How To Do Employee Recognition Well: 5 Tips for Creating a Strong Employee Experience

Advice from an HR VP

Headshot of HR leader smiling

As a human resources leader myself, I know how full your days are and how much you have on your plate. I love how many lives HR lets us impact in a single day, but I also know there’s little time left for those projects we know would make a huge difference. If only we could find the time.

I understand you are grappling with seemingly impossible challenges in a rapidly changing work environment and how, seen in context, something like employee recognition may not be a top priority. But it should be, because when we do employee recognition well, we not only help employees feel appreciated, we create a workplace culture where people thrive, even as the workplace continues to evolve.

Recognition doesn’t need to be complicated, and it can help with many of your other HR challenges. Here are five tips to help you create a recognition program that will inspire your people and transform your company culture.

1. Share authentic recognition

In this new workplace, as employees re-evaluate the role of work and their jobs, they expect authenticity from their employers. And they’ll leave if they don’t find it.

Employee appreciation in particular needs to be genuine and meaningful to be effective. Employees want to understand why they are being recognized and how their work makes a difference. So be clear about what you are recognizing and why.

Be strategic about the company values you adopt, the behaviors you reward, the messages from your CEO, the photos you use in your program. Shift the perspective, if it exists, that recognition is all about giving stuff to people. Recognition is so much more than that. It’s about truly appreciating and valuing each employee for their work, accomplishments, and career milestones.

Remind leaders recognition doesn’t always have to be a big production. You don’t have to be the most articulate person, or have the most polished presentation, to say thank you. Just say it. It’s the thought that counts.

87% of employees said their organization’s recognition program is stale, outdated, or used as disguised compensation.

2. Commitment and consistency are key

Being consistent about employee recognition can be one of the hardest things to do.

Your recognition initiatives need to have the full support and buy-in from senior leaders. They need to commit to living recognition principles every day, to using the program often, and to holding other leaders accountable. If you treat recognition as optional, leaders won’t do it.

Employees won’t see it happening, and your efforts will never be successful. People won’t feel appreciated and they will leave. Commitment and consistency make the difference between an initiative and a real culture shift. Sustained behavior is what helps people believe that something is real, and while it takes a lot of commitment, it’s 100 percent worth it.

Recognition is consistent when it’s integrated. Companies with integrated recognition have employees who are 13X more likely to feel they belong at the organization.

Consistent recognition helps build inclusion. It ensures all employees feel like they belong, are valued, and are an important part of your organization. So bring it up. Remind people that it’s important and why.

Here at O.C. Tanner, we start every meeting with recognition. It’s expected and always welcome. I love when employees come up and ask if they can take time in the beginning of a meeting to give recognition. Our senior leaders are also role models of recognition. Our CEO regularly recognizes above and beyond work during leadership meetings, and often holds other senior leaders accountable if he notices a missed opportunity to give more recognition.

3. Rethink service awards

There’s a place for rewards like cash and gift cards and trips, but what people really want are employee service awards that connect them to your organization and help them feel they belong.

We found in focus groups with our own employees that there is a deep longing to connect to the stories of our company. There was interest in how the company began, a desire to be connected to the origin of different traditions in the organization. When people received recognition, especially for their years of service and career milestones, they wanted something that symbolized our company stories.

This insight led us to change our awards to include symbols of things that had significance in our organization and that represented core aspects of our culture. Suddenly recognition for career milestones became more than just celebrating five or ten years of service. It was about passing down the culture and stories of our company. These symbolic awards reminded employees of their contributions to our company and what makes our organization so different and important.

We tend to think the modern employee wants an Amazon gift card or cash, and sometimes that’s true, but what people really want more is something that is meaningful, personal, and helps them connect to something bigger.

Fun, meaningful symbolic gifts can help employees feel they belong from day 1.

4. Look beyond just usage to measure ROI of employee recognition

Elevate your expectations. Recognition program participation is a good thing to measure but measuring the ROI of employee recognition on other critical culture and business metrics is even better. Recognition helps improve leadership, engagement, opportunity, purpose, productivity, and retention.

When evaluating the success of your recognition solutions, ask questions like, “What difference is recognition making in our company? How is it affecting engagement, company culture, retention, and even business results?” Look at culture and business ROI, rather than program ROI alone.

Here are some other stats to consider:

  • Employees are five times more likely to stay when regularly acknowledged for good work
  • An effective years of service award program alone increases employee tenure by two full years
  • Organizations that recognize effectively are 53% more likely to have highly engaged employees
  • People who are recognized generate twice as many good ideas per month
  • Employee recognition has a powerful impact on all six elements of a thriving culture, which leads to a 74% higher likelihood to have increased in revenue in the past year:

5. Find a recognition partner who wants to help you

Don’t just hire an employee recognition vendor. Find a recognition BFF who not only offers world-class products and services, but truly understands the landscape of what you are trying to accomplish at your organization. Look for someone who genuinely wants to help you achieve your culture goals, even ones that aren’t directly related to the products they are trying to sell.

  1. Phone a friend. See who your peers and other HR leaders are using.
  2. Search the web—but don’t just google it. Look at HR industry associations, review sites like G2 or Capterra, HR LinkedIn groups, and go beyond paid ads in searches.
  3. Attend virtual events. Sign up for a webinar, attend a virtual conference, and hear other HR VPs share their success stories.
  4. Do the due diligence. Look at analyst relationships, customer endorsements, and third-party websites like Baker’s Dozen for vendor evaluations and Crunchbase for company financials.

How can you tell you are working with the right vendor? They have a clear purpose that aligns with your need.

Recently, we went through the process of choosing a provider for one of our own HR initiatives. One particular company was so passionate about their purpose, and confident in its impact, that they didn’t even care if we chose them. They just wanted to make sure we had some sort of solution in place for the problem we were trying to solve. Our contact said, “This is so critical. You need to do this, even if it’s not with us.” They cared more about the impact of the initiative than the use of their specific product. Naturally, we chose them.

The best partners are just that—partners. They go through the journey with you and want you to succeed more than they want to sell you something.

If a refreshed employee recognition solution is on your long-term wish list, may I suggest you move it to the top? I promise the cultural impact will be well worth the effort. Check out the resources below or reach out to us to learn more.

Buyer’s Guide for employee recognition programs
• How to track the ROI of recognition
Essential guide to building a recognition program
Modern day guide to years of service awards
• How companies around the world achieve recognition success
• See how tools like Culture Cloud can help