Employee recognition

Bridging the Appreciation Gap: How Employees Prefer to Give and Receive Recognition at Work

Raphael Crawford-Marks
November 27, 2023
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You just did something amazing at work! How do you prefer to be recognized for it? A shout-out at your company’s next all-hands meeting? Points in your employee recognition solution? A happy hour with your team?

Here’s another question: How do your team members prefer to be recognized?

At its core, employee recognition is the open acknowledgment and expressed appreciation for employees’ contributions to their organization, and it's super important to an organization's bottom line. Recognition-rich cultures have been proven to improve engagement, reduce turnover, and increase productivity. Most organizations have some sort of recognition program…but underappreciation is still a huge problem. Why?

To better understand recognition in the workplace, we partnered with online survey experts SurveyMonkey to field a study delivered on SurveyMonkey Audience. We asked over 1,500 employed adults in the United States about their impressions of recognition at their organization, what it means to them, and how they prefer to be recognized. Our findings highlight the importance of recognition, the cost of missing the mark, and the workplace appreciation gap.

Read SurveyMonkey’s sister report on the connection between recognition and the areas of retention and engagement.

Languages of appreciation in the workplace

Using the concept of “languages of appreciation,” we looked at preferences of giving and receiving appreciation in both personal and professional situations. Grounded in the same framework as the well-known Five Love Languages, the five languages of appreciation are Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Quality Time, Physical Touch, and Gifts. Let's break it down:

  1. Words of Affirmation: Communication of positive personal sentiments Verbal recognition and written compliments work well here!
  2. Acts of Service: Expressive actions that require planning and effort. Offer to help to a coworker with their workload, clear the lunch table, or set up a meeting agenda.
  3. Quality Time: Being with someone and giving them your undivided attention. Great examples include team building activities, group lunches, and volunteering together
  4. Gifts: Something tangible that serves as a symbol of caring. Gift cards, bonuses, and coffee are stellar ideas.
  5. Physical Touch: Appropriate touch perceived as appreciation. High fives, handshakes, and fist bumpsare good examples (remember to ask first!).

For a more detailed explanation, we recommend reading The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White.

Appreciation in the workplace

When asked to choose a primary language of appreciation from colleagues and leadership, results showed a nearly equal distribution for Gifts (33%) and Words of Affirmation (32%), with Acts of Service at 25%.

Surprisingly, Quality Time was chosen by only 7% of respondents as a primary language of appreciation in the workplace. Do we already spend too much time with coworkers? 😛

That might leave you wondering if Physical Touch has a place as a language of appreciation in the workplace. While it may not be the most popular primary language of appreciation in the workplace, Physical Touch does indeed have a place when exercised appropriately.

employee appreciation bar graph

The workplace appreciation gap

This leads us to the appreciation gap. That’s the difference between how people give recognition and how people want to be given recognition.

Most respondents reported that they showed recognition to others in a similar fashion to how they preferred to receive recognition. However, there was a glaring exception: Gifts.

33% of respondents preferred to be appreciated primarily by receiving Gifts. However, only 17% of respondents chose giving Gifts as a way to show appreciation. This may be rooted in employees’ reluctance to spend their own money on colleagues. Employers can help alleviate this friction by purposefully allocating budget to provide more peer opportunities for gifts.

Expressed appropriately, Gifts as a form of recognition could be the key to leveling up your organization’s culture of appreciation. Whether it’s a gift card to their favorite coffee shop, tickets to a sports game, or a donation to a nonprofit of their choice, Gifts can be a powerful yet underutilized language of appreciation in the workplace.

employee appreciation bar graph

How much effort, even with good intention, is wasted in current ways of recognizing and appreciating each other at work?

It’s important to note that everyone views appreciation differently. As leaders and peers, we should acknowledge our own preferences while not dismissing others as insignificant. Do your best to provide tailored, personal recognition.

Appreciation by age and gender

Looking at responses by age, we found that respondents ages 18-29 were much more likely to select Quality Time as a top preference for receiving appreciation. This may be due to generational differences, or perhaps more likely, life stage differences. Camaraderie may be more important as people enter jobs and less important as they progress and focus on family and other areas.

We also found that women were more likely to primarily prefer Acts of Service as a language of appreciation. 27% of women chose Acts of Service as a primary language of appreciation while only 21% of men made the same choice.

employee appreciation bar graph

Appreciation in the workplace compared to appreciation at home

So how does appreciation from friends and family compare to appreciation in the workplace? According to our survey results, appreciation preferences at work differ quite a bit from non-professional appreciation.

We asked respondents to indicate a primary language of appreciation from friends and family. Quality Time was chosen by 50% of total respondents, and Words of Affirmation was chosen by 25%. That’s a massive preference shift in personal vs. professional appreciation, especially when it comes to Quality Time.

Rewards preferences

There are plenty of opportunities to celebrate at work! From work anniversaries to promotions to birthdays, you’re familiar with office festivities. How about celebrating a professional goal?

We asked respondents to choose a dream reward for meeting a goal at work, including:

  • An all expenses paid trip somewhere tropical with your teammates
  • A $600 gift card to the store or company of your choice
  • Dinner at a Michelin Star restaurant with the CEO of your company
  • A dedicated intern for 2 months

Respondents strongly preferred a gift card (44%) followed by a paid trip with teammates (41%).

employee appreciation bar graph

Younger respondents were more likely to choose the paid trip (an experiential reward enjoyed with colleagues) and a dinner with the CEO, while older respondents were more likely to choose the gift card.

Addressing recognition in the workplace

Employee recognition programs

As a quick review, 90% of respondents chose Gifts, Words of Affirmation, or Acts of Service as a primary workplace language of appreciation. There are many ways to recognize employees, and a well-implemented employee recognition program has far-reaching positive effects on an organization. Think about your own organization. Have you built a truly successful employee recognition and rewards program that addresses those languages?

Recognition programs like Bonusly encourage effective recognition and rewards for your team. Consider integrating recognition into your existing communication habits (email, platforms like Slack, or mobile devices) for Words of Affirmation through public peer recognition. Find an intuitive program that allows easy highlighting of Acts of Service as they happen.

Bonusly product

Finally, look for a way to incorporate tangible Gifts in the form of rewards. Bonusly has hundreds of gift card options in its rewards catalog. That means access to popular brands like Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, Best Buy, and PayPal. Bonusly helps users make the most of travel experiences through Airbnb, Southwest, Hotels.com, and more. Users can even donate to charities or set up their own custom rewards, like having a co-founder lead a team call as a Muppet (yes, that happened).

Appreciation next steps

To take the Golden Rule one step further, we should appreciate others the way they want to be appreciated. How will you use this information to positively impact your organization? The ability to understand appreciation at work pays dividends not only professionally, but into life outside of work as well.

To help you get started, we put together this list of Truly Excellent Staff Appreciation Ideas with not only great ideas, but also the languages of appreciation each one speaks!

Plus, if you want to go a step further, learn how you can start building a recognition-rich organizational culture by touring Bonusly and joining us for a demo.

Want to learn more about the business impact of appreciation and recognition? Read SurveyMonkey’s sister report on the connection between recognition and the areas of retention and engagement.


This poll was conducted online on June 5, 2019 among a total sample of 1,511 adults age 18 and over living in the United States, employed full or part-time. Respondents for these surveys were selected from an online panel where respondents take surveys in exchange for compensation. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is plus or minus 5 percentage points. Data have been weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 18 and over.


Ready to take recognition to the next level? The Guide to Modern Employee Recognition provides the foundation of knowledge you need to build and support a culture of recognition in your organization.

This article was co-written with Ben Travis.

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