Jennifer Krauss

Employee Recognition: Understanding the Basics and 21+ Ideas

Let’s compare two scenarios.

First, picture an employee who’s worked hard to stand out from the crowd. They’ve taken on extra responsibility within your organization, engaged in and contributed to your company culture, and worked hard to improve by taking advantage of professional development opportunities. At the end of the year, this employee gets rewarded with a spot bonus and a holiday gift basket. They stay with your company for five more years, helping you reach important organizational goals.

Next, picture the same employee, but take away the recognition they receive at the end of the year. Instead of feeling excited to continue working with your organization for the long term, they end up quitting three months later.

Considering these two scenarios, you may ask yourself, “Can a bonus and a gift basket really make that big of a difference?”

The answer is yes!

Employee recognition, which includes everything from a “thank you” to a bonus, has the potential to play a significant role in how your employees feel about you as an employer, how they feel about their jobs, and how long they work for you. This is why it’s important to learn what employee recognition is and how to implement it at your organization.

To give you a jump start, we’ve written this article covering the following:

If your organization could benefit from a stronger employee recognition program, then this article is for you! Let’s get started.

Astron Solutions can help you with your employee recognition strategy. Click this button to learn more!

What is Employee Recognition?

Employee recognition is the practice of acknowledging and thanking your employees in meaningful ways for the contributions they make to your organization.

There are three different aspects of recognition to take into consideration:

Where the Recognition Comes From

  • Employee Recognition from the Top: This type of recognition comes from an employee’s supervisor, manager, or another leader who is above the employee in the organizational hierarchy.
  • Employee Recognition from Peers: This type of recognition comes from an employee’s coworkers who are likely on the same level in the organizational hierarchy.

Who The Recognition is For

  • Recognition for Individuals: Recognition for individuals is focused on a single individual’s contributions and accomplishments.
  • Recognition for Teams: Recognition for teams focuses on goals and projects accomplished by an entire team.

What the Recognition Is

  • Formal Recognition: Formal recognition might look like a shoutout in a board meeting or internal newsletter, and it may even be coupled with a tangible reward like a bonus or a gift card.
  • Informal Recognition: Informal recognition is given out on a frequent basis. This might take the form of a fist bump, a quick thank-you email, or a “Nice job today!” as an employee is leaving the office.

HR software company Springworks asserts in “Employee Rewards and Recognition Ideas [2022 Guide]” that organizations need to differentiate between recognition and rewards. Specifically, recognition is relational and has emotional value, whereas rewards are transactional and usually have a monetary value.

This distinction helps remind leaders that their recognition efforts should have meaning and thought behind them, and that rewards can also be a great part of a holistic and healthy employee recognition program.

Employee recognition can benefit your organization in a number of ways.

How Employee Recognition Can Benefit Your Organization

How can employee recognition make a difference to your organization?

It’s simple: When your employees feel seen and appreciated in their roles, they’ll be more productive and loyal workers, and you’ll be more likely to retain them long-term.

Here are some eye-opening statistics that reinforce this fact:

  • “40% of employed Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often.” – Harvard Business Review
  • “82% [of employees] consider recognition an important part of their happiness at work.” – Survey Monkey
  • When asked about what their employers could do to increase engagement, 58% of surveyed workers said “give recognition.” – TINYpulse

It’s clear that employee recognition is well worth investing in, as it can drive employee engagement and job satisfaction. An organized employee recognition program can standardize these practices, leading to more consistent benefits for your organization and your workers. Let’s dive into the “how to” next!

Setting Up Your Organization’s Employee Recognition Program

While your organization may already have an incentive program for specific roles such as salespeople or major gift officers, you should consider outlining a more formal employee recognition program for your entire team. Without a well-designed and planned-out employee recognition program, your recognition efforts could end up missing the mark.

You might, for example, end up giving kudos to one employee in a company-wide meeting while overlooking another employee who accomplished something similar. Worse, you could end up pairing your recognition for the completion of a project with a tangible award, like a gift card to a nice restaurant, and give a higher value reward for a similar completed project down the road, causing employees to question the fairness of your actions.

An employee recognition program with strong policies helps you do the following:

  • Provide employees with clear guidelines for how they can earn rewards and recognition
  • Stay consistent and fair with your recognition efforts
  • Incorporate your recognition efforts into your broader performance management process

In “Managing Employee Recognition Programs,” SHRM recommends outlining the following:

This clipboard graphic shows the elements of an employee recognition program.
  • Eligibility requirements
  • Approval process
  • Award/reward types
  • Frequency of reward presentations
  • Performance goals to measure
  • Awards thresholds

In summary, your employee recognition program should be aligned with larger organizational goals and values, easy to manage, and regularly evaluated.

Your program will require dedicated time, money, and other resources, but can be a wise investment that helps boost employee morale and retention. Also, keep in mind that any awards employees receive as part of your program are generally taxable.

Plus, you can present your employee recognition program as part of your total rewards approach to compensation. For help designing your employee recognition program or building it into your holistic compensation approach, we recommend working with an HR consulting firm. An objective third-party expert can help you recognize the holes in your program and make recommendations to help give your employees the recognition they deserve.

21+ Fantastic Employee Recognition Ideas

No two employees are alike, and neither are their recognition needs. One employee may respond positively to public recognition and a plaque, while another employee might prefer to be recognized in a one-on-one setting and given a bonus on their paycheck.

Plus, different situations and levels of accomplishment call for different types of recognition. For example, it’s more appropriate to thank the employee who cleans out the breakroom coffee pot with a verbal “thank you” than it is to invite them to a board meeting to have their accomplishment announced to your top-level leaders.

You’ll need a variety of options for recognizing your employees for their hard work. Here are 21+ ideas to get you started!

Note that each of these ideas can be adapted to your local and organizational COVID-19 situation and restrictions.

Thank-you cards are a great employee recognition tool.

1. Thank-You Cards

A thank-you card is a simple and classic employee recognition idea. Plus, it’s a thank you that your employees can hold on to by pinning it to their cubicle wall or displaying it on their desk.

Make or buy a thank-you card and write a personalized note to the employee you want to recognize. Clearly state the contribution you’re recognizing them for and explain how that contribution made a difference. The key to a great thank-you card is to get it to the recipient in person or via mail as soon as possible. This will ensure your employee gets recognition right when they deserve it!

A spot bonus is great for showing your employee that you recognize and appreciate their hard work.

2. Spot Bonuses

A spot bonus is a monetary reward given immediately in recognition of a job well done. While more typical bonuses are given after a certain period of time (take annual or holiday bonuses, for example), spot bonuses are given as the need for recognition arises.

How much should a spot bonus be? According to a 2020 SHRM article on employee rewards programs, spot bonuses can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. We recommend you set up tiered spot bonuses as part of your employee recognition program. Having tiers will give you a range to work with so you can give bonuses that match each employee’s contribution.

The pass-a-Post-it idea is a fun employee recognition idea, especially for peer-to-peer recognition.

3. Pass-a-Post-it

This employee recognition idea is great for in-office workers. All you’ll need is a pen and a Post-it. Write down your thank-you and what it’s for, then leave it on the recipient’s desk, computer, or door.

Pass-a-Post-it works especially well as a form of peer-to-peer recognition, so try designating a day each month or each quarter where everyone passes a Post-it to someone else in the office that they’d like to thank!

A bravo board is another excellent employee recognition idea.

4. Bravo Board

A bravo board is great for employees who like to be publicly recognized for their accomplishments. You can create a virtual bravo board in a slide deck to use in organization-wide meetings, or hang up a bulletin board in your office. Encourage managers and other employees to “bravo” each other by putting a name on the board with a short explanation of what the bravo recipient achieved.

To tie your bravo board to your organization’s values, encourage employees to include an associated organizational value or part of your mission statement to each bravo. This will help connect employees’ accomplishments to your big-picture goals.

Catered breakfasts or lunches are great for employee recognition.

5. Catered Breakfasts or Lunches

A catered breakfast or lunch is a great way to recognize the efforts of a team or your entire organization. Your employees will love getting a nice meal at work and a chance to celebrate their successes with each other. To add to this idea, you could hand out awards during the meal to spotlight employees who went above and beyond.

If your team is currently hybrid or remote, you can still get a meal to them. Provide them with Grubhub or DoorDash gift certificates, or deliver catered meals to their homes.

Plaques and trophies are excellent employee recognition tools.

6. Plaques or Trophies

Plaques and trophies are tangible reminders of your appreciation that employees can display on their desks or at home. Get the trophy or plaque personalized with the employee’s name, the date the award will be given, and the accomplishment.

For this type of employee recognition, you may want to invite your employee to a board or shareholder meeting and present them with the award. This will give them the chance to be seen and thanked by your top-level leaders.

Giving a social media shoutout is an easy employee recognition idea.

7. Social Media Shoutout

If your organization is active on social media, this is the employee recognition idea for you! Shout out an employee by posting a picture of them on your organization’s accounts. Explain what the employee accomplished, and encourage your followers to like and comment on the post.

With a social media shoutout, your employees can easily share your post with their family, friends, and professional networks.

Celebrating National Employee Appreciation Day is a fun employee recognition idea.

8. National Employee Appreciation Day

Did you know that there is a holiday dedicated to employee recognition? National Employee Appreciation Day is observed on the first Friday of March. This is the perfect day to show all of your employees how valued they are.

Make the holiday notable by providing lunch and a special activity. You might bring in a masseuse to give shoulder massages or invite therapy dogs to come and play with your employees for a few hours. End the day by giving out lighthearted superlative awards like “Fastest Typer” or “Best Customer Service Smile.”

Giving your employee extra time off is a great way to recognize their contributions to your organization.

9. Extra Time Off

Extra time off can be a big motivator for employees. As part of your employee recognition program, you might offer a Friday with PTO, or an extra vacation day.

This idea will benefit you twofold as employees not only work hard to receive their extra time off but return from that extra day off energized and ready to work hard once again.

An employee wellness day is a unique employee recognition idea.

10. Employee Wellness Day

An employee wellness day can show your employees you care about them as people, not just as workers. Start the day out with a healthy breakfast like yogurt parfaits or green smoothies. Then, have a yoga instructor lead your organization in a stretching or meditation session.

Later in the day, you could set up a field day for your employees and give your employees the chance to participate in a volleyball tournament or obstacle course. End the day by having a sleep expert talk to your employees about the importance of getting the rest they need.

Giving an employee access to a VIP parking spot is an easy employee recognition idea.

11. VIP Parking Spot

We’ve all been there–you arrive at work in the morning only to find the parking spots closest to the office are taken. That’s why VIP parking spots are such great awards for an employee recognition program!

Have employees compete to meet a specific goal within a set amount of time. Maybe they need to make a certain number of sales or send out year-end tax letters to your donors. This gamification element can be a lot of fun and foster a healthy sense of competition among your employees.

The first person to meet the goal gets the VIP parking spot for a certain amount of time, like a week or a month.

Quarterly priority prizes are a great employee recognition idea.

12. Quarterly Priority Prizes

If your organization strives to meet quarterly goals, you can motivate your employees by offering quarterly priority prizes.

To make things even more interesting, try setting up different prize tiers. If you accomplish most of your goal but not all of it, for example, you might offer smaller prizes than you would have given if the entire goal had been achieved.

Gift matching is a great employee recognition idea.

13. Gift Matching

Another great strategy for meaningful employee recognition is to help them give back to a cause they care about. As an employer, you can do this by offering gift matching.

Gift matching is when an organization matches an employee’s financial contribution to a charitable organization. To learn more about gift matching and how it can fit into your larger efforts to help employees give back to the community, check out Crowd101’s article on workplace giving.

Giving out swag is an easy employee recognition idea that your workers will love.

14. Swag

Does your organization create swag for clients, customers, patients, or donors? Chances are your employees would love to have some, too.

Whether your swag takes the form of branded mugs, t-shirts, stress balls, or pens, these handy items can be paired with a thank-you or Post-it note to make a recognition effort extra meaningful. Plus, your employees will love repping your brand, especially when they feel like a valuable part of your organization.

A personalized birthday celebration is a meaningful employee recognition idea.

15. Personalized Birthday Celebrations

Birthdays are a wonderful time to show your employees that you care about them and their hard work. Try personalizing your organization’s birthday celebrations.

You can do so in surprisingly simple ways. Get the employee’s favorite dessert to share at lunch, or leave them a small gift on their desk to let them know they’re on your mind.

Celebrating your employees' work anniversaries is a great employee recognition idea.

16. Work Anniversaries

Celebrate your employees who hit milestones in their time with your organization. Whether they’ve worked with you for one year or ten years, it’s worth celebrating!

One fantastic and simple way to celebrate a work anniversary is to send out an email to everyone at your organization spotlighting the employee who has hit the milestone. Talk about how they’ve contributed to your organization, and encourage other employees to congratulate them!

A traveling trophy can be a great employee recognition tool.

17. Traveling Trophy

While it can be fun to receive your very own trophy, it can also be fun to compete for a traveling trophy. Create a few trophies for different accomplishments, such as “Highest Monthly Sales” or “Most Donor Thank Yous Written.”

Let your employees know that you’ll be passing the trophy around on a monthly or quarterly basis, depending on the accomplishment it recognizes. This will help to foster a healthy sense of competition among teams, and employees will love receiving a trophy that they can show off to their coworkers.

Handing out surprise gift bags is a great employee recognition idea.

18. Surprise Gift Bags

Who doesn’t love a gift bag? Surprise your employees with a small collection of gifts. These could include new office supplies, gift cards for local restaurants, water bottles and snacks, or headphones and power banks.

Leave these items on your employees’ desks or mail them to their homes to let them know you’re grateful for their hard work.

Free event tickets can be a great employee recognition tool.

19. Free Event Tickets

From time to time, it can be fun to give your employees free event tickets when they’ve accomplished something big.

Whether your organization’s leaders have extra season tickets to a local theater or you’ve invested in basketball or football tickets, providing your top employees with a memorable experience now and then will get them excited about the goals they’ve met and how they can continue to improve professionally.

Another great employee recognition idea is giving your employees subscriptions to streaming or meal kit services.

20. Subscriptions

There are a number of streaming services you can offer subscriptions for, including music or movie and TV streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu. You could also offer subscriptions to meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. Another option is a meal-kit subscription through a company like HelloFresh or Blue Apron.

A subscription is a great reward for any employee recognition program, as your employee will be reminded of their professional accomplishments every time they use their new service!

Writing your employees a LinkedIn recommendation is a great employee recognition idea.

21. LinkedIn Recommendation

Writing a LinkedIn recommendation for an employee is an effective way to let them know you’re impressed with their performance and to help boost their professional connections. LinkedIn recommendations show up on the employee’s profile and can provide context for the professional experience and skills they’ve already shared with their networks.

A LinkedIn recommendation doesn’t have to be complicated, either. In fact, you can write one in just a few minutes. Check out LinkedIn’s article on writing recommendations for a helpful template.

Giving an employee of the month award is a classic and effective employee recognition idea.

22. Employee of the Month

If you’re interested in an employee recognition idea that you can implement on a routine basis, try offering an Employee of the Month award.

Employees of the month should be your most standout workers. Consider offering a month’s worth of perks, like a spot bonus, a VIP parking spot, and a free lunch to the employee of the month. You should also shoutout this employee at organization-wide meetings or put their picture on your bravo board.

Surprises can be a great way to show your employees how much you value and recognize their contributions!

23. Surprises

Change up the workday routine by surprising your top performers. These surprises can come in the form of a surprise meal or a surprise party in the middle of the day.

These out-of-the-blue gestures will build up employee morale and remind your employees that they mean a lot to your organization.

Arranging a lunch with your executives or board members is a great employee recognition idea.

24. Lunch With the Boss

Many engaged and hardworking employees are likely looking for opportunities to network and advance within your organization. While working toward this, they may find it hard to connect or get face time with your executives or board members. Recognize their efforts by coordinating a lunch during which they can meet with these leaders.

This can be an excellent opportunity for an employee to get to know your organization’s leaders and share the goals they’ve accomplished and the new ones they’re working toward.

Wrapping Up

When an employee feels seen and appreciated, they’ll be more likely to continue working with your organization as an engaged employee. Regular, thoughtful employee recognition reminds your employees why they enjoy their work and encourages them to think highly of their employers.

As you build up your organization’s employee recognition program, remember to work hard to make it sustainable and fair. Don’t hesitate to get outside help!

Want to learn more about building better relationships with your employees? Check out these great articles on topics related to employee recognition:

Astron Solutions can help you set up your employee recognition program. Learn how by clicking this button!

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