How to Create an Employee Recognition Program (With Ideas)

Employee recognition programs are one of the driving forces of a successful employee culture. Recognizing an employee for their hard work decreases turnover and increases an employee’s loyalty and engagement. The world of employee recognition programs can be confusing and overwhelming, so we broke it down to help you understand what it takes to get a program up and running for your company.
How to Create an Employee Recognition Programs (Plus Ideas!)
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Employee recognition programs are a great way to engage and reward employees. However, these programs can do more than just benefit your people. With the right employee recognition program, a company can cultivate an atmosphere of high achievement, purpose, and drive, while decreasing the number of employees looking for new jobs by up to 63%

When you recognize an employee for their work, no matter how big or small, you are letting them know that they are an important part of your company. In this article, we’ll introduce you to the various types of employee recognition programs and as a bonus, share a list of recognition ideas that you can implement in your company.

What is an employee recognition program?

Before diving into the details, let’s get clear on the basics. What is an employee recognition program? We like to define it as a planned, legitimate effort to reward and recognize employees in the workplace. While there are many types of recognition programs (which we’ll discuss later), the core fundamentals of any employee recognition program include the following:

  • The recognition program has been discussed and agreed upon by company leaders
  • The criteria for employee rewards or recognition are known (at least to management)
  • The program recognizes employees on a regular, consistent basis
  • Employees know when they are being recognized or rewarded

Without these fundamentals in place, your employee recognition program does not exist. Once these points are established, you can begin to customize your program with the ideas and structure that best fit your company.

Common Characteristics of an Employee Recognition Program

The vast majority of employee recognition programs share some common characteristics. To determine what kind of program you’ll run, you may want to consider the following questions:

  1. Will the program be structured or unstructured?
  2. Will the program be private or public?

Of course, there will be opportunities to mix and match between these characteristics, but most companies will favor one approach over another. To make sure you can answer these questions and determine what’s best for your business, let’s dive into some of the benefits of these common program characteristics. 

Structured Employee Recognition Programs

Structured, otherwise known as formal employee recognition programs, are the most popular and have been widely adopted by companies large and small. Structured programs are systems that follow rules and guidelines that are well known. Structured programs typically operate from the top down.

For example, in these formal employee recognition programs, a company leader or department head may give an employee a goal or metric to work towards. When the employee hits the goal, they are recognized for their work by their direct boss or another company leader. Structured programs ensure that employees are regularly getting recognized and appreciated which is imperative if you want your employees to be motivated and involved. 

"Structured programs ensure that employees are regularly getting recognized and appreciated. "

Of course, not every structured program has to be tied to a goal. For example, some structured employee recognition programs celebrate things like years of service awards. Others include creating a company wall-of-fame or employee-of-the-month award where the recognition is given based on intangibles rather than purely basing the reward on performance-related goals. 

While structured programs are often created by company leadership, the rewards do not have to depend solely on management decisions. Many companies are adopting peer-to-peer recognition programs. Instead of managers recognizing their employees, coworkers recognize other employees’ achievements. This type of structured employee recognition is excellent because employees get feedback from the people they spend the most time with. The ability for an employee to be publicly appreciated by their peers improves that employee’s work experience. 

Peer-to-peer recognition programs are being adopted quickly by leading companies such as Google.  At Google, they decided to do more than just reward a single employee every month. Within their peer-to-peer recognition program, any Googler who is nominated for their work by a peer receives a small bonus. This additional recognition helps more Google employees feel appreciated and valued, even if they don’t win a “big award.”

Unstructured Employee Recognition Programs

Unstructured programs focus on spontaneity. Rather than having strict rules or clearly defined guidelines, unstructured programs allow company leaders to reward employees for any number of things at any time. Unstructured recognition can often come across as more genuine. These programs create continual opportunities for employee recognition and can act as a rallying cry or energy booster when things are slow. This is in contrast to structured programs that can sometimes feel rigid or routine.

There are almost limitless examples of ways to recognize an employee in an unstructured program. Sometimes, the recognition will be a small thing like shouting out an employee in the company Slack channel, or dedicating a post on the company’s social media about an employee who went above and beyond. Other times, leaders and managers will be empowered to give cash bonuses, trips or vacations, and other coveted rewards to employees based on the results of an informal contest (i.e. “The next salesperson to close a deal gets a trip to Vegas!”) or a random act of kindness.

The focus of an unstructured program isn’t the size of the reward. No matter how you decide to recognize your employees, big or small, the key is to ensure that the employees feel noticed and appreciated for the contributions they make to the company.

The focus of an unstructured program isn’t the size of the reward.

Combining Structured and Unstructured Programs

When choosing between a structured or unstructured employee recognition program, keep in mind that the choice is not binary. There are elements of both that you can and should incorporate into your business.

O.C. Tanner is a prime example of unstructured and structured programs working together. As a company, O.C. Tanner keeps things fresh and distinctive by combining these two types of programs. The company will do informal or unstructured recognition by rewarding employees with things like custom trophies or social buttons whenever they are impressed with someone’s work, but they also have created a work environment that encourages great peer-to-peer recognition. Their attention and detail in appreciating their employees make it a great place to work, gaining them a position in the Fortune 100 best companies to work for. 

Learn a proven, 7-step process to managing underperforming employees.

Private Employee Recognition Programs

Deciding if you want to publicly or privately recognize an employee is another important consideration when implementing an employee recognition program. Private recognition allows a company leader to have a more intimate, one-on-one experience with the employee they wish to recognize. By hearing praise in a private setting, an employee has the chance to have a personal discussion with their leader and build their relationship. These private recognitions can help an employee feel more important, cared for, and loved. This also allows for more frequent and more genuine interactions between leaders and employees. 

Private recognition can take place in numerous ways. It can be as simple as praising an employee during their weekly one-on-one meeting with their manager or writing a thoughtful thank-you note and delivering it to the employee’s desk. It can also be as special as a one-on-one dinner with the CEO.

However it’s done, the key is to make sure it feels uniquely specific for the employee. If the employee walks away thinking that the leader says the same thing to everyone then they will not value this private recognition. However, if the leader has tailored their recognition/reward specifically for the employee, the employee will feel loved and will grow in loyalty for the company.

Public Employee Recognition Programs

As nice as it can be to be recognized privately, some employees love the spotlight of public recognition. Publicly recognizing an employee is a great opportunity to boost morale for both the worker and the company. By shining a light on a talented individual who went above and beyond in some capacity, you are able to communicate very clearly to your entire organization the type of work your company values and rewards. This will hopefully inspire other employees to want to strive for such recognition, while also resulting in a slight ego boost to the employee being recognized.

Here at Eddy, we do our fair share of employee recognition. We try to combine both unstructured and structured elements in our program while also recognizing employees publicly and privately. However, when it comes to our favorite form of employee recognition, we all agree that it’s the Eddy Award.

The Eddy Award is a public form of recognition that is given out six times each year. The award is given to an employee at a meeting attended by the entire company. The Eddy Award goes to someone who shows commitment and dedication to Eddy’s core values and who goes above and beyond our expectations. When the winner of the Eddy Award is announced, that employee gets to spin a huge wheel. The wheel contains all sorts of prizes that range from a pair of custom Nikes, to an all-inclusive date night, or even big wads of cash.

Along with the prize, the award winner gets to sign the Eddy Surfboard and keep an Eddy Award Trophy on their desk until the next award winner is selected. We love this employee recognition because we get to come together and celebrate an upstanding worker in our company. By making this a publicly celebrated award, we get to show our appreciation for the winning employee and get to cheer them on as they spin the wheel, sign the surfboard, and accept their trophy.

We also want to point out that public recognition does not need to be limited to employee performance. In fact, in many cases, it’s important to venture outside of work to publicly recognize an employee. For example, at Eddy, we love to celebrate (publicly) an employee’s birthday by making them a cake or a favorite dessert! We also love celebrating employees who recently were married, had a baby, or accomplished something amazing in their personal life. This allows us to combine home and work achievements helping to establish an incredible sense of community.

EddyHR saves companies thousands by helping them manage their people, payroll, and process.

19 Employee Recognition Program Ideas

Now that you know all about the different parts of what makes employee recognition so important, we’ve compiled a list of great employee recognition programs you can implement into your own company!

  • Peer-to-peer recognition
  • Paid time off as a reward
  • Lunch with manager and/or CEO
  • Social media shoutouts
  • Weekly email recognitions
  • Enacting a company wall of fame
  • An invitation to an executive meeting
  • Awards of cash or gift cards
  • Employee of the month program
  • Tickets to exclusive events
  • Years of service rewards or recognition (ceremony can be involved)
  • Monthly or yearly top performance awards
  • A (surprise) party for your top performers 
  • Home delivery for small gifts of appreciation
  • A bonus system for great work
  • Job promotions or greater work responsibilities
  • A gifted personal parking space
  • Personalized trophy or button
  • Or even a simple thank you card or conversation!

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