7 Essential Improvements for Your Homegrown Recognition Program

Employee recognition is essential if you want to build a workplace culture that attracts, engages, and inspires employees to stay with the organization and contribute to its success.

Research shows frequent employee recognition leads to a:

• 20-point increase in sense of purpose
• 22-point increase in sense of success
• 23-point increase in sense of leadership
• 24-point increase in sense of opportunity

Many organizations pursue recognition by creating their own homegrown recognition programs. Small and medium organizations often rely on an internal team for creation, delivery, and execution to save money. Some larger companies that could afford to hire outside experts choose to go homegrown anyway in the belief that by doing so the solution will better reflect their unique culture. Using internal resources can be an easy, budget-friendly way to make recognition happen.

However, as with any initiative, homegrown recognition programs require a lot of work. Implementation often falls to an already busy HR department that doesn’t have the time to create a robust program. They may not have time to gather industry insights and best practices. They may lack the budget, tools, and expertise to make a program as meaningful and effective as possible.

Depending on the size of the organization, a homegrown approach to recognition may work well for a few years, until you outgrow it. But flying without a vendor makes it extra important to find and follow best practices in order to achieve recognition success.

No two organizations are alike. And while there are many different needs and approaches to consider, here are seven common ways you can improve any homegrown recognition program.

1) Connect your recognition strategy to your company values and purpose.

Employees want to do work that matters. Recognition is a powerful way to connect an employee’s work to something bigger—to show employees how their work makes a difference to the organization and to the world. As you identify what to recognize, think about the connections your employees can make to company values and your organization’s purpose.

An organic culture of appreciation happens when you align employee recognition to your organization’s purpose, values, and key objectives. Appreciate the team as well as the individual. Appreciate everyday wins, as well as monumental achievements. Create a strategy that allows managers and employees alike to recognize significant effort, meaningful results, career milestones, and company anniversaries.

2) Get senior leaders committed to recognition.

Leaders influence how employees feel about everything, including recognition. That’s why support and commitment from leaders is essential when it comes to creating a culture that celebrates accomplishments. Your leadership team’s vision and tone set the standard for how recognition plays out between managers, teams, peers, and even customers.

When it comes to recognition, leaders serve as role models. They teach why recognition is essential and they set the example for how it should be done. Leaders make your organization’s core purpose and values come alive for employees each time they present recognition. Leaders are the gatekeepers of your culture of recognition. Bring them on board. Train them. Encourage them. Reward them.

3) Ensure everyone has access to user-friendly tools and processes.

When it comes to recognition, participation is everything. Getting people to use employee recognition may sound easy, but unfortunately, it’s not. People lack both permission and tools. In our research, we’ve found that 66% of employees currently aren’t able to access or use their company’s recognition tools, and 37% don’t feel empowered to use their recognition program.

Research indicates that even with a formal program in place, organizations must be diligent in providing and promoting user-friendly recognition tools. Be sure you’re communicating about the program to ensure that everyone is aware of what’s available and how to give and receive recognition. Part of your ongoing strategy should be inviting and encouraging employees to make use of all your recognition resources.

4) Create consistent, equitable experiences.

Inclusion and equity are vital to making recognition part of your culture. When employees see that appreciation is consistent and that all employees—not just a few star players—are recognized, they're more likely to feel engaged. Recognition programs must focus on making appreciation a reality for all employees—no matter what team they’re on, what role they have, or to whom they report.

Allow everyone to give and receive recognition, regardless of their level, department, or location. Provide training about what’s available and how to make recognition experiences as meaningful as possible. Set specific standards for what is expected of leaders: what should be recognized and how recognition should be given.

5) Provide meaningful awards.

Awards deliver experiences. The right awards are a crucial part of your overall recognition experience. Awards should not be one-size-fits-all. Instead, choose a variety of awards that fit the level of recognition being given.

Thoughtfully consider the role of cash, gift cards, experiences, merchandise, and custom awards. Don’t forget the impact of non-monetary recognition as well. Symbolic and custom awards are a great way to tell stories that connect recognition back to your company’s purpose, history, brand, or culture. Above all, choose awards that would be meaningful to your people.

6) Train leaders to create great recognition experiences.

Recognition presentations should feel personal and genuine—for the presenter, the receiver, and everyone else in the room. To achieve the most impact, recognition experiences should be meaningful for everyone involved.

Recognition must not only be authentic, it must also meet the needs of your current employee population. Train leaders on how to plan and create great recognition experiences. They don’t need to be complicated or elaborate. Help everyone in the organization learn how to sincerely communicate and express appreciation for significant achievements as well as everyday effort.

7) Avoid the common pitfalls of homegrown recognition programs.

If you are managing a homegrown recognition program (or thinking about starting one), beware of common pitfalls that occur in homegrown recognition programs.

• Inequitable appreciation: Homegrown recognition programs often lack the design and structure necessary to ensure every employee has the same experience. Without a formalized program, recognition depends on each leader’s comfort with expressing appreciation. Some leaders do this better than others. Additionally, if a leader doesn’t like what your program offers, they may use their own methods to recognize their people. This can wreak havoc on budgets, tracking, and fairness.

Without a formal, centralized process, it’s impossible to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to receive recognition. Having a single, overworked HR team ensure equitable experiences across all employees can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. So do all you can to automate, simplify, and unify recognition efforts with as few moving parts as possible.

• Untracked results: Who is being recognized? How often does appreciation happen? What’s being spent to recognize employee achievements? How does recognition impact the employee experience and workplace culture? These are all questions a recognition program manager should be able to track and answer.

Unfortunately, when using a homegrown approach for recognition, it can be tough to define and measure results. Some of the value in a homegrown approach is that managers and colleagues can be creative about how they celebrate one another, but that also means the organization can’t assess or replicate what’s working. Nor can they find areas in which improvement may be required.

Even if it’s manual, try to implement a recognition data entry and tracking program that tells you who’s being recognized when, with what, and why.

• Haphazard strategy: Homegrown recognition usually evolves on an ad-hoc, as-needed basis. Rather than creating an approach based on research-based thought leadership and industry best practices, immediate needs and personal opinions often drive recognition strategy and processes.

Try placing a priority on beginning with the end in mind. Meet as a team and decide what job you are creating a recognition program to achieve. Is it to make people feel appreciated? To solve a strategic issue like increasing engagement or retention? To create more team unity? Simplify your goals and let them drive all your recognition decisions and program details.

Overwhelmed program managers: When the need for a recognition program comes up, organizations typically look to HR professionals, given their understanding of the people side of the business. As part of a new initiative, these employees take on full management of the program to ensure its success.

At first, HR teams may be happy to add a homegrown recognition program to their responsibilities. But as managing the program collides with existing responsibilities, it can quickly become an unwelcome burden.

Make sure to assign recognition program duties to HR leaders with enough bandwidth to handle the new responsibilities. This may involve shifting duties or hiring specifically for the task.

If these common pitfalls of homegrown recognition programs aren’t quickly addressed, they can add up to sabotage your overall employee recognition efforts. At that point, an organization needs a new strategy before these issues negatively impact the employee experience.


Consider a Partner

If it becomes too overwhelming to create and manage your own recognition program, know there are providers out there that make delivering powerful recognition experiences easy.

We recommend evaluating what other leading organizations are doing. Tap into your industry network to see how your peers use recognition to enhance the employee experience. And talk to an experienced recognition provider who knows the ins and outs of recognition best practices. It doesn’t cost anything to explore.

Meanwhile, know that working with an expert makes a huge difference. Research shows that 65% of companies who use an external recognition vendor receive excellent value from their programs, compared to only 37% at companies with homegrown recognition programs.

Employees feel more appreciated at organizations where formal recognition programs are tied to core values, communicated to all employees, and delivered consistently in meaningful ways. If you’ve been using a homegrown approach, now is the perfect time to build upon and improve it. Or consider expanding your recognition efforts with a reputable partner to create a culture that helps people thrive.


Try a Culture Assessment to see how your homegrown recognition program is impacting your organization