Modern Employee Recognition Software

A Buyer’s Guide for HR and IT Decision Makers

A photo of an employee sending appreciation to a coworker through an employee recognition program, which includes points and a personalized thank you message.

Identifying the right employee recognition software is a different journey for every organization. It’s important to determine how well a potential software aligns with your culture strategies and technology stack. The winning solution should not only have all the bells and whistles of a sound recognition program, but it should also fit smoothly into the mix of solutions and tools your people already use.  

The sheer volume of employee recognition software providers in the world makes it hard for HR leaders to narrow down the list of potential partners to a manageable few. This white paper will help you identify some of the advanced and cutting-edge features only available from top vendors. Once you identify the specific goals you hope to achieve with recognition, and understand the various capabilities available, you can match your desired outcomes with the right software solution.

To learn more about the many reasons to adopt a recognition program, see Your Comprehensive Guide to Employee Recognition Programs.

Which employee recognition software fits my organization and culture?

Though you’ll find an extensive list of solutions on the market, including Culture Cloud™ Recognition from O.C. Tanner, not every software platform will be a good fit for your needs. It’s important to ask the right questions during your evaluation of potential recognition software platforms. These questions include:

  • Does it match our existing company culture?
  • Will it help us achieve our future workplace culture goals?
  • Will it work both globally and at the team level?
  • Can it adapt to meet future, yet-to-be-identified needs?
  • Can it integrate well with our other HRIS technologies?
  • Are rewards real-time and impactful?
  • Will the budget be adaptable by region?
  • Can the desired outcomes be measured and reported?

Of all the potential selection criteria, the most important factor is whether the solution will create the specific impact you are seeking. In other words, does the technology tool harmonize with and support the broader culture strategy of your organization?

“Bottom line—will this software help your organization accomplish the two or three things most important to your people strategy?”
—David Sturt, Author of Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness

David Sturt, author of Appreciate: Celebrating People, Inspiring Greatness, says that this type of questioning is absolutely critical in a solution search. “I always encourage technology decision makers to consider whether the tool matches their ecosystem, which includes the greater people strategies of their organization,” Sturt explains. “Bottom line—will this software help your organization accomplish the two or three things most important to your people strategy? Will it make a global impact on furthering the goals of your company culture?”

Features to look for as you compare employee recognition software

As you consider employee recognition software vendors, ensure each solution offers all of the features your organization will require to make a cultural impact across multiple offices and geographical regions. The table below outlines essential, advanced, and cutting-edge features (click on any feature to jump directly to its explanation in this article).

Ease of use Global rewards catalog and fulfillment Custom integrations
Cloud-based with SSO A variety of recognition experiences Configurability of workflows and rules
Highest security and privacy protocols Intuitive, native mobile app Machine learning and behavioral communications
Manager-to-team member recognition Budget allocation and tracking Robust dashboards and predictive analytics
Peer-to-peer recognition Trusted advisors/global support
Social wall recognition
Years of service recognition

Essential features for any enterprise employee recognition software

In any software category, some features are table stakes—the minimum entry requirements that every solution should offer. These essential features have come to be expected, especially for recognition solutions at the enterprise level. You should cut any software vendor from your consideration list if they can’t confidently deliver all of these features, including:

Ease of use

Obvious or not, we had to put this one first. No matter how many robust features, capabilities, and layers of configurable, powerful, world-class, secure code lie underneath your recognition software, the user experience must be intuitive, human, simple, and fun to use.

Remember that giving and receiving recognition is a joyful, celebratory event that connects us to the work we do, the organization we do it for, and the people with whom we work. That’s why recognition software should feel natural, friendly, and easy to use. When it does, employee participation, and all the good that comes with it, soars. If it doesn’t, all the features in the world won’t make a bit of difference.

A photo of an employee working from home and smiling at their phone.

Cloud-based solution with Single Sign On (SSO)

Employers want a flexible, cloud-based solution that can be implemented globally throughout an organization. To access the platform, Single Sign On (SSO) is important for ease-of-use to access the software. You don’t want to make employees sign on to use the tool multiple times a day, from different integrations or applications. Constant availability and access fuels participation, which is the key to a successful program.

Highest security and privacy protocols

For enterprise-level solutions, verified security protocols are essential, not optional. A secure platform generally includes meeting high standards such as EU-US Privacy Shield, a framework for transatlantic exchanges of personal data between the European Union and the United States; SOC 2 reporting to attest that controls are in place to safeguard data; and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance to meet Europe’s high standard for data privacy and security.

An image of logos for various data privacy laws including SOC II, EU-US Privacy Shield, and GDPR.

IT leaders and other executives at mid- to large-sized enterprises demand strict adherence to these and all other domestic and international laws and regulations designed to protect customer data. You should only consider vendors that are certified in meeting these security and privacy needs.

Manager-to-team member recognition

Top-down recognition is essential. Leaders need to practice and exemplify great recognition habits to their teams. Recognition software needs to enable and empower leaders to appreciate, retain, and enhance the performance of their teams. But managers need more than the ability to give recognition and deliver monetary rewards through points. They require a flexible solution that helps them to manage and monitor the entire flow of recognition and the culture of appreciation fostered within their team.

Peer-to-peer recognition

A culture of appreciation starts at the top, but it doesn’t end there. Not by a long shot. Organizations that have found the most success know that empowering employees to both appreciate and be appreciated, is the lifeblood of a successful recognition solution. Whether it’s a simple thank you, an eCard, points, or a nomination for a special award, peer-to-peer recognition, in concert with leader recognition, will fuel success. Look for a solution with several levers to regulate the amount, size, and frequency of monetary rewards that different team members can offer.

A collage of employee recognition experiences on Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner, including an award certificate, an online social wall, team recognition dashboards, and points for awards.

Social wall recognition

Incorporating a social feed into your program broadcasts great work enterprise-wide and expands the power of positivity exponentially. Publishing recognition activity to an internal social wall invites all employees to follow along, encouraging teams to celebrate, and join in on cross-departmental achievements. This expanded visibility invites even more praise and validation than recognition without social sharing.

Years of service recognition

Career anniversary (or years of service) awards dramatically improve employee tenure, loyalty, and connection to the organization. These awards are unifying team events that celebrate an individual’s total contributions to the organization. Look for a software solution that does more than merely deliver an award on a specific date. The best solutions also automatically collect team comments, photos, and memories to create a memorable digital and/or printed keepsake of the achievement.

Also, look for software that allows you to combine meaningful symbols of accomplishment (custom culture-defining awards) with the opportunity to choose a personal item from a catalog of gifts with enduring value. The software should also facilitate printable certs, presentation tips, alerts, and reminders. Finally, years of service awards are associated with unique tax benefits. Be sure your software provider is aware of and knows how to navigate these benefits to maximize your budget.

A collage of employee work anniversary celebration experiences from Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner, including a custom company award numeral and a Yearbook filled with comments from teammates.

Advanced features to help organizations launch a more robust recognition solution

A more versatile employee recognition solution offers additional tools and features that provide more functionality, added opportunities for recognition experiences, and the ability to implement custom integrations.

For example, does the solution integrate with an intuitive and easy-to-use mobile app? Does it offer special configurations for budgeting, tracking, and billing? Some of the critical advanced features to look for and compare include:

Global rewards catalog and fulfillment

Most employee recognition programs are connected to a rewards catalog or shopping experience where participants can choose to redeem rewards for points earned. Sometimes, companies offer gift cards or third-party fulfillment alone. The best solutions include thousands of options for brand name merchandise, tech gadgets, adventures, concerts, sporting events, trips, gift cards, charitable giving, and more.

A superior solution offers features like global fulfillment, custom filtering by teams or location, and other extras like a personal wish list or the opportunity to buy more points. Be aware that an office in New York will most likely require a different setup than an office in India (you can save on unnecessary taxes and fees). Also consider the warranty and customer service advantages of a partner who fulfills rewards themselves rather than through third-party vendors.

The global award store experience from Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner. Employees can accrue points for gifts and experiences.

A variety of recognition experiences

Note that no matter how many boxes a software solution checks on your feature wishlist, one thing trumps them all: recognition experiences. The job you are hiring a recognition solution to do is to facilitate and elevate the quantity, quality, and variety of recognition moments, celebrations, and culture-building connections that happen in your organization. Beware of one-trick-pony vendors, whose software does little more than facilitate a transaction of points. Such solutions are beloved for a brief moment, then become boring and transactional.

Recognition should be delivered via a wide array of rich, meaningful experiences that constantly surprise and delight employees. From badges and ecards, to points and shopping for an award. From personalized certificates to symbolic awards they can wear or display. From certificates presented at team gatherings to company-wide celebrations. Ask prospective vendors how their software supports a wide variety of personal, meaningful, unexpected recognition moments.

A variety of employee recognition experiences on Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner including personalized messages from teammates, points, a mobile app, and a social wall for company recognition.

Intuitive, native mobile app

Research shows that employees who use mobile recognition apps are significantly more engaged in using a program. A well-designed recognition mobile app makes it easier for managers and peers to recognize “in the moment.” This is achieved by pairing a highly intuitive mobile app to the recognition program so all employees can carry a recognition tool in their pocket and recognize great work anytime, anywhere.

The app’s experience should feel very familiar for users of the desktop version of the program. But be careful—you don’t just want a mobile-responsive site (where your browser simply optimizes desktop content for mobile). Be sure your vendor offers iOS- and Android-native apps that are fully optimized for mobile use. This creates the best possible user experience—an important factor as a mobile app often becomes the heart of the recognition solution for many organizations.

“When recognition is integrated, it happens frequently for a variety of accomplishments, large and small, and comes from both leaders and peers.”
—2023 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute

Budget management, allocation, and tracking

How does budgeting have the power to customize your program? The key is flexibility and configurability. One important decision is whether your organization prefers to be billed when points are awarded vs. when points are redeemed. It’s an important choice. A versatile software partner will allow you to operate with either option.

You should also consider how easily you can configure and manage budgets within the solution itself. It’s important to be able to set budgets by location, business type, or eligibility. You will also want the ability to set the timing of when budgets are refreshed, and how easily program managers can respond to usage reporting.

A preview of the budget management tool in Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner.

Trusted advisors/global support

To make a sustained, ongoing impact with your employee recognition software, you’ll want to consider the support the vendor offers. Will they help you get intentional about your culture goals? Will they work with you to achieve results and constantly improve your solution over time? Will they be able to respond quickly to issues that arise? Will they work as a trusted partner to not only solve problems but suggest enhancements and offer support across your global operation?

Choosing a vendor with the right software backed by a qualified and available support team will lead to the biggest impact from your recognition software investment.

Cutting-edge features designed to more actively promote a culture of appreciation

One of the advantages of today’s software solutions is the ability to achieve the impact of a totally custom solution without paying to build a custom solution from scratch. Leading recognition software providers allow you to optimize the configuration and the nuances of your solution to support your own specific culture-building goals and strategies.

The ability to implement a solution into existing tools, customize program rules, and implement predictive analytics helps administrators to mold and adapt a program around specific organizational goals. These culture-changing features include:

Custom integrations

It’s vital to ensure that your recognition software can integrate with existing company platforms and tools. These integrations (see chart for examples) bridge the gaps by working within or in conjunction with tools that employees already use as part of their daily routines.

In the case of communication tools, integration gives employees the ability to recognize in their familiar flow of work, like in email or Microsoft Teams. This keeps recognition top-of-mind and makes it a part of the regular work stream. “Program integrations are essential. Just seeing an ‘Appreciate’ button in Outlook’s main menu can encourage in-the-moment recognition that otherwise wouldn’t happen,” says Steve Fairbanks, Senior VP/CTO at O.C. Tanner.

A preview of the Outlook plug-in for employee recognition with Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner. This integration allows employees to send appreciation directly from their email.
“Just seeing an ‘Appreciate’ button in Outlook’s main menu can encourage in-the-moment recognition that otherwise wouldn’t happen.”
— Steve Fairbanks, CTO, O.C. Tanner

Smoothly integrating with common HRIS tools—like Workday and SuccessFactors—helps your recognition solution share data and analytics with these critical HR tools, improving the performance of both your HRIS systems and your recognition solution. Look for these necessary integration capabilities ahead of time to save yourself, and your IT team, from headaches (and expenses) later on.

Logos for Workday and SAP SuccessFactors HRIS tools.

Configurability of workflows and rules

Configurability means you can not only customize the look/branding of your program to fit your culture, but you can apply workflows and rules enterprise-wide or by region based on how you work. For example, the best software lets you set specific award and point levels by geography or business unit.

You can also customize user experiences based on the type of recognition (is it a safety award, sales award, innovation award, etc.). Plus, you can configure the workflow of those (if anyone) who need to approve formal or high-value recognition nominations when they occur. Permissions and budgets should also be configurable.

Another type of configurability to look for is scaling to the team level. In other words, can leaders with permission create their own recognition programs to rally their team around a specific goal? Advanced software will allow individual leaders to create a distinct set of rules, award levels, and budgets for recognition tied to specific team achievements. Essentially, this allows any sized team, division, or geography, to create and manage their own recognition projects. Not all vendors offer this level of functionality.

Machine learning and behavioral communications

Especially attractive to administrators of enterprise solutions is advanced machine learning that can aid in optimizing your recognition program. Patterns of high or low usage can be identified so that program managers can more quickly determine how to improve participation.

Additionally, behavioral communications such as emails can be triggered to promote desired actions from employees. These automated “smart nudges” encourage a specific behavior change based on activity data. For example, triggered emails based on tailored rules may include messages like:

“Have you gone in and claimed your account?”
“Have you downloaded our mobile app?”
“Have you recognized a colleague lately?”

Administrators can also target specific employee segments through other communication tool integrations, such as banner messages on TV monitors in a team’s work area.

Robust dashboards and predictive analytics

We’ve mentioned throughout this guide that your solution should be tailored to the outcomes you desire. Here’s how you track and measure those outcomes. A big selling point of any platform is a robust set of self-service dashboards. Day-to-day managers need visibility to daily program activity. With intuitive dashboards and predictive analytics, leaders can access valuable stats on their own, visualize what’s happening, and even see prescriptive actions that can be taken based on data projections.

A preview of the Live Stats dashboard in Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner, which allows program administrators to see real-time employee recognition data in their organization.

While managers track day-to-day activities, administrators can track the ROI of the tool over time (across a three-year contract, for example). With the right reporting features, HR leaders can demonstrate program impact and ROI to executive teams and other leaders across the organization.

A preview of a year-over-year employee recognition dashboard in Culture Cloud by O.C. Tanner, which allows program administrators to compare employee recognition usage across the organization.

Choose the employee recognition software that fits your organization and your goals

After conducting a search and evaluation of employee recognition software, your choice of a partner will come down to the question mentioned earlier: “Which software will make a global impact on furthering the goals of our company culture?" If you narrow your search to the option that best supports your goals, your final choice should be easy. The table below will help you compare features available with Culture Cloud against other potential vendors.

You can read about the features and benefits of Culture Cloud Recognition from O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition software solution designed to help large organizations build thriving workplace cultures. You can also schedule a demo to see why leading companies worldwide choose Culture Cloud.

For insights on employee recognition and current industry trends in workplace culture, read O.C. Tanner’s flagship Global Culture Report.

A chart of essential, advanced, and cutting-edge features for employee recognition software.