Spurred by visions of crafting the ultimate employee recognition solution, eager HR leaders often dive prematurely into refining their recognition programs. They neglect to address the basic building blocks of a successful program, which is why we’ve done the heavy-lifting for you. This article takes an important step back to discuss what those basics are by highlighting three distinct sample employee recognition programs and how they can help you craft and strengthen your own.
Fine-Tuning vs. Building a Foundation
If you want to build an extravagant employee recognition solution, you need to build a simple one first.
It’s fascinating to dig deep into the psychological processes tied to recognition and follow the developing narrative of how different generations coexist at work. Even investigating how sleep cycles dictate workplace performance can offer an interesting look into employee productivity.
But, in the grand scheme of your employee recognition plan, these are merely details. They will enrich your understanding of how to best support employees but have very little room to make an impact unless applied to a program with a strong foundation. Applying these nuanced learnings to a poorly designed recognition program is the equivalent of topping a stale, store bought cake with the most delicious homemade icing and exquisite decorative details: the finishing touches aren’t enough to compensate for lackluster underpinnings.
Designing the framework for a strong employee recognition program isn’t rocket science, but it does (or at least should) require an exhaustive evaluation of all the options available, plus some hefty organizational reflection.
One of the easiest mistakes to make when designing an employee recognition program is failing to consider all possible solutions. Browsing through sample employee recognition programs is a great way to explore the full spectrum of options.
The 5 Foundational Elements of Employee Recognition
When architecting your company’s employee recognition solution, what foundational pillars are essential to a strong basic framework? We find it easiest to conceptualize them in terms of the five Ws:
These represent the key elements of holistic employee recognition and should be thoughtfully tailored to meet your organization’s unique needs. Leaders who consider that each of the five W’s can take many possible forms avoid defaulting to the most obvious options — a common pitfall.
For example, an HR director who fails to consider making a decision about “who” employee recognition affects might opt for a traditional manager-to-peer model. In reality, her team might have benefited most from a peer-to-peer recognition model. Unfortunately, many employee recognition solutions are more a reflection of what challenges were immediately apparent to the person(s) who conceived the program than of what would best serve the company.
After elaborating a bit on how each of the five W’s applies to employee recognition, we’ll share three sample employee recognition programs to highlight the options available for each dimension and the outcomes that follow.
Traditional employee recognition programs feature managers recognizing employees who report directly to them. As designated team leaders, it makes sense for managers to adopt the role of recognizer. That said, recent research points to the massive potential impact of peer-to-peer recognition. Among other positive outcomes, peer-to-peer recognition has been shown to improve retention and raise levels of engagement.
While manager-to-peer recognition establishes positive communication across organizational tiers, peer-to-peer recognition helps teams collaborate effectively every day. Ultimately, either option benefits your team in different ways. One of the sample employee recognition programs we’ll discuss later even explores the benefits of peer-to-manager recognition, which creates a unique bottom-to-top flow of communication.
Depending on your team’s needs, some of these options will make more sense than others. Reflect on your own areas for improvement and move forward with the option(s) that make most sense.
The “what” of employee recognition refers to what exactly your employees are recognized with. When casually recognizing someone, the “what” would be words. You recognize someone by telling them, with words — whether spoken or written — why you appreciate them.
Some recognition programs seek to drive a more formal impact by using rewards to accompany those words. A reward could be anything from flowers or the traditional gold watch to a coveted piece of company swag. It might be an experiential reward, like tickets to a local concert or a philanthropic gesture, like a donation made in the employee’s name. Or you could send redeemable points that your employees can cash in for a reward of their choosing.
Choose a recognition “what” that makes sense for both your budget and the unique preferences of your team. Regardless of the rewards you select to accompany recognition, you should always be sure the “what” includes language to explain why the recipient is being recognized.
Another defining element of any employee recognition program is the cadence of recognition. Conventional employee recognition programs are time-based, meaning that employees receive scheduled rewards after a predetermined time interval has elapsed. Think: annual bonuses, anniversary gifts, and birthday presents.
While these occasions should certainly not be overlooked, experts say that timely and unexpected recognition drives more impact. Many modern programs ask recognizers to deliver real-time recognition that calls out the recipient for outstanding behavior immediately after the behavior has taken place.
Later, we’ll share a sample employee recognition program that features a perpetual wellspring of employee recognition. You might wonder: how can a company offer perpetual recognition? Read on.
The “where” of employee recognition is twofold.
First, you need to identify where your HR team will track the many moving parts involved in employee recognition. Whether it’s an extensive shared spreadsheet or a streamlined recognition software with analytics, think carefully about the best tool to stay organized. If you’re restricted by budget, something like a shared spreadsheet might be a viable option — but be warned that juggling the many components of an employee recognition program can get complicated quickly in a system this simplistic. If you want to optimize efficiency and free up internal HR resources, invest in a recognition platform that does the work for you.
The second “where” of employee recognition concerns where recognition will be given. In general, it’s best to deliver recognition in a public setting. Not only does public recognition enhance the impact, it gives other team members the opportunity to chime in with added words of praise and appreciation. Options for public employee recognition vary widely, ranging from shared email threads to a polished platform with a social feed, much like Facebook or LinkedIn. Many companies opt to invest in software that makes delivering recognition simple. The easier recognition is to give, the more your team members will recognize one another.
The sample employee recognition programs shared later on will highlight the pros and cons of using each of these different options.
The “why” of employee recognition is both the most impactful and the most frequently neglected pillar of employee recognition. Recognition for recognition’s sake is okay, and it will certainly make your employees feel good. But when your entire employee recognition program is infused with a higher purpose — a unified vision that joins the whole team together in pursuit of a common goal — the extent of that impact cannot be overstated.
By delivering positive recognition for a given behavior, you increase the likelihood that the same behavior will be repeated in the future. So when it comes to the “why” behind employee recognition, think carefully and think big. Recognizing employees for things like embodying company core values or making progress towards major company initiatives is a great way to build momentum towards long-term company progress. If you’re planning to invest in an employee recognition software, look for a solution that lets you set custom recognition occasions. That way, you can set parameters from the outset that will guide your team in the direction they need to go.
Then Come the Details
Once you have these pillars firmly in place, you’re in a position to pay attention to the details — the final touches, like tailoring recognition to appease millennials or securing the trendiest local rewards for your team. It’s important that the heavy legwork of setting up the five Ws precedes these details. Otherwise, they’ll be nothing more than a quick glimmer of innovation lost to a fundamentally broken program.
Sample Employee Recognition Programs
Now that we’ve reviewed these key components of employee recognition, we’ll share three sample employee recognition programs to demonstrate how making different selections for each of the five W’s can result in varying outcomes.
The Traditional Employee Recognition Program
For decades, most HR departments subscribed to the same standard employee recognition program design. Though the practice of employee recognition (in some form or another) has remained fairly stable for nearly twenty years, programs have only recently begun to stray from the traditional practices. This first sample employee recognition program is modeled conventionally:
The Who: Manager-to-Peer
The most traditional employee recognition programs enable only managers to recognize employees. The convention is for managers to give recognition to the employees they directly supervise.
The What: Generic Gifts
Employees are recognized with one-size-fits-all gifts. When a manager wants to recognize an employee, they choose from a limited selection of standard rewards — flowers, coffee mugs, or (for more momentous occasions like work anniversaries) engraved jewelry.
The When: Scheduled Giving
The key defining feature of traditional employee recognition programs is their “when.” Managers show appreciation for employees at standard intervals — work anniversaries, birthdays, and possibly holidays. In this model, recognition has little to do with the quality of performance and instead centers more around quantity and pre-scheduled events.
The Where: Murky Processes
The company’s HR team tracks this scheduled recognition program through a shared calendar and uses a spreadsheet to reimburse individuals one-by-one for purchasing the rewards that accompany recognition. The process is not particularly refined, nor is it efficient.
The Why: Sticking It Out
The “why” is eclipsed by the “when.” Employees are rewarded simply for the passing of time or (put more colloquially) “for sticking it out.”
Given the plethora of employers offering innovative, thoughtful recognition programs to their teams, a company with this kind of program is doing the bare minimum to keep their employees from becoming disgruntled. The program’s function is to prevent dissatisfaction, not reward employees. Thankfully, only today’s most outdated employee recognition programs look anything like this model.
The Basic Sample Employee Recognition Program
This second sample employee recognition program might be found at a newer and smaller company with limited resources or a nonprofit. The group sees the value in employee recognition but has few resources to allocate to the cause. The five basic elements of its employee recognition program might look something like this:
The Who: Recognition for Managers and Peers
This employee recognition plan is fairly innovative in that it features both manager-driven recognition and peer-to-peer recognition. Beyond that, employees are encouraged to recognize outside of their own teams to contribute towards a cohesive culture.
The What: Notes of Appreciation
Held back by the parameters of a small budget, the “what” of this program is comprised of words and small tokens of appreciation like flowers, coffee coupons, or a company-funded happy hour. This means that employees don’t have much leeway to convey a greater sense of appreciation for more significant displays of excellence.
The When: Formal Recognition
Team members are allotted a very small budget to spend on recognition. This means that an individual employee only receives formal recognition once every quarter or so, as team members simply aren’t enabled to recognize one another more frequently than that.
The Where: Self-Managed Manual Processes
This company’s HR team manages all recognition through several shared spreadsheets which are as inexpensive as they are inefficient Because they believe it will save them money, the fledgling company refuses to invest in an employee recognition software to support their program. Little do they know that in the long run, investing in such a platform might generate significant ROI. Another consequence of this decision is that there is no public platform where recognition can be broadcasted to the whole team. As a result, recognition is quietly exchanged between the giver and the recipient, which minimizes impact.
The Why: Core Values … Usually
While the company encourages employees to adopt the best practice of recognizing each other for living up to company core values, they lack the ability to set specific recognition occasions and team members often stray from the “why” the program leaders originally had in mind. As a result, about half of the company’s recognition occasions are for embodying company core values and the other half express appreciation for miscellaneous contributions.
While the effort put into this program is promising, it’s misdirected. HR leaders will expend energy trying to creatively manage a recognition program that isn’t supported by the strong foundation it so badly needs. If the company is smart, this beta version of a thoughtful employee recognition program will eventually evolve to become our third and final sample employee recognition program.
The All-In Employee Recognition Program
We’ll be upfront: what follows is the kind of employee recognition plan that everyone should strive for, at least according to all the current research and a panoply of inspiring success stories. It’s efficient, effective, and geared not just to boost company culture in the short term, but drive long-term company progress and a culture built to last through many challenges to come.
The Who: Recognition for Everyone
Employee recognition includes everyone, and it comes from every direction. Peers recognize peers, managers recognize their employees, and employees recognize managers. Company culture thrums with the undercurrent of people constantly praising one another for displays of excellence.
The What: Redeemable Points and Words of Affirmation
Employees are rewarded with points that can be redeemed for rewards that employees can select themselves, meaning they receive items and experiences they actually want — or, even better — need. Team members browse through a selection of hundreds of redemption options and pick what speaks most to them.
The company has gone further still to make employees feel appreciated. Remember earlier when we referenced that “wellspring of perpetual recognition?” In this sample employee recognition program, even when employees aren’t receiving recognition for something specific, they are celebrated for their constant hard work through access to exclusive savings on hundreds of popular items, courtesy of the company.
The When: Timely and Unexpected
While employees still receive recognition for standard occasions like birthdays and work anniversaries, recognition is mostly issued unexpectedly and in real-time. Leaders follow the best practices set forth by employee recognition experts and encourage other managers and employees to do the same.
The Where: Streamlined and Efficient
Recognition is as streamlined and efficient as possible. The company realized long ago that investing in an employee recognition software pays dividends not just in liberated HR resources, but in clear analytics and actionable insights about the program’s success, top performers, and more.
The Why: Core Values and Company Culture
The company’s executives poured hours into crafting a set of company core values to guide their team through good times and bad, and they use recognition to effectively reinforce those values. Custom recognition occasions harness the power of positive reinforcement to keep the team aligned and progressively build the strongest company culture imaginable.
There’s no subtlety to the fact that this final option is preferable. Depending on your company culture, some tweaks may need to be made along the way — for example, maybe it goes against your team’s natural dynamic to have peers recognizing managers. But by and large, this final sample employee recognition program embodies many widely accepted best practices and can serve as a great example to model your own program from.
Designing Your Own Employee Recognition Plan
Whether you’re just beginning to craft an employee recognition solution or improving on one that’s already in place, it’s productive to take a step back and ask yourself whether you’ve truly weighed all the options for each element of your program. If you haven’t, it’s never too late to start.
HR leaders often speed past the who, what, when, where, and why decisions about employee recognition because they seem like easy steps to be crossed off on the way to the really exciting parts of building a program. In truth, the ripple effect of a quality foundation is far more impactful than that of any finishing touches tacked on afterwards. The five W’s of your program lay the groundwork not only for all things employee recognition, but for company culture overall. By building a thoughtful basic foundation, you set your culture up for long-term success.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.