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Designing ‘Reward-at-Work’ Employee Recognition Programs

By Elliot M. Kass

Employee recognition programs can be a potent means for providing rewards at work, improving workforce morale, increasing employee retention and improving productivity. But they are underused: According to Gallup, only one in three U.S. workers strongly agrees that they received recognition or praise for doing good work in the past seven days.1

In fact, instead of feeling rewarded at work, “It's not uncommon for employees to feel that their best efforts are routinely ignored. Further, employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they'll quit in the next year,” Gallup notes in its research report.2


Yet the costs of a recognition program that rewards employees at work are quite small. The Disney Institute, for example, calls recognition “a powerful tool” that propels employees “to increasingly higher levels of engagement.”3 So why don’t more companies take advantage of such programs?


“Employee recognition is scarce because of a combination of several factors,” maintains HR and management consultant Susan Heathfield. She notes that many managers don't know how to provide work rewards effectively, so they have bad experiences, and they assume “one size fits all” when it comes to employee recognition—but that’s not the case. In addition, she adds, “Employers think too narrowly about what people will find rewarding and what constitutes true recognition.”4


What is Employee Recognition?


Cutting Edge, a web site devoted to sharing actionable ideas about professional communications and business management, defines employee recognition as “The timely, informal or formal acknowledgement of a person’s or team’s behavior, effort or business result that supports the organization’s goals and values, and which has clearly been beyond normal expectations.”5


Rewarding people’s work, the site goes on to explain, isn’t rocket science – it is an obvious thing to do. Yet despite its unquestioned benefits, most companies do recognition badly, if at all. The corrective is to establish a formal employee recognition program that sets out principles and procedures designed to help a business make use of this undervalued management technique.


Texas A&M University has developed a set of guidelines for designing rewards-at-work programs, comprised of seven steps:6


Step 1: Establish an employee recognition committee consisting of both managers and rank and file employees. The aim of the committee is to develop and implement the recognition program.


Step 2: Identify the program’s objectives with an eye towards creating opportunities for employees to be recognized and rewarded at work. The Texas A&M guidelines acknowledge that while there are many factors to consider, “Above all else, a good reward should reflect a genuine expression of appreciation. Token acknowledgments leave something to be desired.” To make them meaningful, the guidelines add, rewards also need to be aligned with the values, goals and priorities that matter most to the organization.


Step 3: Define award themes and categories that correspond to the work performed by employees in various functions and departments. Examples of themes include exemplary performance, superior customer service, and employee of the year. Possible categories include teamwork, leadership, productivity and innovation.


Step 4: Set the type of awards, their frequency and eligibility criteria. A recognition award, for example, might be given out once a week or once a year, depending on the award’s significance, the number of employees who are eligible to receive it, and the funding available to pay for it. Eligibility criteria might include full-time versus part-time employment, length of service, and whether or not an employee has received the same reward at work within a given time period. Potential award types include gift certificates, plaques, flowers, and tickets, among many other possibilities.


Step 5: Determine the award nomination and selection process. Regarding nominations, considerations include whether they are public or private, who is eligible to submit one, and what accompanying information needs to be provided. Concerning the selection process, the key considerations are who will review, judge, and determine the winners from among the nominations, and according to what criteria.


Step 6: Promote the award program and its outcomes. This should be done as broadly as possible amongst all eligible employees, using a variety of methods including emails, flyers, posters, newsletters, and departmental meetings.


Step 7: Monitor the program’s progress and effectiveness. Once the recognition program has been approved by management and launched, it should be closely followed to gauge its impact on employee satisfaction, retention, and other desired outcomes. Then, based on these outcomes, it should be adjusted periodically.


Experts’ Tips for Successful Rewards at Work


In its Guide to Modern Employee Recognition, Bonusly, the developer of a recognition and rewards platform, offers these tips on making work recognition reward programs successful:7


  • Recognition has the greatest impact on employee behavior when its given in a timely manner, in close proximity to the achievement or work being rewarded.
  • Recognition is more effective when it’s given frequently, on a regular basis.
  • Recognition provides the most encouragement when it’s highly specific and detailed, since this lets employees know that their managers are paying close attention to their work and provides them with the greatest amount of feedback.
  • While there’s nothing wrong with privately acknowledging an employee’s contribution, public recognition has a much greater impact on both the employee and his or her peers.


HR experts agree that employee recognition is a valuable but underutilized management technique with outsized benefits and minimal costs. They recommend companies establish formal reward-at-work programs that publicly acknowledge employees, frequently and regularly.

Elliot Kass

The Author

Elliot M. Kass

Elliot Kass is a journalist who has covered global business and technology from New York, London, and San Francisco for more than 30 years.


1. “Employee Recognition: Low Cost, High Impact,” Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236441/employee-recognition-low-cost-high-impact.aspx
2. Ibid.
3. “Celebrate The Everyday And Beyond: The Value Of Consistent Recognition In The Workplace,” Disney Institute Blog, https://www.disneyinstitute.com/blog/celebrate-the-everyday-and-beyond-the-value-of/
4. “The Power of Positive Employee Recognition,” The Balance Careers, https://www.thebalancecareers.com/the-power-of-positive-employee-recognition-1919054
5. “Why employee recognition is so important and how you can start doing it,” Cutting Edge, https://cuttingedgepr.com/free-articles/employee-recognition-important/
6. “Employee Recognition Program Guidelines,” Texas A&M Division of Human Resources & Organizational Effectiveness, https://employees.tamu.edu/employee-recognition/resources/guidelines/
7. The Guide to Modern Employee Recognition, Bonusly, https://bonus.ly/employee-recognition-guide