How to Recognize Employees Meaningfully

By: Christina Zurek
manager recognizing employee with gift
Employee recognition—it’s supposed to be meaningful, memorable and a professionally rewarding experience for your employees. 
But the best recognition programs don’t only impact individual employees. They should improve overall organizational wellbeing, including improved engagement and culture. And when those things improve, so too should employee retention, productivity, customer service levels and financial performance.
Did you know you can you can see a 28% improvement in quality and 31% reduction in absenteeism simply by recognizing your employees in meaningful ways?
If your employee recognition is missing the mark—if it’s not positively impacting your team and driving results for the business—it’s time to approach it differently.
Make employee recognition worth it—for you and for your people. Give them the recognition and rewards they want and deserve and get the results you’re shooting for.
Here’s how to recognize your employees meaningfully.

Make the Recognition Fit the Employee

Just like motivation, recognition isn’t one size fits all.
That’s why appealing to your people individually is a must—and that means considering how a strategic balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators might apply to recognition strategy. 

While Michael may be driven by tangible awards—things like the latest television or a seriously cool kitchen appliance—Dwight might be fueled by public recognition of his contribution or one-on-one time with a leader.
The takeaway? Leverage a mix of different forms of recognition and types of rewards to get the impact you’re looking for.

Celebrate Both Big & Incremental Successes

Whether large or small, a win always marks an achievement.
Sometimes we miss how each win fits into and contributes to a bigger picture, though—and sometimes we only recognize them in retrospect. Managers can help employees see how their work is contributing. Most important, they can avoid actions that negate its value. So, whether an employees’ goals are lofty or modest if they are meaningful to the worker, it’s important to celebrate their progress toward achieving them.

Make Recognition an Experience

According to The Participant Study commissioned by the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) and conducted by the Incentive Research Federation, there are a number of factors related to the process of recognizing and rewarding people  that impact its value, including:
  • Who presents the recognition. Is it a direct supervisor or the president of the company? Depending on the recipient, it matters.
  • How the recognition is communicated. What avenues or channels are used to publicize the recognition, and what is the reach (i.e. who is able to see the recognition)? 
  • What the reward or benefit is for the recipient. Is the reward symbolic, tangible or a blend of the two? What avenues does the achievement or contribution open up for the recipient?
Use those considerations to make recognition an experience and allow your recipient to eat, sleep and breathe the recognition, from start to finish.
For example, when one of your team members receives $500 in online award catalog award points for her above-and-beyond customer service effort, arrange for the CEO or division manager to present the award at a company meeting.
Feature the story in the company newsletter as well as on corporate social media.
Grant her the opportunity to lead the next project team or attend a training seminar.
And reinforce the fact that the organization is ultimately behind the recognition.
How? By ensuring that, when the tangible award she redeems her points for arrives, it shows up in corporate-branded custom packaging that reflects the organization’s commitment to its employees.

Get the Real Take on Cash (It Might Not Be What You Think)

It’s not king. It’s not even always preferred. Even if your people ask for it.
On its own, cash doesn’t drive performance because it’s viewed as compensation and often spent on necessities—things like gas and groceries.
In fact, a 2017 study of almost 600 salespeople looked at the effect of replacing a mixed cash/non-cash reward program with an equivalent value all-cash program. Over a nine-month period, measured effort dropped dramatically, leading to a sales decrease of 4.36%.
What is preferred is something that makes them feel appreciated and will reinforce the action you’re recognizing (i.e. the action you want repeated).
Examples include something with trophy value (like a designer wallet, the hottest Bluetooth speaker on the market or a cool local experience) that helps the recipient associates their achievement with the award and drives further performance.
To have a strong impact these days, you can't expect cash to cut it—tangible awards are key.

Collectively, Make Recognition Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely (EAST)

The Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST approach is an established framework among behavioral science experts everywhere, no doubt because it’s straightforward and logical.
In a nutshell, the principles are that when you want somebody to embrace a behavioral change, you need to do four things: make it easy, make it attractive, make it social and make it timely.
While their approach speaks broadly to behavioral motivation, there are great parallels to how you can enhance the administration and execution of your recognition program, too. For example when you make the recognition process easy by embedding it in the flow of work for your people and aligning the reasons to recognize people to your corporate values, it reduces friction and improves usage. Because it’s easy, people also are timelier with their recognition delivery.
And when the rewards are attractive (i.e. they fit the individual) and are promoted socially (on your company’s intranet or social media feed), the impact intensifies. 

Meaningful Recognition Contributes to Overall Employee Wellbeing (And That Means Results)

No matter the type of recognition—peer-to-peer awards, spot nominations, top performer or above-and-beyond recognition—your approach is an insightful indicator of the way you holistically care for your employees.
In today’s workplace, employees’ interpersonal relationships with colleagues and leaders can significantly impact the overall wellbeing of your people. And creating a culture of appreciation is a natural way to boost those relationships as long as you take the steps to make the experience meaningful—for them, for you and for your bottom line.
Ready to consider other ways you can improve your organization’s employee experience? Get some ideas with our ebook, Improve Retention and Engagement by Enhancing the Employee Experience.
Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.