit of building bonds not just one but two ways: between you and the person appreciated, the appreciator and the appreciated.”
Using Your Connections
Remember that not all of your resources are money.
“As a small business owner, I am always looking for cost-effective ways to let my employees know how much I appreciate them,” says Samantha Aulick, cofounder of 240sweet. Her company makes artisan marshmallows — a handy form of currency. She’ll trade her product “for tickets to local museums and activities that I give out when someone does something special/extraordinary. My staff love it. Rewards range from haunted house tickets to tickets to galas. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be serving our S’more on a Stick Station to thousands of visitors to the Indianapolis Zoo for Zoobilation. My employees are excited about those tickets!”
Another resourceful technique comes from Sam Zietz, CEO of TouchSuite. Since the company caters to a variety of retail and service industry verticals, Zietz will take advantage of his client network to provide perks for his employees. For example, the company has a number of clients in the salon and spa space, so Zietz has partnered with some of his area salon clients in order to provide impromptu mobile spa services to his team. Who doesn’t want a massage in the middle of the workday? These surprise mobile spa days have been a huge hit among his team.
When you do spend money on rewards for your employees, spend wisely. Carefully targeting your purchases can really stretch your recognition budget.
Steven R. Cony, president and cofounder of Communications Counselors LLC, shares one of his methods: “Always keep a keep a bottle of champagne chilled in the company fridge, so it could be pulled out and shared at any moment. And let people know that it is there, pending what they can do to earn it.”
With Cony’s idea, you don’t have to buy champagne every day; you might open a bottle once every few weeks, but the spirit of celebration it represents is always there. “That image of the champagne bottle is one that can become iconic in the workplace,” says Cony. “And then the fun is to create great toasts for the uncorkings.”
Michelle Geromel, founder of My Life Integrated, recommends using gift cards — but making sure to use them well. “When creating this type of reward, make sure to ask those in your target group what types of rewards work for them,” she says. “For example, when I was working as a management consultant at Deloitte, our firm often gave us Starbucks gift certificates. We were very happy with these. Around the same time, I was working with customer service representatives at a client. They said Starbucks cards did not interest them but places like Circle K did because that’s where they bought their gas, and gas cards for their favorite gas stations were much more important than coffee.”
That’s the way to avoid the cliché of the gift card as a generic token. As Geromel recommends, “When choosing a reward, make sure the reward is something your target audience will value and be excited about receiving.”
This idea can extend beyond gift cards, of course. In all of your employee recognition ideas, keep the recipient in mind. That personalized clock might just seem outdated to your workers — or it could be a meaningful symbol for someone who’s sentimental. Finding the right reward for the right person is the real source of value, regardless of the price tag.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.