Employee Recognition Ideas That Actually Help Retain Your Team Members

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek
happy employee receiving recognition


Many employee recognition programs have been around for years—maybe even decades. This makes it more important than ever for organizations to ask themselves, “Is our program getting stale or is it accomplishing our goals?”

Research indicates that most programs have room for improvement. That benchmark study, fielded by ITA Group, found that 80% of employees surveyed said their organization had recognition programs in place, but only 34% of those employees were actually satisfied with their programs.  

The reason this disconnect is particularly important now is because during a period of disruption (like what we’ve all been living), employees’ desire for being recognized for their contribution increases by about 30%, according to Gartner.

For organizations looking to freshen up their program, or create something brand new, consider these ideas for designing a winning employee recognition program.

1. Harness Emotional Energy

First, tap into your employee’s emotional energy. This may sound hard to do at first blush, but it's really about meeting people's basic need of having a sense of belonging or a desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Related: Learn how a revamped recognition program meaningfully connected all team members to a shared purpose and vision.

Okay, that does sound hard. But at its basis, it’s about employee engagement and the emotional affinity employees feel for a company. Forbes and Strategy Business have some ideas on how managers can nurture those feelings by starting with a solid foundation for your recognition program. 

  1. Make sure employees feel valued. No one wants to feel like their opinion doesn't matter. Give people a voice; help them feel connected to the organization, which in turn, enhances morale and retention.
  2. Encourage stress management. Understand workload levels, deadlines and personal situations your employees are working through. Be supportive, offer solutions to overcome barriers and lend a hand where appropriate.
  3. Provide autonomy. Scientific studies have proven that people thrive when given autonomy at work. While it doesn’t mean giving free rein, it does mean offering your employees latitude in decision-making responsibility in the projects they're working on.
  4. Monitor team mood. Sophie von Stumm, Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of York, suggests a “focus on good mood as a performance booster.” This doesn’t mean ignoring negative emotions; rather, you’re integrating both positive and negative emotions with a positive outlook as you either solve problems conveyed by dissatisfaction or leverage opportunities uncovered by having an open mind.
  5. Be kind. Always say please and thank you. Asking employees, rather than telling them to do something, builds on autonomy and a sense of trust. And thanking someone for doing good work, making a deadline or achieving a sales goal is good business. Yep. Your mother was right on this one.

“We’ve never thought that you should have to come to work and assume a mask and look like you’re a bunch of little lead soldiers stamped out of a mold. We give people license to be themselves.”

—Herb Kelleher, Chairman Emeritus of Southwest Airlines

50+ Ways to Motivate Your Employees Ebook

2. Communicate Regularly

Refreshing an existing employee recognition program, or starting a new one, naturally creates a lot of buzz and excitement around the office. Clarity in messaging is key because if people don't understand what the program is all about and how it aligns with corporate values and priorities, you are wasting your investment and missing out on an opportunity to enhance morale and retention. According to Workforce, even “a mediocre program well communicated is more useful than a great program poorly communicated.”

  1. Be clear. Employees need to understand how they’ll be recognized—and how they can recognize their coworkers. Talk about the selection process and “what’s in it for me” to keep the program foremost in your employee’s minds.
  2. Don’t overlook the old standbys. Use email, voicemail, brochures, flyers, posters and intranet notices. It’s pretty hard to over communicate when trying to get the attention of busy employees, so use multiple mediums to get the word out.
  3. Offer recognition ideas. In your communications, you should also provide ideas on ways to give and receive recognition. Align ideas with your corporate values. If “team work” is one of them, you might define this recognition opportunity like this: “Nothing gets done unless we work together with a positive, professional attitude.”
  4. Talk to employees. Seems simple, but an intentional conversation with employees about how they think the program is going can be very insightful. What do they like best about it? What’s standing in the way of getting on board? How can it be made better? If the answers are solid, you’ve gained a perspective to make it better that you might not otherwise have had.
  5. Personalize it. Even in today’s hyper technology-driven world, taking the time to meaningfully recognize a specific achievement goes a long way. Be sure your message is timely, describes what the employee did and why it was important to the organization. Besides the note, consider further acknowledgement in either one-to-one conversations, or department or company-wide meetings. But be sure to consider the employee’s personality when deciding what form of public recognition is most appropriate!

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

—George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

employee recognition technology platform

3. Support With Intuitive Recognition Technology and Processes

Nothing will stymie recognition program design like manual processes or a poor technology platform. Giving and receiving recognition shouldn’t be hard—and it shouldn’t be a mystery. With many employees working apart from each other and dealing with a variety of challenges at home—a trend that is almost certain to continue post-COVID—the crucial role technology plays will be more important than ever.

  1. Make your platform easy-to-use. Don’t expect anyone to read a manual on how to use the new program platform. Business News Daily suggests that “all tools should be self-explanatory, or worst case, make it extremely easy to access an explanatory video.”
  2. Provide instant appreciation. As we mentioned earlier, acknowledging people for specific achievements in a timely manner is important in keeping employee momentum going. Technology systems take manual processes off the table and enables people to thank or complement one another for their work successes easily.
  3. Care for employee interaction. A collaborative recognition platform is a good way for employees to interact with one another while giving managers a quick way to stay connected to their team with a simple comment or thumbs up for great work. Creating ways for people to feel a sense of belonging is enhanced when they can leverage recognition technology that functions in the flow of their work. This is especially important if you have deskless workers who may require entirely different processes or tools for recognizing each other.

“Technology is best when it brings people together.”

—Matt Mullenweg, Online social media entrepreneur

4. Reinforce With Memory Makers

In The Power of Moments, the New York Times bestselling authors ask, “Why would we leave our most meaningful, memorable moments to chance when we can create them?” What if a manager knew how to create an experience that would delight employees? Reinforcing desired behaviors should contain a strong dose of making great memories your employees will remember for years to come. And it’s good business to do so. If managers could make employees feel appreciated, the benefits would be considerable. When people experience gratitude from their manager, they’re more productive. Another researcher found that teams perform tasks better when their members believe that their colleagues respect and appreciate them.

It's also interesting to note that the IRF found the "presence of reward programs resulted in an average 22% gain in performance (as compared to organizations offering no reward program)."

Verbal and written recognition are impactful, but incorporating rewards as well to reinforce certain behaviors can have even more positive effect in getting the best work from your team. Some best practices include:

  1. Offer each team member a budget. Most companies operate on tight budgets, and the idea of giving each team member a budget to use in recognizing their colleagues feels like a pretty big expense. But the return in participation in the program and the building of goodwill towards the company pays off in higher morale and retention.
  2. Provide multiple earning opportunities. When employees have multiple earning opportunities to pool points, they tend to stay engaged over a longer period of time as they strive for a bigger reward.
  3. Give team members the power of choice. Each person wants something different as acknowledgement for a job well done. When you’re deciding what to offer, be sure to accommodate both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. If you are including tangible rewards like merchandise or gift cards, be sure to consider the various life stages of your employees since that can have a huge impact on the relevancy of what you offer.
  4. Select meaningful rewards. Depending upon the situation, consider exclusive rewards for your outstanding employees like unique experiential awards or an opportunity for them to build relationships with other top performers and management.

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”

―Lucy Maud Montgomery, Author

5. Analyze Results to Optimize Performance

The true test of the effectiveness of your recognition program should be in the results you’re accomplishing. If you’re still just looking at recognitions issued or rewards redeemed, it’s time to step up your game.

  1. Get your hands on the right data. A global survey suggests that HR is one of the most analytical functions in business. Yet, too often, recognition programs are measured only using soft metrics tied to the program itself and not the organizational impact. Don’t let yourself fall in to that trap. For example, if talent retention or customer experience are key organizational priorities for you, evaluate your recognition data alongside performance data on those measures. You’ll see correlations that help you identify what’s working—and what could be better—to drive stronger organizational performance.
  2. Continually improve. My colleague, Mitch Stearns, recently wrote this article about the model we use to help our clients create positive change. There are incredibly valuable tips in his piece but, at the 30,000 foot level, it’s about:
    • Taking the time to share data on program performance beyond just those already closest to the program
    • Remaining open-minded and iterative in your pursuit of your goals
    • Reflecting on what has happened as a results of your efforts

Socialize Optimize Actualize Graphic


Employee recognition programs aren’t conceptually complicated. But don’t make the mistake of letting that lull you in to complacency. It’s never too late to reenergize an existing recognition program or start a new one based on the behaviors or outcomes you’re looking to motivate. Why wait?

If you’re looking for even more ideas on how you can motivate your people, check out our ebook with insights from social scientist and bestselling author Dan Ariely, 50+ Ways to Motivate Your Employees for Measurable Results.

50+ Ways to Motivate Your Employees for Measurable Results

 
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.