Topic: Appreciation

How to Create Impactful Symbolic Awards for Employees

Insights from Sandra Christensen, Vice President of Awards at O.C. Tanner

An employee with various custom pins on their jacket
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Symbolic awards are back, and better than ever.

But when we say symbolic awards, we don’t mean these:

A collage of generic trophy awards with no personalization

We mean these:

A selection of custom-designed symbolic awards with distinct branding and storytelling for Marriott, Elevance Health, and St. James hospital. Designed by O.C. Tanner's award team.

Traditionally, symbolic awards for employees were reserved for commemorating rare achievements, like employee of the month, years of service or top performance awards. These types of awards were usually generic, nondescript, and impersonal.

Today’s symbolic employee recognition awards are thoughtfully created to reflect a company’s history, purpose, values, culture, and community. They also represent the employee’s hard work that went into the achievement.

“Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”

What is a symbolic recognition award?

A symbolic recognition award is a special award given to show appreciation and recognize an employee’s accomplishments. They symbolize the hard work and contributions of employees. Effective symbolic awards for employees are thoughtfully designed and reflect the company culture, history, and values of an organization. These types of trophies and awards do not have to be elaborate or expensive to have impact, but they must be meaningful.

A selection of custom-designed symbolic awards for Starbucks employees. These awards represent the employee’s career journey at Starbucks, significant acheivements, and much more.
See how successful companies use symbolic awards as part of an integrated recognition strategy.

Why do employees want recognition awards?

Employees want recognition awards because appreciation at work can:

The influence of recognition is substantial. Heartfelt, genuine recognition and leader acknowledgement, combined with the right employee recognition awards to celebrate success, can inspire employees and make them feel irreplaceable.

What is the impact of symbolic awards?

The impact of symbolic awards is powerful:

  • Symbolic awards can improve individual performance by as much as 12%
  • People who experience employee appreciation that includes a symbolic award are 3x more likely to remember that experience
  • Symbolic awards build connection to leaders and teams, improving employee engagement
  • Symbolism increases the probability of engagement, great work, and retention, all which impact bottom line results (as illustrated by the charts below, the likelihood of engagement, great work, and retention is higher at all year levels when employees receive symbolic awards)


A line chart of O.C. Tanner Institute research showcasing how a symbolic award improves the probability of employee engagement over time, compared to no symbolic awards




A line chart of O.C. Tanner Institute research showcasing how a symbolic award improves the probability of employee engagement over time, compared to no symbolic awards




A line chart of O.C. Tanner Institute research showcasing how a symbolic award improves the probability of great work outcomes over time, compared to no symbolic awards



Giving symbolic awards strengthens connection and belonging. It shows employees are part of your organization—your culture, your purpose, and your community.

See more stats on the impact of symbolic recognition awards in our Global Culture Report.        
An image of a custom-branded company swag box designed and curated by O.C. Tanner. This example includes a blanket, water bottle, sunglasses, and more.


Employee recognition award ideas

Here are some employee recognition awards ideas that incorporate symbolism:

1. Swag boxes. Swag boxes—a collection of company-branded gifts that reflect your culture—are a fun and creative award. You can use these during onboarding and for company celebrations to strengthen belonging and community.

2. Careerscapes. Career celebrations have changed a lot over the years. Celebrate your employees’ achievements over time with awards that symbolize not only their years of service, but everything they’ve accomplished in that time. Careerscapes are collectible trophies that tell the story of an employee’s career. Designed to grow with employees, each icon symbolizes an employee’s years of service, accomplishments, and celebrations during their time with you. Make recognition personal by showcasing all the unique ways employees have contributed over their career.  

An image of a "careerscape" designed by O.C. Tanner, showcasing the custom-designed collectibles that are given at key career milestones and displayed in a case.

3. Numerals. Celebrate employee years of service in a memorable way with a numeral that represents their years of service with you.

A custom numeral for a five year anniversary at O.C. Tanner.
See more employee award ideas and how you can celebrate your employees’ service anniversaries with symbolism.       

4. Custom award. Sometimes awards for employees need to be more custom, depending on the achievement or event. O.C. Tanner can help you create a beautiful custom symbolic award to use in awards ceremonies and recognition moments.  

A selection of custom-designed awards made by O.C. Tanner to mark key successes or milestones at various companies.
Want to use these awards in your organization? Find out how with Culture Cloud™.

How to find your company’s symbols

You can find your company’s symbols in your company’s story and company culture. For some organizations, designing a symbolic award is as easy as using your logo or products. For others, it requires thinking about which aspects of your company and culture have meaning to employees. Here’s how you can find and create your company’s symbols:

1. Remember that symbolic awards shouldn’t be generic.

They should reflect your organization and serve as a tangible reminder of employees’ accomplishments and contributions. Generic certificates, plaques, and off-the-rack trophies won’t build the connection and meaning that symbolic awards can.

A custom symbolic award designed by O.C. Tanner for Marriott employees. The design includes a baggage cart with collectible symbols for key career milestone years.

2. Think about your organization.

  • What is it like to work in your organization?
  • What is unique about your culture?
  • Why do people love to work there?
  • What does a good day look like?
  • What stories are told often?
  • What is one story that is not being told?
  • What do you want everyone to know about your organizational culture?
  • How would YOU tell your company stories?
  • What symbol or idea represents that piece of your culture?
A display of custom-designed symbolic awards created by O.C. Tanner for BHP. Each award is a depiction of a significant moment in BHP's company history.
BHP’s symbolic awards represent their company history, purpose, the tools and equipment they use every day, and their future.      

3. Once you’ve uncovered the most meaningful company stories, bring your culture to life by designing, iterating, and testing out symbols that prompt those stories.

These symbols should connect to organizational purpose, your history, and values. If you need help with designing or creating symbols, find a partner who can help you create a collection of iconic awards that define and honor your culture.

4. Think about one area where you’d like to start using symbolism.

It could be a company-wide event, a brand refresh, a new year, introducing a prestigious award, or celebrating a company milestone. Start giving out your beautiful awards, and then expand symbolism out to other recognition opportunities. Begin with onboarding, and end with retirement.  

A selection of recognition experiences for celebrating a career anniversary with an organization. This includes a custom symbolic numeral award, a Yearbook, and other branded gifts.
Need help crafting the perfect symbolic awards? Contact us to create your own collection.

3 Tips for using symbolic awards

1. Start using symbolic awards early

Don’t wait until an employee has been with your company for 5 years to give them symbolic employee recognition awards. Start on day one. Onboarding is the perfect time to introduce new employees to your company’s history, purpose, values, and culture. Giving new hires a small but meaningful symbol of your company, along with a welcome eCard through your company’s recognition program like Culture Cloud, is a great way to introduce them to your recognition tools and appreciation culture.

Fun company swag, custom buttons or pins, zipper pulls, or anything else new employees can wear or use on their first days at their new job will build community and immediate connection to your company.

Research shows when symbolic awards are given early there is a substantial impact on how employees feel about their company culture, inclusion, recognition, and even business results.


A chart with O.C. Tanner Institute research showcasing how incorporating symbolic awards early into the employee experience elevates cultural outcomes like inclusion, recognition, revenue and growth




An image of the onboarding gift from CIBC which includes a custom branded backpack, pin, and note


See how CIBC uses a symbolic pin, along with a custom backpack and points from their recognition program, to help new hires feel appreciated and part of the company.     

2. Give symbolic awards often and for a variety of accomplishments, large and small

Symbolic awards can be used to celebrate a variety of achievements, not just top performance. Use symbolism to recognize employees’ great work and efforts throughout the year; large and small accomplishments, team successes, safety, and innovation are all worthy of a symbolic award.

You can make symbolic awards collectible or create various levels of awards to add meaning. And they don’t have to be expensive or made of gold to be impactful—the most important aspect of an effective symbolic award is that it connects the employee and their accomplishment back to your organization and makes the recognition moment memorable.

3. Ensure symbolic awards are given as part of a meaningful recognition moment

Timely appreciation that details specific employee contributions and connects to your organization’s purpose will bring your symbolic awards to life.

An image of the Ritchie Bros Excellence Awards experience which includes a custom-designed symbolic award, a book of notes from colleagues, and an option to select a gift online
Ritchie Bros. uses symbolism, as well as a VIP experience, to reward excellence  

All acts of appreciation contribute to a positive workplace culture and strengthen belonging and connection in the long term; however, symbolic awards amplify the impact of employee recognition. Start using them today.

Contact us to see how you can use symbolic awards to celebrate service awards, company milestones, and so much more.


A photo of Sandra Christensen

Sandra Christensen
VP, Awards, O.C. Tanner

With over 32 years of experience in employee appreciation award development, Sandra Christensen leads the global awards merchandising and award design and development production teams at O.C. Tanner. A designer herself, Sandra has spent her career creating meaningful, lasting symbols of accomplishment. Her expertise and direction have resulted in the successful launch of countless custom award initiatives for leading organizations, including many in the Fortune 100.

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