Employee recognition goes a long way (when you do it right)

Applaud your employees for a job well done

Meeples giving real time feedback

Think of an employee on your team who’s knocking things out of the park. This person beats deadlines, helps everybody else out, and exceeds expectations time and time again. They’re nailing it.

Pop quiz time: When’s the last time you told them what a rock-solid job they were doing? Has it been a while since they’ve received a well-deserved “well done”?

If you can’t remember, you aren’t alone. Praising the efforts of your employees is one of those things that can easily slip to the back burner in the hustle and bustle of your daily team life. In fact, a whopping 40% of employees feel that recognition isn’t a priority within their current company.

But, when your team members are expected to keep cranking out top-notch work only to have it slide by unnoticed, that’s when the real problems start. It’s why more and more companies are making employee recognition a top priority. 

What is employee recognition?

Think of employee recognition as any effort you make beyond the basics (like salary and benefits) to acknowledge and praise the high-quality work of your employees.

That’s pretty broad, and recognition can take many different forms. Maybe it’s a glowing performance review or a hefty bonus. Or, perhaps it’s as simple as a genuine compliment in your team meeting or a handwritten note dropped off on their desk. 

Employee recognition and employee appreciation are two terms that are frequently used interchangeably. While they’re closely related, they actually mean two different things. 

Companies with recognition-rich cultures reportedly have 31% lower voluntary turnover rates.

Here’s the simplest differentiator: recognition is about rewarding performance. It’s something that’s directly tied to an employee’s achievements and work quality.

“Appreciation, on the other hand, is about acknowledging a person’s inherent value,” writes Mike Robbins, an author and leadership consultant, in an article for Harvard Business Review. “The point isn’t their accomplishments. It’s their worth as a colleague and a human being.”

The importance of employee recognition

One obvious benefit of adequate recognition is that it makes your employees feel good, because they know that their hard work is seen and appreciated. But, beyond morale, employee recognition offers numerous other advantages for your entire company.

Boost retention

It’s frustrating to feel like just another cog in a wheel, and if employees continue to feel undervalued, they’re bound to run for the hills. 

The proof is in the pudding: 21.5% of workers who don’t feel recognized for doing great work have interviewed for a job in the past three months, compared to only 12.4% who do feel recognized.

Fortunately, applauding your team members when they ace their responsibilities is a simple fix that can keep your top talent around. Companies with recognition-rich cultures reportedly have 31% lower voluntary turnover rates.

Improve productivity and performance

Imagine that you spend the entire week hustling on an important presentation for your boss. You come in early, you stay late, and you do everything you can to ensure that every final touch is perfect.

You finally send it over to your manager and all you get is a brief email response that says, “Thanks. Have you looked at the quarterly numbers yet?” 

You instantly feel deflated. You invested hours and tons of energy into that task, only to get a halfhearted, “Thanks.” How motivated are you to work as hard on the next assignment your supervisor gives you? Probably not as much as last time.

The same holds true for your employees. It’s hard to continue to muster up enthusiasm when you feel like your accomplishments and efforts are constantly glossed over. That’s why 81% of employees admit they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work, and 78% of employees say recognition makes them more productive.

Strengthen your company culture

A team where great work consistently goes unnoticed and unrecognized can become toxic really quickly. Resentment and frustration fester, and team members skate by with the bare minimum, because what’s the point of doing any more than that?

In contrast, making recognition a priority can vastly improve the outlook of your team, with 85% of human resources leaders saying employee recognition programs enhance their company culture.

Attract top talent

You’re all for keeping your best employees around, but you also want to continue to get fresh talent through your door. What are job seekers looking for when exploring potential employers?

81% of employees admit they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work

Culture (which again, gets a hefty boost when you prioritize recognition) is a big piece of the puzzle. A total of 46% of job seekers cite company culture as very important when choosing to apply to a company. 

However, candidates are also going to read reviews and find out what your current and past employees think about you. When evaluating employers, 32% of job seekers consider employee reviews. Making sure that your team members are consistently recognized for great work will improve your reputation and ensure that word-of-mouth is more positive than negative. 

The challenges of employee recognition

The benefits of employee recognition are obvious, but then why isn’t it more commonplace? 

Even though adequate recognition sounds simple in theory, there are a number of barriers that can stand in your way when making it a reality. These include:

  • Perceived shortage of time: You want your team to be productive, so you keep moving immediately to the next project, without taking time to celebrate wins and successes.
  • Lack of buy-in from higher-ups: You understand that recognition is important, but you can’t carry the burden by yourself. You need buy-in from other leaders as well (especially if cross-functional collaboration is common). In fact, managers, supervisors, and team leads make up the most meaningful forms of recognition.
  • Failure to understand unique employee preferences: You might think you’re doing a solid job of recognizing your employees, but they might disagree. Everyone has their own preferences for how they prefer to be recognized. Failing to understand them will lead to recognition that doesn’t resonate. 

Offering recognition isn’t without its hurdles. But, much like anything else in your business, anything worth doing is going to require some work and conscious effort.

One size does not fit all: types of employee recognition

You’re onboard with recognizing and commending your employees. But, what does that entail aside from a genuine pat on the back while saying, “Great work!”? 

Employee recognition can take shape in a number of different ways, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Written and verbal praise: From a handwritten note to a hearty, “Amazing job on that presentation,” this form of recognition is simple and effective.
  • Bonuses: Money talks. If you have the budget available, a monetary bonus goes a long way in showing your employees that you value the good work they’re doing.
  • Prizes: Maybe it’s a coveted, reserved parking spot right out front or a gift card to a  beloved coffee shop down the street. Prizes like these allow you to get creative with how you applaud your team members.
  • Activities: Think outside of the box by recognizing your employees with an activity. For example, if they hit their sales goal for that quarter, maybe take them out of the office for a team cooking class, hike, or catered cruise.  
  • Achievements: Everybody wants bragging rights, so something like an “Employee of the Month” program can recognize a team member’s efforts while simultaneously boosting their ego.

There’s no shortage of ways you can praise your employees for the solid work they’re putting in, and you have plenty of flexibility to find what works for both of you. 

However, take note that while recognition is most commonly tied to performance, it can also be used to recognize other criteria like:

  • Events: Did your employee win a prestigious industry award or land a big speaking opportunity? You should commend that too.
  • Milestones: Things like work anniversaries shouldn’t slip by without any sort of mention or celebration. 

How to create an employee recognition program

If you think adequate recognition is something that you’ll just “remember” to do moving forward, think again. It’s more reliable to come up with some structure, so everybody is on the same page and you’re more consistent with your praise. Here’s how to make that happen.

1. Understand where you stand

Before reinventing an entirely new strategy, get a grasp on how you’re doing in this area today. 

Survey your employees (make it anonymous for the most honest answers) to get their opinions on how adequately they feel recognized, what they feel you could be doing more of, what types of recognition they value, and any other ideas they have for improvement.

2. Identify and publicize criteria

For more rigid forms of recognition – such as scoring bonuses, prizes, or designations – your employees should be in the loop on how they can go about achieving them. This level of transparency upfront not only motivates them but also prevents any future disagreements.

Take an “employee of the month” award, for example. What criteria will you be looking for when choosing someone for that title? How will you evaluate employees? Who will be involved in the decision-making process?

Pull that information into a shared document that everybody can access, so employees know exactly what they need to do to hit the mark.

3. Provide access to the right recognition tools

When you’re aiming to make recognition a more consistent thing, technology can be a big help. There’s a lot of employee recognition software out there to make it easier to deliver (and report on) frequent praise, while also enabling your team members to applaud each other.

Make sure to think through what your needs are, as well as what budget you have available to explore your options and find the one that’s best for you.

4. Get executive buy-in

Truly prioritizing employee recognition is going to require a cultural shift at the company level, which means you’ll need the executive team in your corner.

Set some time on their calendars when you can state your case and make sure to come prepared with:

  • Results and feedback from any surveys you gave your own team
  • Statistics about the importance of employee recognition
  • Ideas for how you can offer more recognition to team members

Basically, you’ll want to have some concrete strategies in place rather than simply presenting a problem and asking them to fix it. Get them onboard with what you’re envisioning so that recognition becomes a priority companywide instead of something that only happens on your team.

5. Make continuous improvements

Getting started with employee recognition is important, but what you come up with on the first pass doesn’t need to be set in stone. You can (and should) make adjustments as you progress and learn more.

Keep asking your team members for feedback as well. This will be a learning process for all of you, and staying in touch with how they’re feeling about your recognition efforts will help you build a program that has the most impact for them.

Employee recognition best practices

With your employee recognition program in place, there are a few other best practices you’ll want to keep in mind when applauding your employees’ solid efforts.

1. Offer specific praise

Saying, “You’re doing a great job!” isn’t going to have as much impact as, “You did a great job on this month’s website traffic report. I especially loved the chart that showed the breakdown of our regular visitors.” Be specific with your praise. That proves that you actually notice what your employees are producing and aren’t just offering generic compliments to check a box.

2. Think big and small

Big achievements deserve to be recognized, but if you’re only waiting for those, your moments of praise and gratitude will be fewer and farther between. Offer praise in response to smaller wins (for example, “Thanks so much for your awesome suggestion in today’s team meeting.”). That will enable you to recognize work on a more frequent basis and keep your team members more motivated.

3. Get everyone involved

As mentioned earlier, prioritizing employee recognition on your own won’t be enough. Present your case to other leaders within your company to get them onboard with offering more regular praise. That ensures that you’re building a company-wide culture of applauding good work, which is important when your team members work on projects outside of your purview. Make sure to also encourage employees to recognize one another. That peer-to-peer feedback is highly valuable as well.

Move recognition to the top of your list

You can see that your team members are doing an awesome job. They’re exceeding your expectations, and you’re proud of the work that they’re doing.

But, here’s one skill that they don’t have: reading your mind. Don’t assume that they already know that they’re killing it. You need to explicitly tell them.

That’s exactly where employee recognition comes into play. It applauds your employees for all of their fantastic work, and as a result keeps them engaged, motivated, and even boosts their performance. 

So, if adequate recognition of your employees hasn’t already made its way to the top of your priority list, it should be now. After all, amazing work shouldn’t slip by unnoticed.

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