Today’s workplace is experiencing a shift. Employee recognition is no longer a nice to have but a firm need to have.
A survey by World at Work reported that 88% of organizations have a staff recognition program in place, which may range from Employee of the Month programs to bonuses or gift cards. But these more traditional ideas are starting to be seen as inauthentic and somewhat boring.
The right kind of employee recognition activities and programs can boost productivity, increase employee motivation and collaboration, and help you retain top talent.
However, according to our 2019 Employee Engagement Report, just a quarter of employees feel highly valued at work. What’s more only one in three people feel they were well-recognized the last time they went the extra mile at work.
- Types of Employee Recognition
- Employee Recognition Best Practices
- Employee Recognition Needs to Be Specific
- Employee Appreciation Ideas
- Take Employee Recognition to the Next Level
Why Is Employee Recognition Important?
Surveys have shown that 69% of employees say they would work harder if their efforts were better recognized. The best employee recognition programs address employee wants and needs and align with company values. In turn, they can have a positive impact on your organization’s bottom line.
The message is loud and clear: Employee recognition impacts more than employees and receiving a certificate once a year no longer cuts it.
So, what does a successful employee appreciation program look like?
Each company is different, so what works for one organization might not work for another. But, generally speaking, recognition programs should be comprehensive and feedback should be authentic, relevant, and specific.
There are several ways to recognize and show appreciation for employees. Let’s take a look at three key types of recognition, all of which serve different purposes.
Types of Employee Recognition
Microrecognition, also known as day-to-day recognition, is more frequent and ongoing. This may include notes, cards, or anything that you can do to recognize employees fairly quickly and quite easily. Microrecognition is the perfect way to support organizational values on a regular basis and make employees feel valued.
2. Informal recognition
Informal recognition is given to individuals or teams for progress toward milestones, when they achieve goals, or when they complete projects. This may come in the form of a pizza party, potluck, or a low-cost memento spontaneously presented. Informal recognition doesn’t necessarily happen every day. But it is not as structured as formal recognition programs.
3. Formal recognition
Finally, formal recognition is more structured, usually involving a nomination and selection process and a ceremony or special event. Formal recognition programs happen less frequently, and typically require a larger budget and more planning.
No matter what type of recognition you’re using—or if you’re using all three of them—it needs to be meaningful for your employees.
Employee Recognition Best Practices
In order to provide meaningful recognition, there are a few important details to keep in mind.
First and foremost, meaningful recognition is timely. Don’t hold off on recognizing employees until their annual performance review. Instead, keep them motivated and engaged by giving recognition on a regular basis. In doing so, you make it a part of your culture.
Meaningful recognition is also specific and relevant. When recognizing employees, be sure you let them know why they are being recognized. Saying thank you isn’t enough. Tell employees what you are thankful for and how their actions impacted you or the organization. By being specific, you help to encourage repeated behaviors and promote company values.
Remember that meaningful recognition can also come in a variety of forms. Using different types of recognition keeps things fresh and fun, and it also helps to reach different groups of employees. For example, some employees may be less excited about public recognition but would save every note or card they received.
Take the time to create a great recognition program and find out what supports your company’s mission, values, and employee needs in order to avoid common pitfalls.
Employee Recognition Needs to Be Specific
There’s nothing worse than giving it your all at work and not receiving any sort of acknowledgement for your efforts. Anyone who's ever worked for an employer that rarely (if ever) gave out compliments knows how demoralizing it can be.
One thing that follows in close second is receiving empty praise that has no meaning behind it. According to Badgeville, 40% of employees who don’t feel meaningfully recognized will not go above their formal responsibilities
If you’re going to praise your employees, make sure that recognition is genuine and back it up with facts. Be clear about what they did to help you—whether that’s crushing a project or going above and beyond to delight customers. Otherwise, it may end up doing more harm than good.
You don’t have to search high and low to find examples of employee recognition gone wrong. One program that was immediately criticized by employees, customers, and industry experts alike is United Airlines’ Outperform Recognition Program, which launched in 2012 and is no longer in place—for reasons we’re about to explore.
For starters, customers were required to download an app to recognize an employee. After downloading the app, they were required to have the employee’s ID number and were limited to explaining their experience in 120 characters.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Everything. The recognition program was practically impossible to participate in, and the airline was already known for poor customer service at the time.
But more importantly, it didn’t ask anything specific of employees. What—specifically—are they supposed to be doing to provide better customer service? What values should they be living out? What experience should they consistently be offering to customers.
None of that information was clear in this program.
Employee Appreciation Ideas
Now that you understand how important meaningful recognition is, get inspiration from these 19 creative ideas to recognize your employees.
01. Host a lunch drawing to highlight peer-to-peer recognition
Keep in mind that recognition doesn't always have to come from the top. In fact, peer-to-peer recognition is 35% more likely to have a positive impact on the employee experience than recognition from a manager alone. Recognition at the employee level increases engagement and retention and boosts employee happiness.
If you have a peer-to-peer recognition program in place (which you should!), enter your employee’s name into a hat each time they recognize ones of their colleagues. The more kudos they send, the higher chance their name will be chosen. At the end of the week, draw out two names from the hat and let those employees enjoy a meal on the company.
02. Recognize your star employees on social media
Take to your company’s Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to recognize your employees in a public setting. Social recognition is a great way to share how proud you are of your employees, but it also helps build your employer brand by putting your culture and values on display for the world to see. Employees who are recognized are likely to share social recognition posts with their followers, creating brand ambassadors that represent your organization well.
When recognizing employees on your social channels, highlight who they are, their job role, what they’ve done to deserve recognition, and how it impacted the organization. Be sure employees are aware of what you’re planning to share and are comfortable being recognized publicly first. Not everyone wants a place in the public spotlight!
03. Celebrate employee birthdays
One way to celebrate employees on their birthdays is simply allowing them to use the day off and enjoy it as they please. If this is not currently a policy that works for your company, there’s still a chance to celebrate. Don’t miss out on a great opportunity to recognize how important their presence and hard work is to the success of your team!
You can make a birthday celebration more personal by decorating an employee’s desk in a personalized theme—such as their favorite TV show, sports team, or country—or grabbing their favorite dessert. Don’t forget the card! Have each of your team members write why they are thankful for the person you’re celebrating. These personal touches are more meaningful and can go a long way in making an employee feel recognized and appreciated.
04. Recognize hard work with an off-site day
Sometimes teams just need a little change of scenery to help boost engagement and productivity. Plan an off-site day at a café, library, or any safe location that meets your team’s needs.
One important piece of employee recognition is to let employees know what they’re being recognized or appreciated for. In the case of an off-site day, be sure you’re clear about the focus. For example, are you hosting an off-site to help boost teamwork because you’ve got new team members or a big project coming up? Are your employees in the middle of a tough project? Maybe an off-site is a way to celebrate the half-way mark and thank them for their work this far.
05. Say it with a sticky note
A handwritten note goes a long way. Leave a handwritten note saying thank you and why you’re thanking them on a Post-It. Stick it on your employee’s desk so that when they come into work the next day, they arrive to a pleasant surprise.
Wondering where to start? Begin with one of these 50 compliments. Be sure your message of gratitude is timely, specific to the employee’s action and impact, and tied back to your organization’s mission and values. By recognizing employees for specific actions, you can promote repeated behaviors and encourage the growth of a strong company culture.
06. Recognize employees with a rotating trophy
Find a fun trophy, stuffed animal, or figurine that you can pass around the office. Give it to an employee who has exemplified one of your organizational values, and let them keep it on their desk for a week.
Write a note to go with the trophy explaining what it stands for and what organizational value the employee has displayed to earn it. Be sure their peers know why they received it, too! During the next team meeting or the following month, let that employee follow a similar procedure and hand it off to the next person who deserves the award. This is a great way to build a culture of recognition by keeping it top of mind for everyone in the organization.
07. Recognize special efforts with a surprise treat
Everyone loves to be surprised with a form of gratitude. And sometimes gratitude in the form of food is the best way to go!
After an employee has left for the day, stick a candy bar, their favorite snack, or treat in their desk drawer. They’ll be excited to start their day off on the right foot after they’ve found their tasty surprise.
If you’re looking for ideas to be more unique, head over to Pinterest for fun ways to say thanks with food. You’ll find fun sayings and printouts you can use for sayings like, “You’re a Lifesaver!” Be creative and have fun. Your employees will appreciate it.
08. Celebrate Employee Appreciation Day
National Employee Appreciation Day is celebrated the first Friday of March each year. It’s the perfect chance to show your employees just how much they mean to you.
When organizing a formal employee appreciation day at work, you might consider recognizing employees for their years of service or major accomplishments for the year. You can also extend the event to be celebrated all week with food, team-building activities, contests, and wellness activities. Consider something for each day of the week—chair massages, a dress for the decades day with a prize for the best dressed, game day, or a giant cake. Ask your employees what they enjoy the most and align activities with your company culture.
In 2019, Walmart hosted its first Associate Week & Shareholders Celebration. Employees were invited based on their performance and arrived enthusiastically in costumes and coordinated outfits. Famous musicians provided entertainment, and attendees played games and attended an expo with everything from mini golf to free haircuts.
Facebook, on the other hand, celebrates “Faceaversaries” throughout the year with balloons—and you guessed it—lots of Facebook posts! Additionally, long-term employees are sometimes highlighted during company Q&A sessions and asked to share some of their favorite memories from their time at Facebook.
09. Encourage employees to recognize daily wins
One great way to make recognition part of your company culture is to begin each meeting with team wins. If an employee landed a huge account or pushed a new feature live, encourage them to share it at the beginning of a meeting. Allow them to recognize others as well. Showing gratitude for the support of team members goes a long way!
Post wins on your internal chat, newsletter or intranet. It’s a great way for employees to highlight their own achievements in front of their colleagues and it’s also a chance to say thanks for those who helped make their accomplishments possible.
10. Offer professional development opportunities
Understanding your employee’s strengths and supporting their development is one of the absolute best things you can do as a leader. In fact, according to a recent Strengths @ Work Survey, 71% of employees who believe their managers can name their strengths feel engaged and energized by their work.
Identify your employees’ strengths and let them pick out an upcoming special project to work on. It shows that you trust them to keep accountable for their responsibilities and continue to grow. Another great way to do this is by asking them to serve on a Culture Committee or to mentor a new employee. These all serve as professional development opportunities where workers get to try new things and build their skills.
11. Create an employee wall of fame
Photos help paint a picture that words sometimes can’t. Plus, they’re fun to look at! A wall of fame is a fun way to highlight the accomplishments of both individuals and teams and it’s a special way to put your culture on display for all to see.
Snap photos of your employee’s accomplishments or take candid shots of them hard at work. Encourage other employees to post notes of gratitude for featured employees around their photos.
Looking for something a little more creative? Have employees you’re celebrating bring in a baby photo instead and include a fun, brief bio with all they’ve done for the organization. You can also use the wall to highlight team wins with photos of the team and any major projects they’ve completed together.
12. Say thanks with spontaneous treats and eats
Sometimes employees just need to be surprised with a break they aren’t expecting. Bring in donuts one morning or chilled drinks on a hot afternoon. Let your employees take a quick break to kick back and relax before they go back to the task at hand.
Don’t forget to find a fun way to say thank you, such as We DONUT know what we would do without you! or We appreciate you a WAFFLE lot! A little humor can go a long way during stressful projects or busy days.
13. Show off your employee recognition programs
Have employees send each other kudos, whether through a peer-to-peer recognition platform or physical notes and cards. There are plenty of special ways to display them around the office so everyone can see all the great things that have been happening around the company.
Similar to the wall of fame, you can create a shout out wall that employees can add sticky notes of gratitude to. Trying to save some trees? You could also display compliments on digital signage.
Either way, peer-to-peer recognition should be a part of your recognition strategy, as it helps reduce turnover, increase engagement, and build a great culture.
14. Send a card
Rather than giving employees a pat on the back or high five, send a card to their home. Snail mail has largely become a lost art and receiving a card from a leader or fellow employee is a special touch. You can consider these for years of service, completion of special projects, or even welcoming new employees, among other things.
Some companies have online submission forms for life events like weddings, births, or graduations—making it easier for leaders to be notified about special events where a card would be appreciated.
Create this same feel in the office by providing card stations where employees can write notes to one another and leave them in each other’s company mailbox or on their desk. Remember how fun it was to get notes from your friends when you were younger? It’s the same concept.
15. Award employee recognition tees
Has someone done a spectacular act or gone the extra mile at work? Create different T-shirt designs for different awards and allow recipients to wear them each Friday. You can even have teammates sign a company tee with thank-you messages.
If you’re hoping to keep your mission and values top of mind, create a T-shirt for each company value and hand them out as an employee displays each value. It encourages them to collect all the T-shirt types and they serve as a great reminder.
16. Pass out prize tokens and tickets
Whenever you see an employee doing something great, give them a token or ticket they can use to enter a monthly drawing for prizes like a massage, gift card, or movie tickets. Or, create a “company store” where they can turn in a certain number of tickets or tokens for larger prizes.
You can also get customers involved in this activity. Let them know that each time they provide excellent feedback or write a note of gratitude for one of your employees, that employee is entered into a drawing. When customers receive outstanding service, this can really encourage them to let you know. It’s a win-win!
17. Host a hackathon
You’ve probably heard of hackathons before. Let your employees take a whole day (or even just half) to work on a project of their choice either in groups or on their own. Then have them present it in front of the leadership team so that the top ideas can be implemented into everyday operations.
There are a ton of fun ways to share recognition for innovative ideas. Begin by promoting the hackathon around your company to drum up excitement. Brand the event or give it a fun theme to make sure everyone knows about it and is ready to cheer fellow employees on. You can also promote the event and the results on your social channels—a great way for others to see you value growth and innovation!
18. Employee recognition parking program
Special parking spaces are sometimes considered premium employee recognition gifts! Consider offering one of the best parking spots for employees who have gone above and beyond. You can even decorate the parking spot so everyone knows who the winner is.
Another idea is to hold a monthly drawing for the best parking spots or a public transportation pass if you have a high number of commuters. Everyone loves a gift they can use!
19. Implement a peer recognition program
Knowing you're doing a great job is one thing. Hearing others say it out loud adds a different meaning. We found in The Surprising Effects of Employee Recognition and Appreciation that 44% of employees give regular peer-to-peer recognition when they have a tool that makes it easy. Give your team the opportunity and encouragement to recognize one another, and great things will happen!
Take Employee Recognition to the Next Level
While some of these employee recognition ideas may seem relatively inconsequential, it is this kind of consistent flow and variety of recognition that keeps employees engaged.
Try different employee recognition tactics and pay attention to what your employees want in order to make your efforts more meaningful. Your employees will always appreciate you taking the time to say, “I see you and I appreciate you,” and your organization’s bottom line will benefit because of it.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2017 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.