Whether it’s as small and simple as a letter of the alphabet or as large and complex as the Statue of Liberty, a symbol carries meaning. But to be understood and appreciated, symbols require some cultural context—the critical background knowledge—that can come from an institution, a religion, an ethnic group, or even the organization where we work.
At work, symbols that take the form of recognition or an award are extremely valuable for numerous reasons: they communicate a company’s values and purpose, reflect the significance of employee contributions, and build a sense of community by increasing our emotional connections to each other.
Indeed, symbolic awards are much more than career souvenirs. Academic studies have concluded that a symbolic award can improve individual performance by as much as 12%.1 Even without a tangible component, an analysis of Wikipedia volunteers discovered a symbolic virtual award led to increased retention.2 And research on public sector employees by the organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant found symbolic notes of appreciation helped people feel more valued and supported, with positive effects on wellbeing, belonging, and absenteeism.3
So how do you assess the potential impact of symbolic awards in an organization? How can you ensure they’re as meaningful as possible? And why are symbolic awards so potent within the spectrum of employee recognition in the first place? You’ve come to the right chapter. Let’s go.
As humans, we’ve created and used symbols throughout our entire history, in part because they have the ability to plant themselves in our memory. This helps explain why symbolic awards can be such a powerful part of recognition experiences. Employees who receive recognition with a symbolic award are three times more likely to remember the occasion and 358% more likely to provide substantial details about the recognition event.
The quality and type of symbolic awards matter, as does the experience of receiving them. Contrast the symbolic award experiences of two focus group participants:
One HR manager completed a tobacco cessation program and received a symbolic award at a big banquet. The award was “fancy, engrained in marble, special, and shimmers and shines.” She displayed it in her office, and eight years later, she still remembered holding the award at the banquet.
An “employee of the month” received the honor with their picture on the wall, cash, and a generic certificate. They could not remember when they received it and did not know they had won the award until they read about it in the company newsletter.
We asked employees to reflect on their most recent achievement, scoring the sentiment and magnitude of their recognition experience narrative to see if awards created a difference based on the type of award given. We looked at both sentiment polarity (how positive or negative employee emotions were, scored from –100 to +100) and magnitude (how much emotion was in the description, scored 0+).
The analysis found thoughtful and high-quality symbolic awards that aligned with a cultural element produced the most positive average sentiment and substantial average magnitude. Generic awards—like impersonal certificates, nondescript plaques, or plain trophies—had neutral sentiment and low magnitude. In other words, they didn’t mean as much and had little impact on how the employee remembered their achievement.
Likewise, our research found symbolism has the power to build connection. When a career recognition experience includes a symbolic award, it increases the employee’s connection with their team, leader, and the organization. Conversely, when a career recognition experience omits a symbolic award, the probability of connection to each decreases.
The effect of symbolic awards on engagement, great work, and retention is similar. When recognition experiences include symbolic awards, the odds of employees feeling engaged, doing great work, and staying with the organization improve.
Interestingly, the likelihood of great work (defined as above-and-beyond work or work that makes a difference people love) typically falls with tenure, but when symbolic awards are part of career celebrations, the odds increase.
Employees who receive symbolic awards also have a higher overall probability of staying at their organization than those who don’t. Note the odds of retention improve within the first year if employees receive symbolic awards.
In the previous chapter, we explained our experiment with company-wide gifts to determine what type of recognition was effective and to what extent. We found that a tangible award worth $5 given to everyone across the organization decreases engagement and recognition authenticity, while awards worth $50, $250, and $500 had a statistically significant positive effect (although the improvement was smaller at $500). The conclusion: companies should spend at least $50 per employee on awards for company-wide recognition events.
However, when the award includes a symbolic component, we found that a monetary value of $5 no longer has a statistically significant negative effect, and symbolic awards worth $250 and $500 have an even larger positive impact on engagement. In other words, symbolism mitigates the negative impact of a low-cost award and amplifies the effect of higher dollar awards. And it had a similar impact on recognition authenticity as the effect skyrockets when symbolic awards have a value of $250 and $500.
Other academic research supports these findings, demonstrating the mere “presence of symbolic meaning adds value to the economic value of the award, which increases the reward’s overall perceived value,” and leads to better organizational outcomes.4
Our research this year also shows symbolic awards become more meaningful to employees the longer they work for an organization, possibly because they feel more connected to it over time. Furthermore, employees who work in organizations that give symbolic awards find more meaning in them than employees who work in organizations that do not.
Organizations that build meaning into symbolic awards through impactful recognition experiences can elevate the effectiveness of their entire recognition and reward strategy.
Small investments that start at the beginning of an employee’s time with an organization significantly impact engagement, great work, connection, and retention.
Early symbolic awards also help employees connect to the organization’s culture and history sooner, enrich the entire employee experience, and lead to a sustained impact on culture and business results.
Our research shows career celebrations with symbolic awards are most effective when they are both early and frequent. Symbolic awards in standard years-of-service recognition (5, 10, 15 years, etc.) have a positive effect on cultural outcomes, but including them during onboarding, in the first 30 days, and at the 1- and 3-year celebrations is even more powerful:
Symbolic awards are beneficial in all types of employee recognition, so don’t hesitate to use them in everyday-effort, above-and-beyond, safety, and top-performer recognition, too.
Because symbolic awards don’t need to be expensive to be impactful, organizations should consider using them more often. Making them collectible or creating various levels can also add meaning. And more types of symbolic awards, given more frequently, have the potential to increase in importance and appeal because they become a highly integrated part of the culture.
Ritchie Bros., the world’s largest auctioneer of heavy equipment, wanted to motivate their salespeople to keep going even when things were tough. So they created a VIP experience to connect employees to their Founder’s Award.
Working with O.C. Tanner, the company overhauled the David Ritchie Excellence Award, including what it means to win it. The new experience includes a congratulatory brochure, choice of a high-value gift, a spouse/partner award, and a personalized symbolic award. Winners also attend a memorable trip with company leaders.
As part of the luxury experience, the symbolic award helps employees feel valued, appreciated, and inspired to win again. It’s now a tangible reminder to strive for excellence every day.5
Symbolic awards remind recipients of an accomplishment or quality that matters. In most cases, they’re a tangible representation of a job well done. That meaning is what makes them symbolic—and valuable to the recipient—and it’s exactly what a generic, off-the-rack trophy lacks.
Generic trophies, such as non-specific certificates, impersonal plaques, and universal objects, do not have nearly the positive effect on culture or business outcomes that symbolic awards do. Awards that build a connection to the organization substantially increase the likelihood of a thriving culture, feelings of inclusion, and even revenue and business growth.
The best symbolic awards are thoughtfully created tokens of your organization’s history, culture, or achievements. This doesn’t mean they need to be pricey or elaborate, but they should communicate a rich story in ways that feel personal.
So, carefully assess the symbolic awards you give employees. Take the time to think about your company’s culture, history, stories, and milestones, and then connect your awards to them. Often, those aspects will provide the inspiration for the design and materials, as well as how employees might receive, use, and display their awards. All are important considerations.
BHP, one of the world’s leading mining companies, chose to create thoughtful symbolic awards to honor its 80,000 employees for their years of service. To help with the process of designing and crafting these career milestone experiences, the company partnered with O.C. Tanner.
Each symbolic award accomplishes several culture-building goals, from celebrating the recipient to uniting the organization across various geographies to melding the company’s past with its vision for the future.
These symbolic awards connect BHP’s employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another, helping to propel the organization’s success with a work culture that thrives.6
No matter how high the cost or quality of a symbolic award, it will never be as impactful if it’s not part of a meaningful recognition experience. In other words, presentation counts. The most effective recognition moments are timely, specific, and personalized. They should include the employee’s peers and leaders and connect the accomplishment(s) to your organization’s purpose.
When employees receive a symbolic award without a recognition experience, our data show it can harm the organization’s culture. Conversely, presenting the award as part of a meaningful recognition moment increases the probability of appreciation, belonging, culture, and business outcomes.
Harnessing Symbols Sources
Your browser is out of date and may not be able to properly display our website. A list of modern browsers is below; simply click an icon to go to the browser's download page.