Select an Employee Recognition Partner

No. 5 in a series of five articles for finding the right employee recognition partner

By Reid Thorpe

Illustration by Xoana Herrera

Congratulations, your quest to find the right recognition partner is nearing its conclusion—a gratifying end that’s now clearly in sight. If you’ve involved your executives, assembled a committee, prioritized your goals, and researched top providers, you may be feeling some fatigue and even pressure now. After all, you’ve spent a lot of time getting to this point, and it’s a big decision with significant consequences for your organization—and for you personally. To ensure you finish your search successfully, feeling good about both your investment and your ultimate choice, here are a few proven suggestions.

Evaluate Employee Recognition Providers

Using the recognition provider scorecard.

No matter how good you are (or aren’t) at math, you have to love a tool that allows you to quantify and compare the spectrum of strengths and weaknesses of the employee recognition providers on your short list. And if you’ve conducted an RFP, hopefully you prepared a scorecard or decision matrix beforehand for this purpose.

But regardless of when you create a scorecard, the thing to remember is it needn’t be complex to help you objectively evaluate your options. In fact, a worksheet consisting of columns for criteria, weight, rating, and score is usually more than adequate.

  • The criteria are simply a list of functional, technical, or performance requirements. And each requirement can be broken down into specific points (e.g., does their solution have mobile capabilities? can they accommodate your global locations?, etc.).
  • The weight is a point value you assign to each criterion because not all requirements on your list will be equally important. The weighting, of course, should reflect your organization’s priorities.
  • The rating column allows you (and others on your committee) to note how well providers meet each criterion. Ratings can range from yes/no to letter grades to points and allow you to compare and contrast at a glance.
  • The score is then typically the automatic tally of weighted points for each criterion and ultimately each provider.
Scorecard example for ultimately deciding which recognition partner to go with

Once you’ve evaluated each provider based on their responses—as well as your own research—it should be easy to identify and eliminate any less-than-ideal vendors and narrow down your choices to two or three. As you do, here are a few more important things to consider:

Red Flag—Required Prepayments
Beware of recognition vendors who want you to pre-pay for your recognition program points. If a vendor goes out of business, their clients may have no way to get their money back and no way for their employees to redeem the points they’ve earned. This makes for some difficult conversations with your CFO.

Green Light—Customization
At a bare minimum, a good partner will offer some self-serve customization, not unlike creating a custom profile in a social media site that lets you upload photos, backgrounds, and logos into your program website. Further customization requires time and resources and therefore usually costs money. Many vendors simply cannot or will not do custom work for small or mid-sized companies. But if you are a large enterprise looking to create a program that reflects your brand, culture, and values, knowing your partner can provide these services is a big plus.

Red Flag—Hidden Minimums
Budget minimums have their place. Often they’re intended to help ensure a positive employee experience and maximum ROI. But don’t be afraid to ask about minimums because, regrettably, some recognition providers will wait until the end of the buying process (or even after you’ve selected them) to inform you that everything you’ve been promised comes at a much higher cost. A better partner will work with the money you have or tell you upfront that their enterprise offerings require an enterprise-size investment.

Green Light—Billing Options
Most recognition providers invoice their clients “on issuance” for points given to employees. However, you may benefit from billing “on redemption” or another option that better meets your unique needs. (Just one more hallmark of a flexible partner.)

Red Flag—Integration Inexperience
Does the vendor deliver a sub-standard employee experience by not providing recognition integrations to systems your people use every day—like Outlook, Teams, Workday, etc.? It may not be a deal-breaker, but it should factor into your decision.

Green Light—Deep Expertise
Expertise is one of the most attractive qualities in any recognition partner. So how do you know they have the right experts to help you accomplish your goals? Do they understand communication strategy, customer service, education, measurement, integrations, technical support, and award strategy? If so, it’s a go.

Red Flag—Indirect Answers
Vendors may use boilerplate language when they want to avoid responding to a question. Generic or vague responses that lack substance or detail merit concern.

Green Light—Offline Solutions
Employees who don’t use computers or mobile devices in their daily work need analog options to give and receive recognition. The best partners will help you ensure no one gets left out.

Red Flag—Tax Apathy
It pays to understand the tax laws, especially those in the U.S. that apply to service awards. Many vendors will try to dismiss the impact of taxes, but be sure to ask informed questions because having a tax-compliant program saves significant money you can reinvest in employees.

Green Light—Custom Awards
Organizations that put a lot of stock in letting employees choose the awards they want often can’t get their heads around the value of custom trophies or symbolic awards. What they may not realize is that choice and symbolism are not mutually exclusive. Many top organizations blend the two to great effect. It’s all about giving the right award at the right time. And when you understand the cultural impact of shaping your own custom award “language” with symbols of accomplishment people really aspire to, the ability to design and craft custom symbolic awards moves from nice to necessary in a hurry.

Red Flag—Chemistry
There’s a lot to be said for working with people you like. Is the sales team made up of smart, understanding, caring people that you’d enjoy? Do they listen? Do they get you? Do you trust them? If a potential vendor uses high-pressure tactics or drama to get you to make a decision in their favor, what will they be like as a partner? Think of it as hiring for fit. If the relationship doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Illustration of woman speaking, with employees raising hands engaged in conversation at work

Build Consensus Across Your Selection Committee

How realistic is consensus? And what does it look like?

Some requirements and priorities may not lend themselves to a scorecard. Or maybe the scoring is just really close. In these cases, you’ll need to rely on the wisdom of your committee, and because your committee is made up of individuals with unique perspectives, you should expect disagreements.

While opposing opinions can be healthy and helpful, you’ll want to ensure they don’t hold up the decision-making process. Achieving a consensus—or at minimum an alignment—is important and possible. Here are a few tips to help you achieve enough unity to reach a final decision:

Keep the lane lines clear.
Committee members are most valuable when they represent a specific competency or fill a necessary role. That’s why you selected each of them in the first place, right? Your IT ambassador should speak to technology considerations. Likewise, your finance delegate should focus on the most consequential costs. Just be conscious of any out-of-bounds input that lacks appropriate expertise and only muddies the water. Better yet, be upfront with each committee member about what you need from them. And what you don’t.

Decide who has the final say.
Whether or not consensus comes easily, it pays to designate someone to be the ultimate decision maker. Someone who hears all of the committee’s input and makes the final selection or breaks a tie in the case of a split vote. This structure allows everyone to have a say, creates a clear path, and helps prevent challenges to the decision in the future.

Beware the “what ifs.”
It can be tempting to look at every option from every angle in search of potential problems. Unfortunately, this approach is prone to its own pitfalls: First, it’s easy to get off track and rabbit-hole on hypotheticals that may never materialize and may not be relevant to the solutions you’re evaluating. Second, it’s hard to stop. So, go in with an open mind, but know when to close it.

Expect to have more questions.
No matter how good any proposals or vendor presentations are, the odds are still better that your committee conversations and decision-making process will raise new issues that require additional answers. Be ready to pose more questions to your vendors. It may take an extra day or two, but it’s always preferable to assuming or guessing.

Illustration of woman working from home and talking during a virtual Zoom meeting

Maintain the Momentum

Finishing strong.

The old sayings “time is money” and “time kills all deals” aren’t just warnings for salespeople. Indeed, each week (or month) that passes during your deliberations—or between your decision and a signed contract—can be costly for your organization in a number of ways. These include:

  • Committee members’ time that could be better spent elsewhere
  • Extended disadvantages of not having the right solution in place
  • Prolonged loss of momentum, resulting in de-prioritization of the program
  • A delayed return on the investment you and you company have made

So what should you do if your process starts to slow, or you want to ensure it doesn’t?


Touch base with each stakeholder to make sure employee recognition is a priority moving forward, understand what’s critical to them, and communicate early and often. Also, outline exactly what you need from them and offer support.


Make decisions involving strategy (e.g., what behaviors you’ll recognize and why) so that context and alignment don’t change mid-stream or conflict with other decisions. It’s easy to put the cart before the horse, but tactics such as approval paths or budget tracking will be part of the implementation process, and you’ll have plenty of time to sort them out later.


It’s much easier to lose momentum than it is to get it back. Fortunately, this problem is largely avoidable if you keep communication flowing. Holding regular meetings with your new recognition vendor will help you maintain realistic expectations, anticipate obstacles, plan accordingly, and stay on track.

Illustration of two women shaking hands

Seal the Deal

Here’s to your success.

Selecting the best employee recognition partner for your organization is a monumental task—with equally massive rewards. Of course, that task can be much less daunting and far more efficient when you have a clear, deliberate plan.

We hope this series provides exactly that. A simple, straightforward set of steps and insights to help you improve your employee recognition, and ultimately, your organization’s culture. The right recognition partner will help you create new employee experiences that make daily life at work better in big, meaningful ways. Experiences that help people feel appreciated and connected, elevate their performance, and fuel the success of your business. Likewise, the solution you choose should be a huge source of pride for you and your organization. If it doesn’t get you excited, don’t settle. Keep looking.

In your search, you’ll inevitably find (if you haven’t already) that not all recognition providers and programs are equal. That’s why the search itself is important, and why we at O.C. Tanner are always ready to assist you.

To learn more about anything in this series or our Culture-by-Design approach, please contact us directly.

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