Research Top Employee Recognition Providers

No. 4 in a series of five articles for finding the right employee recognition partner

By Reid Thorpe & Derby Ruspoli-Jorgensen

Illustration by Simon Landrein

Once you’re clear on your reasons for needing an employee recognition partner (please refer to Prioritize Your Goals if you’re not), you’re ready to start your research. And like any important investigation, it helps to be organized, even methodical. Because there are so many ways and places to do your searching, the more deliberate and focused you can be, the less daunting and time-consuming it will be. So let’s break down the process of researching a recognition provider into three actionable, manageable stages: identifying potential providers, vetting the most promising partners, and requesting proposals. Based on the experience of hundreds of organizations like yours, this approach will help prepare you to make an efficient, confident, and ultimately successful decision.

Identify Potential Employee Recognition Providers

Who’s out there and who’s good?

There’s no one right road to explore the myriad companies that market themselves in the employee recognition industry. But there are several pretty smart paths. Here's how to compile the list of candidates you’ll need for the next phase of your journey.


The odds are extremely good that you already know several people who have valuable experience and insightful opinions on employee recognition partners and solutions. Lean on them. Text, voice, email, lunch—whatever works for their schedule.

To ensure your conversations are fruitful, prepare some questions ahead of time, such as:

  • Why did you choose your recognition provider?
  • What do you like best about the relationship and their products?
  • What do you like least?
  • Would you choose them again if you had to do it over?
  • What’s new or noteworthy in this arena?
  • Who else should I ask?

If nothing else, you’ll get a feeling for the competitive landscape and some practical, current perspectives. And that last question can lead you to other sources of wisdom.


Most buyer journeys (61%) include a broad online search. Nearly three-fourths (71%) of buyers say they conduct anonymous research during the first three months. And on average, B2B customers do 12 searches prior to engaging on a specific brand's site. The reason: Google, online communities, and software review sites—even the ones based on advertising—have very valuable information.

That said, here are several things to keep in mind during web research:

Choose your words carefully. Google ranks each website found in a search according to several criteria including how many other sites link to it, how long the site’s been around, how long people spend with the content there, and, of course, key search terms. But the exact algorithms that weight these factors change frequently in a never-ending effort to improve the validity of results. Just know that as good as Google is at determining the intent of a search, every word you use makes a big difference in your results. Specificity pays.

Be aware. When you type “employee recognition programs” or “employee recognition software” into Google, the top four results are paid ads (typically $12 per click). But just because a provider is willing to shell out for this visibility doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best option. The first several results after the ads are more worthy of attention.

Be more aware. The user reviews on software review sites such as Capterra and G2 are valid and trustworthy. However, the rankings on some sites (like Capterra) are paid for, while on others (like G2), the reviews themselves determine position.

Look to thought leaders. HR industry associations like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), WorldatWork, Employee Benefit News (EBN), HR Certification Institute (HRCI), Human Capital Institute (HCI), and Recognition Professionals International (RPI) all have sites and content worth reading that often name providers—just know these outlets are also funded by advertising.

Link in. The professional networking website, LinkedIn, has groups dedicated to HR (and virtually every industry on earth) where group members share articles, discuss trends, ask questions, and offer advice. You can also search posts, download whitepapers, connect with industry veterans, and tap into your own network of connections by simply posing a question as a status update.


Trade shows and conventions provide a great forum to meet representatives from numerous providers in a condensed, efficient way, as well as catch up on emerging technology and new ideas. Plus, it never hurts to network and nurture relationships with other event attendees.

So check out the dates (and participating vendors) for shows like those offered by SHRM or WorldatWork to see if they coincide with your timeline.

Illustration of employees working together and looking for employee recognition vendors

Vet Promising Employee Recognition Partners

Doing the due diligence.

When you feel like you have a broad understanding of the recognition providers available, it’s time to go deep. Start looking closely and more critically at the ones that appear to be a good match for your organization. The goal: narrow the list so you can conduct (or avoid) a request for proposals. This pre-qualifying process can include any or all of the following avenues:

If your company has relationships with analysts such as Gartner and Forrester that cover the HR industry, consider connecting with them.

Customer Endorsements
When you visit the websites of providers, look for client names and any testimonials. Contact the clients that are tackling similar challenges to the ones your organization faces. Ask about their experience with the provider and whether they’ve met expectations.

Third-Party Websites
Sites such as Crunchbase are great for looking at the financials of a provider. Likewise, Owler offers a quick list of vendors and crowdsourced information about funding they’ve received.

Other Sources
The software review site, G2, has a feature that allows you to compare providers head to head on a number of criteria. Also, look for evaluations such as the PEAK Matrix® for Rewards and Recognition by Everest Group and the Baker’s Dozen Customer Satisfaction Ratings for Recognition by HRO Today.


You may already have a clear picture of what you need from your recognition provider, but if you’re hazy at all, here’s a sample checklist of capabilities that can guide your research into potential partners and help you determine the best candidates.

Illustration of employees working diligently looking for the right employee recognition provider

Request Proposals from Employee Recognition Providers

Getting the most out of an RFP.

Like a good online dating profile, the RFP process should help you learn more about a potential employee recognition partner without committing to a relationship. And while RFPs may seem intimidating and cumbersome to even experienced HR and procurement professionals, they don’t have to be.


Simply put, peace of mind. A formal RFP is a more rigorous way to compare features, functionality, compliance, quality, and other important factors across your top few vendors so you can sleep better at night when the stakes are high. The main trade-off is time.

Typical RFPs outline the scope of the project and ask prospective partners for a detailed proposal by a certain deadline. Then, of course, the proposals must be discussed and evaluated. Done well, the RFP helps you make a well-informed decision, even before speaking with a salesperson. But it’s not a process you can start and finish in a week (or a month).

Keep in mind, RFPs are just one step in getting to know the recognition providers. They shouldn’t replace conversations, presentations, demonstrations, and follow-up meetings.


In some situations, RFPs may be absolutely necessary. For example, maybe your organization operates in a heavily regulated environment or is required to show multiple bids. RFPs can also be critical for large organizations with complex buying processes or projects that require a lot of technical information.

If an RFP isn’t required or essential, foregoing one can save your organization time, as well as some money and resources. On the other hand, it’s never a good idea to use an RFP in lieu of doing your own research, or because you don’t want to deal with salespeople. In those cases, the RFP process may backfire, and you’ll find yourself with less-than-ideal vendors responding (or no vendors at all).


Once you’ve decided to embark on the RFP phase, use these seven tips to make sure it goes smoothly:

1. Narrow the search. Sending an RFP to a dozen companies will only overcomplicate the process. Your prior research should yield three to five vendors to target. You may even want to meet and see demonstrations from potential partners before issuing an RFP because the more you can cut now, the smoother the rest of your process will be when you return to your committee.

2. Elevate the experts. Companies that score well on the Baker’s Dozen, FORTUNE Best Companies to Work For®, Everest Group PEAK Matrix®, etc., deserve more consideration. Also note the companies that have been around and are financially stable. You’d be surprised how quickly recognition providers come and go. Track records are important.

3. Decide on features. Understand the product and program features that are commonly available, and don’t compromise on the most important ones to you and your organization.

4. Include a scorecard. When designing your RFP—any RFP—be sure to create a scorecard to ensure your request addresses all the needs of your organization. It’ll also minimize bias and protect against groupthink when it’s time to review proposals. Additionally, have your stakeholders agree on the scorecard before you release the RFP so you can revise it accordingly, if necessary.

5. Tailor the RFP to the employee recognition industry. The quality of a proposal is directly proportional to the specificity of the request. Which means sending a generic RFP template is a big, time-consuming mistake. Most providers are happy to provide details. Help them help you.

6. Craft questions deliberately. As a rule, questions that require a thoughtful response are more beneficial than those that can be answered in a single word, like yes or no. So phrase them to your advantage. Also, separating (rather than combining) questions will make them easier to answer and the answers easier to evaluate.

7. Keep it simple. The more questions you ask, the more questions you’ll have to read, analyze, and score. Stay focused and ask only the questions you couldn’t answer elsewhere. Mimicking a legal cross-examination by posing questions you already know the answers to isn’t worth the time (even it feels good and thorough).


As good as an RFP can be, it’s not the only way to find the right recognition solution, and it’s not sufficient by itself. Whether or not you conduct an RFP, you’ll want to visit potential vendors’ facilities (virtually if necessary), see demonstrations, and meet the team(s) you’d be working with to confirm the solutions and chemistry are everything you expect.

Fortunately, if you’ve leveraged your referrals, done your research, and conducted a prudent RFP, your organization is perfectly positioned to make a final decision.


Illustration of woman holding papers and throwing away what doesn't align with her strategies

Next Steps

Compare, contrast, and choose.

Following all research and information gathering, you’ll likely develop some preferences. And you may even feel a little anxious.

The good news is you’re almost there. With the right criteria, questions, and procedures for building consensus and making a final decision, you’ll soon have an employee recognition partner that can help you create or refine the culture your organization needs for years to come.

The equally good news is those are exactly the subjects of the final article in this series: Select a Partner. Take a look, and feel free to review previous insights in the Culture by Design: Recognition Buyer’s Guide.

If you decide you’re ready to start the RFP process with O.C. Tanner, you can move forward with a personalized RFP.

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