10 Best Practices to Create an Employee Recognition Program

By: Angela Fink
checklist of 10 items

In the world of HR and employee engagement, the question of how to implement an employee recognition program is top of mind for many leaders.

The question isn’t a surprise because right now is a challenging time for employee engagement. You can hardly go a day without seeing a new article about The Great Resignation and how it’s affecting hiring and the morale of employees left behind. According to Gallup, employee engagement in the U.S. is trending in the wrong direction—down 2% in the last year.

And yet, there’s reason to be hopeful. I choose to see the glass as half full because every challenge is an opportunity to reflect on what’s working (or not working) and make positive changes within our organizations.

How to Roll Out a Successful Employee Recognition Program

What should you do to turn things around and increase employee engagement again? If you don’t have an employee recognition program in place, or if your existing one is on autopilot, start there.

It’s well worth the effort too—one of our clients found employee engagement grew rapidly with the execution of a new recognition program, to the point where 70% of employees received recognition in the program’s first year alone.

Creating an enterprise-wide recognition program might seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Take it one step at a time. There’s a lot that goes into launching (or relaunching) a program, so get the ball rolling with our expert tips. As you read through the list, envision how you can apply each to your specific team to maximize your ROI.

10 Employee Recognition Program Best Practices

1. Evaluate Business & Cultural Goals

The most effective recognition programs reflect your business goals and core values. If you’ve had the same set of core values in place for several years, it may be time to get a pulse check from your employees. Are the values still resonating? Are they reflective of your brand?

Related: A lack of defined values was causing this medical device company to experience a disconnect with employees. Discover how ITA Group was able to help them define core values to build a strong organizational culture.

Take a fresh look at the established goals and values within your organization to identify the specific employee behaviors necessary to drive organizational health. For example, safety is essential for manfacturing and retail organizations, so identifying key behaviors tied to safety will ensure employees feel secure and improve overall productivity. If your established goals aren’t reflecting current brand messaging, change up the goals. We can help align your brand and your values if you find they need a stronger connection.

Your core values and business goals are your North Star when designing and executing the recognition program. Remember, recognition can take many forms to best align with your values.

2. Define Employee Personas

Imagine the average work day for one of your sales reps—what emails await them when they start their day, who are they talking to, what meetings and projects are they on, what causes them stress, what would be a surprise that makes their day, how do they feel when they leave at the end of the day, etc.

Investigate what matters to the daily work life of a each role in your organization. Nowadays people expect personalization within every part of their lives, including their employee experience. When, why and how each role earns recognition and rewards is part of that personalization.

As a program owner, you can use segmentation to target your employees by role. Through persona development, you’ll uncover what it’s like to walk a day in your employee’s shoes. Define a profile for each specific employee segment and their work experience (i.e., function, location, motivation and pain points) and use it to design, communicate and execute a more effective recognition program.

Related: Dive deeper into how personalization increases meaning, relevancy and equity within a recognition program.

3. Strategically Plan When to Launch Your Program

Make the most out of company-wide events you were already planning. Time recognition program roll outs to coordinate with events like a quarterly town hall or annual company meeting that naturally build awareness and excitement.

Or launch the program during an appropriate time of the calendar year, such as Employee Appreciation Day (March 3) or National Gratitude Month (November). Employee Appreciation Day is the biggest recognition day for some of our largest clients.

Don’t forget to account for your company’s busy season though. For example, we’d never recommend a retail client launch something new during the hectic holiday shopping season.

4. Generate Buzz From Day One

Early buy-in is key to operating a successful program. Running a limited-time promotion during the launch can get employees engaged.

A limited-time promotion could take the form of employees earning points for sending a recognition, adding an award to their wish list or answering a pulse survey within the first 60 days. Or it could reward employees who issue at least five recognitions in the first 30 days.

Special promotions encourage employees to visit the platform, get familiar with the program and start building habits of recognition. It also grows their point balance, which provides motivation because employees can see their progress toward redeeming a relevant award.

5. Communicate Effectively

The average attention span of a human being is 8 seconds—less than most YouTube ads. When vying for someone’s attention, you must craft impactful messaging and repeat it through different mediums. Otherwise, it will get lost in the noise.

Your communications must be credible, too. Ask your CEO and other key leaders to record a brief video message about how important recognition and your core values are to them and the company. Their authority will make employees take notice.

6. Set Expectations With Managers

Data shows leaders set the tone for employee engagement. It’s important to tell managers your expectations for adopting and using the program. Managers should dedicate time each week (or at least each month) to recognize their teams in a meaningful way. You may want to go so far as to set specific goals for people managers.

For example, make sure people managers recognize new hires within their first 30 days of employment. Why? Because it has a direct impact on retention and thus your bottom line. One of our clients, a global retailer who asked for help designing a recognition program, found new employees who received recognition in their first 30 days were 15% more likely to be retained at the 3-month mark.

7. Identify Culture Champions

While manager engagement is crucial to the successful launch of an employee recognition program, most managers are busy with daily tasks. Take some of the burden off by identifying culture influencers (at all organizational levels) and creating program ambassadors.

Train and empower ambassadors to lead by example—promoting the program among peers and gathering feedback to fuel program optimization. If executed well, the group should feel privileged (and recognized) just for being asked to be a culture champion, and they’ll be motivated to generate excitement for the program.

8. Demonstrate When & How to Issue Recognition

Too often HR and employee engagement specialists assume employees understand why recognition is valuable, what behaviors deserve recognition and how to send an impactful recognition. But it isn’t always second nature for employees. Remember to educate participants when you launch a recognition program.

Use storytelling to illustrate the highlights of the program. These stories don’t have to be complicated—a story could be as simple as an emailed example of when a recognition might be appropriate (and what it would look like). You could even provide sample wording to showcase what meaningful recognition looks like.

Taking our earlier example of the sales rep, tell a story about how this rep received a phone call from a grumpy client and voluntarily stayed late to fix the problem, leaving the customer ecstatic. A coworker then used the recognition platform to congratulate that worker for great problem solving and customer service.

Stories are an effective and memorable way to call attention to key behaviors tied to each core value.

9. Phase Your Launch Plan

Picture this: You finally get formal approval to implement an employee engagement program after presenting your business case for the last year. You’re thrilled! Immediately you jump into planning mode. You want to include it all: recognition, years of service awards, an annual nomination program and more. But how can you clearly explain/communicate all those topics to employees without confusing them? How do you manage so many components launching at the same time?

Try a phased rollout to start the recognition program small and scale it so components reach employees throughout their entire journey with the company. The phased rollout prevents information overload during the launch period and gives employees something novel to be excited about each time you implement a new feature.

10. Establish a Measurement Plan

Historically, employee engagement programs have been difficult to measure, but those days are gone.

Carve out time to think about how you’ll define program success 60, 120 and 365 days after launch.

Ask the following questions:

  • What targets should you set for each of your key performance indicators?
  • How do you want to segment the data?
  • How will you support leaders throughout the organization with actionable insights based on results?

After success measures are in place, don’t just set goals and cross your fingers it all works out. Be prepared to optimize or shift strategies based on the collected data. Having the right strategic partner on your side will make shifting strategies easier (and more effective).

A Successful Employee Recognition Program Engages Employees

These best practices will put you well on your way to starting a recognition program that aligns with your organizational values and creates a thriving culture of recognition which attracts and retains the best employees.

Want to learn more about how to prove ROI for employee recognition programs? Read about how four clients used analytics to improve their programs—including one who saved $11.5M in turnover costs.

Angela Fink
Angela Fink

With almost 10 years in the industry, Angela is passionate about solving clients’ business challenges to drive value and make a positive impact on their employees’ lives. Creative thinking, building connections and continuous learning keep her energized and excited to start each day. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling to explore new places, reading, outdoor activities, puzzles and spending time with her husband and dog.