Do you put your employees first? 5 tips for designing an employee recognition program

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4 mins, 32 secs read time

Here’s a common HR quandary: How do you motivate and inspire a dissatisfied, disengaged workforce? The first step is understanding the source of this discontent. Sixty-five percent of employees who are dissatisfied with work say that the reason for their dissatisfaction is that they don’t feel valued at work (this is second only to unhappiness about salary, by the way).

So how can you show employees that you value them? An employee recognition program is a great place to start. Workplace expert Josh Bersin writes that unfortunately, “Too many CEOs and managers focus on bottom line results without thinking about how it feels to slog away and work without anyone saying thanks.”

Let’s get something out of the way upfront: Paying employees their regular salary does not count as “recognition.” Bersin explains that, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, an employee’s regular salary falls into a lower category associated with a sense of safety and security, but recognition appeals to employees on a higher level, allowing them to take pride in their work and feel motivated to perform better in the future.

Employers are increasingly noticing the correlation between recognition programs and employee performance: 68% of respondents in the Globoforce SHRM joint study believed that recognition programs had a positive impact on retention and a full 90% of respondents perceived a connection between recognition programs and employee engagement.

Wondering how you can create and implement an effective employee recognition program? Here are 5 tips to help you get started:

1. Make sure all employees know the program exists

Many companies do a lackluster job of communicating their recognition programs to employees. Bersin by Deloitte found that 3 out of 4 companies say they have a recognition program, but only 58% of employees believe their organizations have these programs. In the same study, employees cited the lack of an established recognition program as the top reason for not recognizing their fellow employees.

Whether you have an existing program or are rolling out a new one, make sure everyone knows about it. Schedule a few minutes to bring it up at the next all-hands meeting. Explain how it works during new hire onboarding. Reward the most frequent participants with some recognition of their own! You can be as creative with this as you’d like—in a previous company, I was rewarded with an all-expenses trip to Washington, D.C. simply because I had nominated one of my fellow coworkers for an award.

2. Design recognition programs around company values – not tenure

Once upon a time, companies celebrated employees who had stuck around for a certain amount of time (five years, ten years, etc.) with gifts like fountain pens, mugs, or plaques.

Nowadays the workforce is much more mobile – and not as likely to be motivated by this type of recognition.

You’ll see the biggest impact when your recognition programs are tied to your company values rather than company tenure. Recognition programs that are not tied to values can still have a positive benefit – they were found to increase engagement by 67% and retention by 41%. This is not too shabby, but compare it to an increase of 90% and 68% when the programs are tied to company values.

This also makes it much easier for employees to find meaning in their work – instead of celebrating employees for just showing up day after day, acknowledge how they’re contributing to your larger mission or goals.

3. Create regular opportunities for employees to recognize each other

There’s a reason why annual performance reviews are being ditched – getting feedback once a year is just not that helpful or actionable. Frequent check-ins allow employees to understand what’s working and attempt to correct any behaviors that aren’t. Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to wait an entire year to celebrate employees’ successes and positive contributions.

You can use your judgment based on the size of your company and available resources, but consider setting a pace such as weekly, monthly, or quarterly opportunities to recognize employees. And if you have software that allows employees to send positive feedback to each other, there’s no reason why this can’t happen on a daily basis!

4. Emphasize peer-to-peer recognition

While it’s useful for managers to recognize their direct reports, peer-to-peer recognition has the power to make a greater impact. Josh Bersin suggests that this is because “Peers know what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis so when they thank you for your efforts, the impact is much more meaningful.” And, of course, when you have all employees involved in the recognition process, you increase the opportunities for overall engagement and participation.

5. When all else fails… bribe them!

When Shopify first introduced UNICORN, their internal recognition system, participation and interest was not consistent across the board. So CEO Tobi Lütke reframed the initiative by considering “What if we bribed them?”

By distributing money among all employees and empowering them to distribute cash bonuses to their coworkers, Lütke and other managers found a way to get all employees on board with the program.

If you’re struggling to get your recognition program off the ground, consider whether this approach might work for you.

Final thoughts

It’s no longer enough to simply pay our employees for the work they do—this model feels outdated and impersonal to most modern-day workers. Employee recognition is part of a larger workforce trend that is replacing the transactional approach to work with a relationship-based approach. Where do you want to stand on this spectrum?

Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno

is a freelance writer and former Content Marketing Manager at Greenhouse. Melissa previously built out the content marketing programs at Parklet (an onboarding and employee experience solution) and AfterCollege (a job search resource for recent grads), so she's made it a bit of a habit to help people get excited about and invested in their work. Find Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn.