How Do I Build a Successful Employee Recognition Program?
It’s no coincidence that many of the world’s most successful organizations use employee recognition programs. As we covered in chapter 2 of The Guide to Modern Employee Recognition, when recognition programs are used correctly, they can enrich company culture, increase employee engagement, reduce turnover, and provide a fulfilling employee experience.
Sound good? Good. Now, where do you start?
Well, you’re in the right place! 🎉
We’re experts at helping organizations introduce recognition programs to their employees, and here are our tips for a seamless implementation process.
- Develop a case for recognition
- Build a team of champions
- Understand the characteristics of effective recognition
- Follow recognition program best practices
Develop a case for recognition
Start by establishing a business case for an employee recognition program, tying your expected project outcomes to desired business outcomes. Ask yourself what problems an employee recognition program might solve and how solving those problems contributes to business objectives. Show your leadership team that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with the research-based benefits of employee recognition and its effects on improved employee engagement, reduced turnover, increased productivity, boosted morale, and purpose. Then crunch some numbers! For example, you can use an employee turnover calculator to determine how much your business will save using an effective recognition program.
How much does a good recognition program cost to administer? It might surprise you to learn that recognition programs don’t have to be expensive to be effective. At Bonusly, we've been helping companies do employee recognition and engagement the right way with our top-rated solutions for over a decade. Including the cost of monetary rewards for employees, the typical budget based on our customer averages for employee recognition is $275 per employee per year or $23 per employee per month. You can get started with our free tool, the Rewards Budgeting Calculator to estimate the cost of a program at your organization.
You’ll also want to understand the hidden costs and logistics of homegrown programs. Running to the store every now and then to buy gift cards for your team of five and handwriting notes for each person might be relatively simple to start, but when your team grows to 50 or more, these manual programs can become unwieldy, requiring a whole new level of planning, oversight, and consistency.
Build a team of champions
Once you receive buy-in from leadership, your next step is to find your team of champions to help you implement the program. Seek out leaders who will help conceptualize, promote, communicate, implement, and reinforce your organization’s new recognition program.
When building your team, look for folks with the following characteristics:
- Interest in the program
- Positioned as a team leader
- Knowledge of program benefits
- Ability to prioritize the program
- Positive track records
Program champions with these characteristics will be closest to the heartbeat of the organization and will provide the most helpful insights. They’ll also be in the best position to ensure program success.
Understand the characteristics of effective recognition
Before implementing any employee recognition program, it’s necessary for everyone involved to understand the characteristics of effective recognition:
Recognition is most effective when given in a timely manner. Unfortunately, the association between contribution and recognition weakens over time. Aim to give recognition as soon as possible to produce a clear connection to positive behavior.
Waiting to recognize a valuable contribution can result in a weakened impact of that recognition and lost opportunities to encourage the same kind of positive behavior. Too many employees only hear recognition at their annual review.
Frequent recognition translates into more engaged employees, stronger business results, and lower turnover. Employees make contributions every week, and failing to provide regular feedback about those contributions increases the likelihood of individuals feeling undervalued in their roles.
You don’t need to wait for a huge milestone or achievement to give recognition. It’s important to celebrate the small victories, and research backs that up. Take this stat into account: 71% of highly engaged employees work in organizations that recognize employees at least once per month.
Why is it important to call out and recognize specific contributions?
Specific recognition helps employees understand exactly which of their actions contributed to their team’s goal. Being specific means acknowledging the details and context of a task or project, not just a “Thanks, great job!”. When feedback isn’t specific, it risks coming across as insincere or unclear.
Naturally, this type of praise should occur soon after any contribution. Remember: a quick “great job last month” isn’t useless, but it denies the recipient some crucial feedback.
Private recognition can be effective, but public recognition offers several additional advantages. For one, being recognized publicly magnifies its impact. Sharing praise with a wider audience helps everyone learn about the work being done across the organization, facilitating collaboration and highlighting solutions that might otherwise go unnoticed. It also gives other colleagues the opportunity to join in the recognition, reinforcing positive behavior.
Visible recognition provides examples of commendable behavior, actions, and contributions that others can repeat. Additionally, that visible recognition can bring to light innovations or challenges that spur valuable discussions within teams.
Inclusive recognition helps foster a sense of equity, belonging, and psychological safety for all employees. Showing employees they belong should be a top priority for leaders, and understanding the actions and people who are recognized means understanding what is really valued in your culture. Who is recognized most frequently and for what?
A powerful way to ensure more people are recognized is to diversify the parties responsible for giving recognition. Recognition from all levels provides more opportunities for contributions to be appreciated.
When employees are empowered to recognize peers, praise occurs more frequently while also carrying more context and nuance. A 360-degree recognition program with a foundation of peer recognition provides a better understanding of what a whole team and organization consider valuable while removing the bottlenecks imposed by top-down recognition and breaking down team siloes.
Values-based recognition encourages teams to work toward the same vision. When sharing positive feedback, think about how a contribution lines up with your values. If your company culture is really based on a shared set of values, reinforcing those values through praise should be a deep-rooted habit.
Recognition based on company core values ties tangible actions to the foundation of an organization. It becomes more meaningful and helps a team work toward the same goal, reinforcing positive activity. Can you recall your own organizational values?
Define clear recognition program objectives and criteria
Employers should be clear about what behaviors or actions they’d like to see from recognition programs and how they impact business objectives. Whether you’re starting a new employee recognition program or updating an existing one, challenge your team to answer important questions.
What types of behaviors will be rewarded? Reference your business objectives and decide which behaviors to incentivize, and remember that effective recognition is tied to organizational values! Reward deliverables completed on time if lateness is a challenge, and applaud cross-departmental collaboration if your organization is stuck working in silos.
How should desired behaviors be rewarded? It’s important to know your team and reward behavior accordingly. In general, praise should be public and can be a great learning opportunity for the whole team. Tying that praise to a tangible reward or experience can remind employees of their achievements long after praise is given.
How often should recognition occur? Effective praise is frequent, so it’s important to regularly recognize your team. Giving recognition on the spot is a good habit, and reiterating that praise during team meetings, especially for special achievements, can amplify the effects of recognition. Don’t forget about milestone events, like birthdays, work anniversaries, and Employee Appreciation Day.
Where should recognition come from? Recognition has traditionally been given top-down by managers. However, 360-degree or peer-to-peer recognition, coming from all levels, is the most effective. In fact, peers are the top influence in driving colleagues to go the extra mile.
Use a multifaceted rewards and recognition program
Many employers assume that employees always want money instead of non-tangible rewards, but research suggests that’s not necessarily true. Research by Deloitte, for example, identified two different types of recognition:
- Praise and emblematic recognition
- Token and monetary rewards
They found that both types of recognition are important to employees, as “this varied approach helps to constantly and frequently reinforce desired employee behaviors.”
It might not seem intuitive at first, but imagine receiving a bonus without any note or explanation. How would you know how to replicate the behaviors that led to the bonus? You’d have no idea what you did correctly to earn it—and how to avoid doing something incorrectly. Remember to be specific!
Similarly, it’s beneficial to understand the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in the workplace. Whether praise or monetary reward is the primary form of recognition, both approaches complement each other.
Give employees a voice and a choice
Make it fun! Don’t start with the assumption that you already know what everyone wants. Engage your employees to better understand the types of rewards they’re most interested in.
Once you’ve drafted ideas for creative rewards, it’s easy to get employee preferences by sending a survey and asking everyone to rank the options. Giving employees a say in rewards redemption can increase their personal investment in the program and make recognition even more enjoyable. Brainstorming unique rewards can also be a fun team activity!
Think about how rewards will be distributed, as well. If you offer gift cards as rewards, make sure employees will use and enjoy products or services from those businesses. Consider these custom reward best practices before committing items to your catalog.
Do your employees want to share their rewards with the world? Offering the right rewards can help you win employee advocates. It’s the transitive property of rewards: employees get something they want something they can leave the office with and share with their family and friends. The public recognition they received at work leaves the office with them in its own unique form.
Ensure an effective launch and implementation
When introducing a new system or approach, it’s important that communication around the launch is clear and the implementation is as painless as possible. Any team participating in a new program should be clued in on that program’s purpose, how to use it, and when it will take effect. Think about the following factors when rolling out your program:
Align your organization on recognition
Leadership should be aligned on the program’s purpose, especially when rolling out the program. Teams and employees may start to feel jaded if no one is taking it seriously. Imagine being on a team where the manager withholds recognition and doesn’t think it’s important while watching the team next door receive reward after reward—it would be demoralizing.
Recognition should also be aligned with organizational objectives and goals; creating recognition programs around behaviors that the business doesn’t value leads to confusion and may have the negative impact of directing energy away from company goals. Consider it a reinforcement of existing priorities.
Make recognition programs visible
Recognition programs should be highly visible within organizations that truly value recognition, right? Employees should see when their peers are recognized, and data from that recognition should be visible to teams to help improve communication.
Note that different types of workforces may prefer different methods of communication. For example, front-line employees at a manufacturing plant may prefer to get important updates via specialized kiosks, administrative staff at an accounting firm might prefer email, and employees at a tech startup might prefer a collaboration tool like Slack.
Plan for a seamless, multi-pronged, and consistent delivery of your program
With current technology, how recognition is delivered is another critical element. How will recognition or rewards be delivered in your organization?
Embed it in your processes. If you regularly communicate through a collaboration tool like Slack, find a program that integrates with it. Use existing team meetings to reiterate recognition where appropriate, and consider using an automated system to fulfill rewards.
More than one method of communication should always be used to introduce the program. Thinking about announcing the program at an all-hands meeting to share a strategic overview followed by an organized team training session with practical guidance.
Managers should also communicate with their teams in smaller team meetings about the program and discuss the initiative. Since not all teams or individuals work in the same location, managers should include remote workers via video conferencing to share program information.
Measure your recognition program’s effectiveness
Recognition programs impact many different areas of an organization. Using a measurement system like the employee net promoter score can provide a useful framework to measure the effect of recognition on factors like employee engagement and morale.
Successful recognition programs should positively impact other factors like performance, productivity, and turnover. You can use a number of ways to analyze changes in those areas, like survey tools, brief interviews or feedback sessions, and performance management software. Gather feedback on a regular basis, and use it to adjust your program where necessary.
To take it one step further, use data from your recognition program to inform other business decisions. Research social connections to determine if any team or individual is isolated, review how teams are connected, and facilitate collaboration where needed. Are there teams with outstanding behavior? Study them to understand how to take those learnings to other departments.
Revisit and revise regularly
No program is perfect, and even excellent programs should be well-maintained to remain effective. Soliciting program feedback quarterly can help you determine whether or not employees still value the types of rewards they’re receiving. Leadership feedback will provide further insight into whether or not the program is impacting job performance and business outcomes in a positive way.
In addition to evaluating the program, you should understand which outcomes are needed most. An annual engagement survey will help you identify the company’s primary opportunities for improvement based on your company’s ever-changing employee population.
Once you’ve collected actionable data, make improvements where possible. For any desired improvements that you are unable to make, be sure to explain why (e.g. timing, cost, redundant to other initiatives, etc.). All organizations aren't the same, and recognition programs should be tailored to your team. As you develop your program, consider how much admin time is available to administer it and how your employees work.
Read more about employee recognition best practices in our article 5 Best Practices for Employee Recognition Programs.
Implementing a successful employee recognition program might seem imposing, but by following the above advice, you can simplify and streamline your efforts. In the next chapter, we'll discuss aspects of tools that can make implementation even better for your team.
Employee recognition is a powerful way for any organization to succeed, and using a specially-designed recognition program like Bonusly can be an extremely effective way for teams to feel valued, perform better, stay engaged, and more.