Employee Recognition

Employee Recognition: The Ultimate Guide

Amanda Cross

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Employee Recognition

When was the last time you gave an employee positive reinforcement for something they did at work? Hopefully, you can quickly recall the last time you gave praise, but if you’re like many executives, you might come up blank. Employee recognition has become increasingly important as executives and HR leaders fight to build engaged workforces. If you are new to HR and managing others, you might be wondering what employee recognition is and how to be more effective at it.

What is Employee Recognition?

Employee recognition can come in many forms, but at its core, employee recognition is what you do to show your appreciation for the work that your employees do daily. Employees need that appreciation to feel valued at work.

Going through your days at work without proper recognition can feel isolating and discouraging. Even the smallest amount of recognition like a pat on the back or a nice comment can make all the difference to your employees.

Most employers understand the value of acknowledging employees for great work. In an SHRM study on the effect recognition has on employees, these important stats were found:

“68 percent of HR professionals agreed that employee recognition has a positive impact on retention, and 56 percent said such programs also help with recruitment.”

Employee recognition has a profound impact on employees. It’s the job of companies and managers to nurture this and make it easy to give feedback at work.

How to Use This Employee Recognition Guide

Your employees probably already love to give and receive feedback. Leveraging that feedback and taking action on it isn’t as easy as it seems though. If you are not privy to your workplace’s conversations and recognition, you might not understand just how valuable your employees are.

Employee recognition has a huge impact on your company’s bottom line, so it’s important to make it a priority. By leveraging employee recognition software and using this guide, you’ll understand who your silent rockstars are and who lacks proper integration into the company.

If you are trying to understand how to best integrate recognition into your culture, this guide will help you understand the benefits and how to implement them at work. 

Chapter 2: The Purpose of Employee Recognition

If you are new to thinking about employee recognition from a strategic perspective, you might be wondering why it’s important. Employee recognition has several positive benefits that you can enjoy once you start thinking about how it can help build your business.

Your employees will naturally give recognition here and there to their peers when someone knocks it out of the park at work. However, if you don’t cultivate recognition at work, it might only happen every blue moon. As a leader, it’s your job to create an environment where your employees can feel free to share positive words of encouragement regularly.

You may or may not have a vehicle to do that currently. If you are trying to create a culture of recognition at work, stay tuned for some stats and benefits you can share with your colleagues.

Build a Positive Work Environment

Negativity at work can be expensive. In fact, sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics state that negativity can cost companies in the United States upwards of $3 billion every year. Yep, billion with a B.

Building a positive work environment positively impacts the money you put into your organization and the people who work there.

According to Officevibe, “feeling valued and appreciated at work is directly tied to employee happiness and engagement.”

Taking just a few minutes out of your day to tell someone about the amazing job they are doing can have positive effects that radiate throughout the workplace. After all, when you feel good, you want to make sure that other people feel the same way.

Start a wave of positivity at your organization by being the first one to give recognition and letting your colleagues know how much you value them. Whether you use software like Nectar to facilitate shout-outs or have a Slack or Teams channel dedicated to sending kudos, start praising people who deserve it.

Reduce Employee Turnover and Improve Retention

Employee turnover is costly. Retention is key to cutting down costs and being able to grow as an organization. If you are always hiring for the same positions, you can never make real progress on the number of employees on your roster.

Recognition can have a huge impact on reducing voluntary turnover. Research from Josh Bersin found that “companies that scored in the top 20 percent for building a ‘recognition-rich culture’ actually had 31 percent lower voluntary turnover rates!”

It’s amazing how showing people you appreciate them can have such an overwhelmingly positive impact on turnover. You don’t get to recognition-rich by letting your workforce run its course, though. Recognition-rich cultures need to be cultivated and built by you and your team.

You may need to invest money and time into building this culture. There are many numbers on the costs of employee turnover. For example, one study shared that the cost of employee turnover is $15,000 per employee. If that is the cost of employee turnover, imagine how much you could accomplish by just putting a fraction of that into software that improves employee retention.

It’s important to understand that recognition programs can’t prevent all turnover. Some people will naturally want to move on to different companies and job positions. Proper employee recognition should cut down on the amount of negative turnover where your employees leave abruptly, leave bad reviews on sites like Glassdoor, and cause more disruption at work.

Improve Employee Engagement

When your employees go to work, do they feel engaged with your company and your employees? If you’re like most companies, you are dealing with some engagement issues.

Employee engagement in the United States typically hovers around 30–35 percent. This is not a large number. Now, this doesn’t mean that the rest of your employees are actively disengaged (employees most likely to be so disengaged that they actively do things that harm morale at work); this is typically a small percentage of employees. Most of your employees are somewhere between engaged and actively disengaged. This is where an employee recognition program can help. 

According to research reported by ProofHub, “58 percent of employees say employee recognition is how leaders could do more to improve employee engagement.”

If you are looking to improve employee engagement, start by more frequently and consistently expressing appreciation within your workforce.

Boost Productivity

Recognition begets great work. Taking just a few minutes out of your day to congratulate and reward great work will make it easier for your employees to produce more of it.

You might be surprised to know that 69 percent of employees would work harder if they felt appreciated at work. Simple activities like sharing praise and feedback make all the difference. Employees who feel appreciated for the work they do want to do more to earn more approval.

Employee recognition acts as a form of positive reinforcement for your employees. According to Positive Psychology, positive reinforcement is defined as the following:

“Positive reinforcement refers to the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behavior. The desirable stimulus reinforces the behavior, making it more likely that the behavior will reoccur.”

By taking the time to praise associates for specific tasks, you increase the likelihood of that task happening again.

According to a journal article written by Fred Luthans and Alexander D. Stajkovic, recognition is more than just a larger paycheck. While extra money and compensation can be a powerful performance driver, other activities can help just as much. Luthans and Stajkovic found that performance feedback and social recognition could both be powerful drivers of increased productivity.

Boost Morale and Employee Happiness

Up until recently, the thought of being happy at work was laughable at best. Companies didn’t consider the morale and happiness of their employees; they considered a paycheck to be enough.

Employees spend 40+ hours at work each week. It’s not uncommon for them to see colleagues more than they see family members, especially if you factor in a long commute. As an employer, you should strive to make the work experience as enjoyable as possible.

Unhappiness at work is pretty rampant, and depending on the section of the workforce you are looking at, these numbers could get even worse.

If you are looking for a way to boost morale and improve workplace happiness, sharing your gratitude and appreciation through recognition will help. Even giving people an outlet to express their gratitude can make them happier

Drive Organizational Alignment by Promoting Core Values

Let’s face it—most companies tout that they have core values. You’ll find them in bold letters painted around the office, but few employees have them etched in their hearts and minds. The tricky part is figuring out how to operationalize these values and embed them into your organizational DNA. How do you put actionable steps behind the values you share so widely? If you’re like many companies, your values might be little more than just a list of things on your website. If this is the case, you probably struggle to create consistency around them in the office. 

A social recognition program is the perfect place to actively connect with and share your company values. Recognizing people when they embody a core value is the perfect way to keep these values at the top of employees’ minds. It’s a wonderful way to drive the values deeper into your company culture. This not only makes them easier to remember but also brings them to life by giving everyone examples of how to live them. With the data you glean from software like Nectar, you can begin to understand how your employees embody the values you set. What do those values mean to each employee? From that data, you can begin to understand how to adequately live out your company’s values yourself.

If you are struggling with taking values from concept to reality, you need to invest in employee recognition.

What to Do with This Employee Recognition Data

Data is important when it comes to making a use case for any human resources initiative. Looking at a long list of data points can be overwhelming, though. We suggest picking 2–3 main ideas when it comes to presenting your research to executives at your company.

Survey your employees to understand where their true issues lie and where recognition can truly improve their work experience. Once you find those areas, pick 2–3 statistics and points to bolster the use case of investing in recognition. Throughout this guide, we’ll dive into the mechanics of what an employee recognition program looks like, but you’ve got to understand what your organization needs first.

Chapter 3: Types of Employee Recognition: The Who, What, When, and Where

There are a million and one ways to recognize or appreciate employees. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. That being said, some ways are better than others. Typically, organizations that are the most deliberate about their strategy are the ones that reap the benefits.

We wanted to break down the who, what, where, and when of employee recognition so you are set up to learn how to make frequent praise a part of your company culture. 

Who Gives Employee Recognition?

With employee appreciation, it’s important to understand who should give it out. Positive reinforcement can come from various directions, and the best programs utilize a wide range of opportunities. 

As a company, you need to decide how to make sure people are consistently being recognized and feeling valued. You should also consider how you can create a culture where everyone contributes to building a positive work environment. This will create a 360 approach to recognizing staff where everyone feels supported.

Top-Down Recognition

One of the most common types of employee recognition is from the top down. This is the more traditional, centralized approach to recognizing and appreciating employees. There are two main types of top-down praise:manager-to-employee and company-to-employee.

Manager-to-Employee Recognition

As a manager, you are connecting with the people on your team daily. You know the work they are putting in every day, and you are privy to all the small and large things employees do to move your company forward. Whether you are sending a thank you note to your employees or giving them a high-five in a meeting, your shout-out matters.

As a manager, you can also give powerful feedback and recognition to people who are not on your team. If you find yourself working cross-departmentally on a project, don’t be afraid to share your feedback with employees you are working with (or their managers.) This will have a profound impact at work because you are a company leader.

If you’re doing your job as a leader, your opinion will count. Employees with good bosses are more productive, (in fact, good bosses can raise productivity by 50%) so continue to be a great manager and give praise when appropriate.

Company-to-Employee Recognition

Companies can also give powerful employee recognition. Whether you recognize a staff member as an Employee of the Month or giving out awards at your yearly company-wide award ceremony. Most company-to-employee shout-outs are public and shared with the entire company. These awards can typically be added to resumés and make your employees look and feel appreciated.

The issue with this form of acknowledgment is that it can be so far and few between if companies aren’t careful. For example, a business can only give at most twelve Employee of the Month awards per year. End-of-the-year awards only happen once a year. Employees need timely and appropriate feedback, so this type of acknowledgment isn’t always the answer to your company’s engagement woes. Luckily, there are other options to fill in the gaps left by this outdated approach.

Peer-to-Peer or Social Recognition

Another form of appreciation is called peer-to-peer. This form of recognition comes from everyone who works at your company. Managers might recognize one another, employees might praise someone else on their team, and so forth.

Peer recognition happens all the time, but companies often avoid investing in peer recognition programs. If you can make this type of praise more formalized, you can glean a lot of great feedback and intelligence from it.

Best practice: The best employee recognition programs take a 360-degree approach by incorporating both top-down and peer recognition.

What Are the Main Types of Recognition and Rewards?

After you understand who gives recognition, the next step is to understand the different types of recognition and rewards you can give your employees as you build or implement your own program. This can come in many forms.

Structured Recognition

Structured recognition, like the name implies, is a very deliberate approach to recognizing and rewarding team members. Companies or managers are most likely to be in charge of this type of praise. Think of awards like Employee of the Month or awards given for years of service.

There are many benefits to structured awards. The main attraction is that these awards have a lot more weight to them. If someone wins an award like Employee of the Month or Employee of the Year, they’ll likely want to make a big deal out of it. Employees seek this kind of large-scale praise because they know that it truly validates their hard work.

On the other hand, structured recognition is scarce. For example, you can only make one person Employee of the Month every month. That gives you limited chances to recognize employees every year if that’s your only form of appreciation. Employees vying for that coveted spot will be frustrated if they are continually passed up for it.

Unstructured Recognition

So what’s the alternative (or addition) to structured recognition? Unstructured. An unstructured approach removes some of the unnecessary boundaries of traditional employee appreciation like Employee of the Month. Using peer-to-peer or even less official types of top-down recognition are all ways to accomplish this type.

For example, you can praise your team when they do something amazing without giving them a formal award for it. Your team members can recognize each other and build team camaraderie. Unstructured recognition comes in so many forms, and it all pulls the company forward.

The benefits are simple. You probably don’t need a huge budget to make it happen. This form of praise does need some money behind it, but you don’t have to throw any large galas or awards ceremonies at the end of the year. It’s also way more timely. Unstructured appreciation lets you celebrate in the moment versus every month, every year, or not at all.

This type of appreciation can be hard to manage if you are not careful. If all your employees are too busy dealing with their own work, they might forget to share positive feedback frequently enough. As a leader, you need to step up and ensure that your employees adequately recognize one another. Once you get the ball rolling on this type of program, it can be easy to maintain. Lead by example and ensure that you are practicing what you preach.

Verbal vs. Written Appreciation

If you are a boss, you might wonder how you can best give appreciation to your employees. Should you say it aloud or write it down? Chances are you’ll use a variety of approaches to handle how you give appreciation to your employees.

Verbal appreciation can be beneficial for sharing an appreciative thought in the moment. Many employees find value in a quick great job during a presentation or a quick speech about a job well done during a meeting, especially if they value words of affirmation. Verbal appreciation can be challenging for employers because it’s in the moment. There’s only so much reflection that can be done on something you heard in a meeting once.

On the other hand, written appreciation can be valued for a long time to come. Taking the time to write and send out a thank you note to an employee is powerful. You don’t have to take a long time to create a handwritten note, but people often hang on to this type of appreciation. Some employees even collect these pieces of written acknowledgment to look back at when they feel down at work. Writing things down truly helps your employees build confidence and excitement for work.

Employee Reward Examples

Employee rewards can vary. There are obviously some big ones like cash and gift cards, but the list is endless. Some rewards can even be free, and who doesn’t love that? When considering employee rewards, think about the types of rewards you can maintain as an organization. What can you afford to be responsible for giving out regularly?

Here are just a few examples of employee rewards to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Gift cards
  • Company swag
  • Experiences
  • Product catalogs
  • Cash
  • Trophies/Awards
  • Free meals
  • Features in company newsletters/social media

Where Do You Give Your Employees Recognition?

The next part of the puzzle is where to give praise. There are so many different places to give out positive feedback, but how should you approach this subject?

Public Praise

Public praise is giving praise in a way for more than just the recipient to hear. For example, you may publicly recognize someone during a meeting or other company event.

According to Radical Candor, it’s a good idea to make sure that you praise in public and criticize privately. Your goal with sharing information about how your employee is doing is to lift everyone up. You should keep public criticism to a minimum or generalize it.

Public praise isn’t always easy for employees to absorb. If you have a timid employee, they may not enjoy public praise as much as you think they would. It’s important to get to know your employee and go with their flow—even if you want to shout from the rooftops about how amazing they are. 

Private Praise

Private praise is the praise you give to someone one-on-one or behind closed doors. Private praise can be strategic and timely, which makes for a great experience for your employees. For example, if you are meeting one-on-one with an employee and they tell you about something awesome they did, you shouldn’t wait until you are in public to offer your praise and support.

Since some employees thrive on privacy and don’t enjoy public praise, you should make sure that you supplement those employees with more private praise. Even a quick Slack message letting them know they are doing an awesome job can work wonders. Giving regular private praise doesn’t have to be time consumptive.

When Do You Give Recognition?

Last but not least, let’s talk about when to recognize and reward your people. A multi-threaded approach to employee appreciation is always best. Here are the main reasons and milestones that merit some positive reinforcement. 

Performance-Based Recognition

As your employees set and crush their quarterly or yearly SMART goals, you’ll want to show your appreciation for their follow-through. Rewarding for performance is the perfect way to show your employees how much you care and appreciate them for doing their job well.


  • Project completion
  • Goal achievement

Effort-Based Rewards

While performance-based recognition is impactful, you might think of it as related to longer-term goals. Effort-based rewards might be something that takes a smaller amount of effort. Instead of recognizing employees who meet a quarterly goal, you might recognize employees who you see putting in effort daily to reach their goals. It might be as simple as closing a multi-thousand dollar deal or helping their teammate with one of their projects.


  • Going above and beyond
  • Helping train a new hire

Milestone-Based Recognition

Your employees are always accomplishing various milestones with your company from their first day to work anniversaries. You might also want to celebrate things like their birthdays. These milestones might not be as closely related to the work they do every day, but you should never miss a chance to show employees how much you care.


  • Employee’s First Day
  • Employee’s 90th Day
  • Work Anniversaries 
  • Birthday
  • Employee Appreciation Day
  • Quarterly Review
  • Year-End Review

Values-Based Recognition

If you are like many companies, you have core values that you care about deeply. One of the best parts about recognition is that you can tie it to your company values. This allows you to understand how your employees are living your values in their everyday lives.

Values-based appreciation programs can have a huge impact. 93 percent of employees in a Globoforce study said that work had more meaning when employers used a recognition program based on company values. Other ideas for boosting meaning at work were frequent management check-ins and building strong manager-employee relationships.

If you haven’t sat down to write out your company’s core values, we encourage you to get together as a team to define them. Then use a tool like Nectar to track these values across your company.

Best practice: Take a holistic approach by recognizing and rewarding employees on each of these occasions. The best way to consistently do this is through employee recognition software. If you’re building an internal program, make sure to account for each occasion in a systematic or automated way.

Once you understand the who, what, when, and where of employee recognition, it’s super simple to understand the last part of the equation: how to make employee recognition programs work at your organization. Consistently helping employees feel valued and engaged doesn’t have to be complicated. Creating a plan is a lot easier once you understand all the moving parts, though.

Employee appreciation is a challenging subject. Many companies shy away from employee recognition because they feel like they need thousands of dollars to do it justice. At Nectar, we understand that this topic can be sore for many startups (we based our entire product on creating a fair pricing model for companies of all sizes.)Whether you are new to employee appreciation or you want some fresh ideas, we’ve got you covered.

Employee Appreciation vs. Recognition: Is There a Difference?

While appreciation and recognition are often used interchangeably, it’s important to note that they have slightly different meanings. Appreciation is all about gratitude and admiration of someone. Recognition is about formal acknowledgment or giving special attention to something.

Often when we talk about employee recognition ideas, we highlight employees for something they’ve specifically done for our company. Employee appreciation is often more general. You show appreciation for the amazing things employees do for your organization every day. These ideas are great for appreciation, recognition, or any positive feedback you give to your employees.

Chapter 4: 30 Employee Recognition & Appreciation Ideas for Companies with Any Budget

No matter how much money or resources you have to put towards employee appreciation, your options for showing your support are endless. Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Write a Thank You Note

If you are dealing with a lack of recognition at your company, one of the easiest things you can do is sit down and write a note to your employees. Writing and sending a note can be done in as little as five minutes, and it’s one of the cheapest forms of recognition.

2. Celebrate Wins during Company Meetings

If you have a company meeting and want to show appreciation for employees, start by mentioning their wins. Provide a bit of time during each all-team meeting to brag on employees in your department. It’s easy to get siloed into various departments (especially when you work from home). Don’t be afraid to get out of your bubble and brag about your staff.

3. Highlight Staff in Your Marketing Materials

Your company is always putting out interesting marketing material, so why not get your workers involved? Chat with your marketing department about the various ways you can spotlight employees across different marketing material. Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Create employee day in the life/case studies for your website.
  • Ask them to appear on your company podcast.
  • Add pictures/quotes from them in your company one-pagers.
  • Post employees on social media.
  • Highlight employees in external-facing newsletters.

4. Buy Your Employee a Coffee

If you are looking for a cheap employee recognition idea, try spending five dollars to buy one of your employees a coffee that they like. Whether you are going to Starbucks or a local coffee shop, your team member will appreciate the gesture (and the caffeine boost).

5. Implement Their Suggestions in Your Company’s Product

Your employees are being paid to understand the intricacies of what you sell. They probably have all sorts of ideas that would make your product better. Consider a suggestion box that you can pull from. Implement suggestions from every department.

6. Give Them a Gift Card to Their Favorite Place

Everyone loves a gift card to their favorite clothing shop or restaurant. If you have an employee who is particularly frugal and doesn’t like to treat themself, try a gift card to a place they love. Tell them to spend the gift card on themselves and get a treat on the company.

7. Make a Charity Donation in Their Honor

Charities need our donations. You probably have an employee or two that wants to give back to the community. Charities can make money stretch, and your workers will be delighted that you gave to a charity they trust. Charitable donations make a great gift if your employees are well taken care of.

8. Create a Wall of Fame at Work

We all know how good it feels to be recognized at work. What if you could build a recognition wall that helps your employees feel appreciated? If you currently have an office, dedicate one area to a wall of fame. Print off blank stars and leave them by the wall. If your employees feel inclined or want to leave a message, they can write it down and stick it up on the wall. At the end of every month, take down all the stars and deliver them to coworkers who got one.

9. Ensure That You Are Giving Out Regular Promotions

According to data from ADP, “promotions within an organization are also associated with higher ultimate turnover among other team members.”

You would think that promoting employees would encourage employees to stay, but that’s not always the case. You have to consider promotion regularity. If one set of employees is constantly getting promoted, it makes the other employees feel less valued.

Ensure that you are giving out regular promotions to those who deserve them. If you can’t promise a promotion, at least have productive discussions with employees being passed over. You want your staff to know how to improve their chances of success.

10. Share Your Appreciation for Nonwork Achievements

Nonwork achievements are often on the bottom of the totem pole for recognition. Your employees are more than what they do at the office. If you are not spending an adequate amount of time giving recognition for outside achievements, you miss out on an opportunity to learn about your employees and create a bond with them.

11. Take Them on a Tour of the Town

You might not be able to travel the world with your workers right now. If you’re feeling stuck, invest in a local field trip. See if museums, distilleries, or other locations are offering private tours of their facilities. Celebrate your employees by acting like a tourist in your own town (and seeing a part of it you’ve never seen before).

12. Make a Fun Treat (or Send Them a Treat Kit)

Who doesn’t love a good brownie or a cookie? Your employees would love to be treated when you want to show your appreciation for their hard work. Bring some treats to the office or mail your employees a treat-making kit (along with your favorite recipe). Whether your employees work in-person or remotely, you can take advantage of this employee engagement idea.

13. Invest in Team Learning

The team that learns together grows together. If you are like most fields, your industry is always changing. Learning is an investment that companies make in their employees. With this investment, you tell your team that you want them to have the knowledge to succeed no matter where they go. Investing in your team members’ professional development is a small task. By doing so, you recognize their strengths and help them fill the gaps in their training.

14. Create a #DailyWins Slack Channel

When’s the last time employees got to brag about themselves to the company? If you have a team Slack, you might want to create a Daily Wins Slack channel. In this channel, you and your team can post one win throughout the day. This channel will be filled with amazing stories that keep the whole company engaged and moving forward before you know it.

15. Use Social Recognition Software and Reward Them with Points

If you don’t have a peer recognition program, you are missing out on some amazing opportunities. Try using a recognition program like Nectar to recognize your employees and give them points to spend on larger items in your rewards catalog. This empowers peers to give each other praise for going above and beyond.

16. Change Up the Work Routine

Many employees love a good routine. Others find it disheartening, and they struggle with doing the same thing every day. If your employees are up to it, consider getting them out of their work routine with one of these routine shake-ups:

  • Let employees work from home.
  • Give them money toward refreshing their office (even $25 can buy a few items!).
  • Allow employees to move offices.
  • Let employees leave work early or arrive at work later.

17. Give Out Paid Time Off for Work Well Done

Who doesn’t love a day off after a long spell of working? Ensure that your employees are taking an adequate amount of time off throughout the year (on average, people get at least 11 days of PTO.) If your employees are progressing well, don’t hesitate to suggest random days off throughout their time with your company.

18. Write a LinkedIn Recommendation

Writing LinkedIn recommendations is a wonderful way to share how much you enjoy working with an employee. You don’t have to hold off writing these until the employee is about to leave your company. Writing them sooner will remind your employee why they like working for you and your company. Writing a recommendation only takes a few moments of your time, but it will mean a great deal to your staff.

19. Consider Gifting a Fun Subscription

What’s better than one gift? Multiple gifts delivered weekly, monthly, or quarterly! Subscriptions have become all the rage, and you can find a subscription for any mood, style, or hobby. If you intend to get a subscription, we suggest paying for at least:

  • one month (if it’s weekly),
  • three months (if it’s monthly), or
  • two quarters (if it’s quarterly).

20. Throw a Monthly Birthday Party for Everyone

Everyone loves celebrating their birthday, but it can feel a bit weird to throw tons of parties as your company grows. Create combined birthdays for all of your employees. During the first week of every month, throw a party for everyone who has a birthday that month. These mini-parties will stack up and create a sense of fun and camaraderie among your team (even if the parties are virtual!).

21. Work on a Project They Are Passionate About

Your staff is full of passionate, amazing people. They have projects in their domains that they care about. Does your sales team want to go after a particular vertical? Is a person on your marketing team itching to go after account-based marketing? Recognize your employees and their great ideas by giving them room to chase after projects that matter to them. Help clear their way by taking on a few of their duties. With that time, they can focus on the project that excites them most.

22. Encourage Employee Wellness

You love your employees, and you probably want them to stick around for a while. Encourage employees with whole-person wellness, not just losing weight. Mental health, nutrition, and stress reduction are all important. Treat your employees and recognize that they need a little extra attention to their health. Help them realize what they need to thrive. Here are some ideas of things you can give to your employees:

  • Gym passes
  • Spa days
  • Sports equipment rentals
  • Mental health opportunities (Consider virtual opportunities like Talkspace.)
  • Meditation apps
  • Nutrition advisors

23. Bring Live Entertainment to Work Meetings

If you look at NPR’s Glassdoor ratings, one of the most well-loved perks was their Tiny Desk Concerts. Employees got to see amazing musicians up close and even got the chance to invite a friend or two.

You might not be able to afford huge entertainment fees, but you would be surprised at how versatile your options are even with a lower budget. Consider connecting with local musicians, artists, or magicians to bring a bit of live entertainment to your meetings. Even if all your meetings are virtual, inviting a guest to perform is a great opportunity to treat your employees.

24. Give Them Cash

Let's face it—few things can help your employees more than cold, hard cash. If you want to recognize what your employees are doing, consider giving them a bonus. It is the ultimate expression of recognition for many employees. If you know some staff members who are dealing with money issues or are saving up for something big, opt for cash.

25. Purchase Something That Will Make Their Jobs Easier

Nothing runs better than a computer fresh out of the box. Refreshing your employees’ equipment regularly will save them tons of headaches and time wasted on freezing screens. Replacing equipment should be a part of your routine. If it’s been a while since you last did this, consider purchasing new:

  • computers,
  • printers,
  • headphones,
  • tablets/smartphones, or
  • office supplies.

26. Create an Employee Mentorship Program

Entry-level and mid-management employees want to know the best ways to advance within your corporate structure. Connect with the upper management at your company to pool your resources and create a cross-departmental employee mentorship program. Sometimes going to your boss isn’t the easiest thing.

If you are looking for a powerful employee recognition program, use the other managers in your organization. They can see something in your team members that you don’t see. These leaders can even help you manage your team better. No manager is in this alone. Reach out and see how you can best serve people outside of your department.

27. Surprise Them with a Personalized Video

Videos are an excellent form of recognition. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth way more than that. Taking a few minutes to film a quick video letting your employees know how much you appreciate them will do wonders. This is especially true if they are having a bad week! Make sure that you are mixing video recognition into your routine.

28. Give Detailed and Helpful Feedback

Ambiguity creates a lot of issues in the workplace. By giving detailed feedback on projects, you let your staff know that you value their efforts enough to provide deep feedback. Feedback isn’t always pretty, but it’s essential. Detailed feedback allows employees to understand what they did wrong and make a conscious effort to fix the issue.

29. Host an Awards Ceremony

Who doesn’t want to get dressed up for an evening out and win awards in the process? Indulge your employees with a night of great food and recognition for all their hard work. Even if your team is currently remote, you can still create a moment to recognize all of your employees.

30. Create Some Personalized Swag for Your Employees

Are you looking to recognize your team and build your employer brand at the same time? Try creating practical, customized swag for your team. What does your team always need and love? Find out where to get those items created and get some new swag distributed to your team. Here are some items that are always appreciated:

  • Pens
  • Shirts
  • Mugs
  • Notebooks
  • Backpacks
  • Face masks
  • Water bottles
  • Chargers

Employee Appreciation Ideas You Can Use Any Day of the Year

These ideas aren’t just for Employee Appreciation Day. If you are thinking of ways to show how much you appreciate your team, they must be amazing! The list we shared today was full of ideas you can use to show your employees how much you care. Don’t get hung up on the specifics. Pick something interesting and get the process started. Your employees are bound to appreciate all the effort you are putting into recognizing them.

Chapter 5: How to Build a Successful Employee Recognition Program

Creating a successful employee recognition program is a vital part of building a successful company culture. Your employees are doing their job, and they deserve to be rewarded for their time and dedication. If you want to improve your employees’ experience ( both remote employees and those in your office), start with a stellar recognition program.

What Is an Employee Recognition Program?

Before we dive into this topic, let's start broadly: What is an employee recognition program?

An employee recognition program is a well-defined process for what you and your company will do to recognize your employees’ achievements and success.

These programs can include various types of recognition: public/private, peer-to-peer/top-down, and expensive/inexpensive options, to name a few. Throughout this article, we will  help you to determine what should go into your specific staff recognition program.

Why Having a Recognition Program is Important

There are many benefits to having an employee recognition program. These programs:

  • improve company culture,
  • help you understand who your people are (and how they contribute to the organization), and
  • boost peer morale and retention.

If you are looking for an even bigger reason, check out this quote from an HR manager about why these programs work:

“Peer-to-peer programs are great for eliciting culture and the right behaviors at work. Recognition programs should be a strategic value— [they should] add to what the company is trying to achieve in regards to engagement, behaviors, culture, and values.”—Liza Farm, HR Manager at Master Builder Solutions

Let’s walk through a step-by-step process that will help you create your program from start to finish.

Step 1: Determine Your “Why”

First, you’ll want to determine your “why.” Why are you putting effort and energy into building an employee recognition program? Your program won’t take off overnight. There will be some bumps in the road. You need to hang onto your “why” when you are trying to implement this new initiative at your company if you want it to succeed.

Take a few moments to write down why you think your team members would benefit from this program. Let those words be your guide as you build out a successful employee recognition initiative.

Step 2: Include Best Practices for Giving Recognition

When building your staff recognition experience, you’ll want to focus on the best practices for this program. Building your program on best practices can improve your productivity and get this program built more quickly.

At Nectar, we follow the principles of neuroscientist Paul Zak detailed in his book Trust Factor.  Like Zak, we believe that recognition should be unexpected, personal, tangible, prompt, consistent/frequent, public/visible, peer-to-peer, and values-based.

When Zak talks about recognition, he often refers to a concept he calls “Ovation.” According to the work he’s done with companies globally, Ovation releases the neurotransmitter dopamine within your employees.

Dopamine is important because it improves people’s moods while increasing their focus and energy on projects that matter to them (and the bottom line of the company.)

Dopamine is released when your employees anticipate rewards. If you use the anticipation of rewards positively, you can build a workforce that’s excited and focused on creating stellar work.

Unexpected Recognition

When is the last time you surprised your team with something they didn’t expect?

"The brain loves surprises because it means something new has happened, and this focuses our attention on it." - Paul Zak, Trust Factor

Now, this doesn’t mean you should stop giving out more stable awards like those recognizing years of service. You need some amount of consistency for your rewards program to be stable. Adding in small, unexpected awards to supplement bigger, consistent ones is key. You can find small moments to delight and encourage your team. Zak also recommends that you schedule out unexpected rewards. 

Personal Recognition

As you work with someone, you get to know their quirks, likes, and dislikes. Incorporating their personal tastes into your employee recognition program is the best way to make it flourish.

"The personal part is important. If a team member receiving Ovation is a chocolate lover, purchase a fancy box of chocolates as a gift. Then, present the Ovation at your next all-hands meeting, or the day the project finishes." - Paul Zak, Trust Factor

Some organizations create forms during onboarding to see what their staff members like or dislike. Another option would be to share a document with managers asking them to fill in their employees’ likes and dislikes. If there are some gaps, you can learn more about your employees and their tastes with some focused energy on building out the document with all the best answers for the company’s workers. At Nectar, we are big proponents of letting people choose from a buffet of reward options. Rather than giving them a specific reward or incentive you think they’ll like, give them points or a credit that allows them to pick for themselves.

Tangible Recognition

Creating tangible rewards is easier than you think. It’s not about giving out a trophy or certificate for everything. Creating some tangible experience is great, though.

"When the reward is tangible, seeing it after the initial Ovation and showing it to colleagues or one’s spouse strengthens the neural pathways linking the achievement to the reward."

Here are a few examples of tangible rewards.

  • Written comments
  • Gift cards
  • Trophies & award certificates
  • Concert tickets
  • Social media spotlights

These rewards come in all shapes and sizes. You can create expensive, tangible recognition, but there are also inexpensive options. As long as you show your appreciation in a way that can easily be shared with others, your rewards are tangible.

Prompt and Consistent Recognition 

Awards like “Employee of the Year” are great for recognizing general employee awesomeness, but they’re not very prompt or consistent. These large awards have a place in your company, but they don't help your coworkers associate awards with a particular action.

Rewards need to be prompt so that employees recognize that a particular action leads to specific rewards. If you want your recognition to have an impact, you can't leave recognition to the end of the year.

Frequent Recognition

Employees need frequent recognition, even if it's just a high-five and a job well done. Make sure that you are keeping up with how often staff members are receiving feedback and praise. If it's been a while, remind managers and peers about the importance of giving frequent feedback.

Many of your workers may not be used to giving praise for the small things that employees do every day. These are worth recognizing too. You shouldn't have to jump through hoops to get a high five from a coworker.

"Ovation for small things is very important; it should become a constant practice in your organization." Paul Zak, Trust Factor

Public or Visible Recognition

Your employee appreciation needs to be public or visible to other coworkers and company stakeholders. Public recognition serves a few purposes:

  1. Builds attachment to other team members
  2. Makes work more enjoyable
  3. Improves the performance of people not being recognized (they will want to get in on the action too!)

Peer-to-Peer Recognition

Peer-to-peer recognition has become one of the most widely used types of staff rewards. Employees work together every day, and they see things that managers can't observe. By giving employees access to these appreciation tools, you can reduce turnover and get tons of insight into the culture that’s building at your organization.

Pro Tip: Consider setting up a system to allow peers to recognize each other. For example, you could allow employees to award points to their colleagues, who can use these to get rewards of their choice. Zappos.com uses Zappos dollars or “Zollars” to thank peers for going above and beyond, like answering questions or volunteering to help. Zollars can be redeemed for gifts, given to another peer, or donated to charity at their dollar value. On top of that, Zollars includes a personalized note from the sender that states why they're giving it to the individual, making it even more impactful. Peer recognition encourages everyone to celebrate accomplishments.


Last, you’ll want to build a values-based program. Most companies have a list of values at their organization, but it’s often hard to determine how those values play out at the individual level. Using values in your rewards program is the best way to track and understand how your employees live out the values you set as an organization.

Pro Tip: Leverage technology to make this happen; otherwise, it’ll be way too burdensome. If you don’t want to pay for additional software to do this for you, create a dedicated channel on Slack or Microsoft Teams where people can give each other shoutouts around core values. You can also use a free tool like Tango Card to send digital gift cards that allow coworkers to choose their favorite reward. Nectar also has a 100 percent free version that incorporates the above best practices.

Step 3: Carve Out a Budget

If you want to get serious about creating an appreciation program, you’ll need to carve out a budget (even if it’s small.) Great recognition costs money, but you’ll earn that back with improved productivity and better peer engagement.

Often, we’ve found that most of the recognition given out across companies is ad hoc or random. Many companies don’t have a recognition program in place across the company, but they are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on gift cards that aren’t moving the needle. If you did a deep dive into your expenses, you’d likely be surprised at all the money spent on recognition across different departments.

So what’s the alternative? A great solution is implementing an employee engagement program with a budget for peer-to-peer, manager-to-employee, and company-to-employee recognition. You’ll want to set a budget for each type of recognition you intend to use at your organization.

What Costs Should I Expect to Incur?

Now that you plan to look at your expenses, what costs should you expect to incur? Here are some costs that you and your management team should expect.

Cost of Rewards

Rewards cost money. Whether you are giving out gift cards, donations to a charity, or a trophy, you will have to spend some money. The cost of rewards depends on the following things:

  • The number of employees you have
  • How many points you and your team members can give out
  • The points-to-dollar ratio your system uses
  • Any discounts or special deals you have with retailers

You should also expect a boost in the cost of rewards around holidays and birthdays when people are most likely to want to treat themselves.

Administrative Costs

If you are building a rewards program, someone needs to manage that experience. The time and energy you or a team member spends on managing the system, rolling it out to staff members, and making sure things are getting redeemed are part of the administrative costs.

Employee Recognition Software

If you're like many teams, you’ll probably want to rely on an employee recognition software program like Nectar. This software helps you administer all the rewards and manage all the analytics about your program and its effectiveness. You can run an engagement program without software, but investing in software helps you see the bigger picture and analyze your strategy’s effectiveness.

If investing the time and resources to create this program from scratch seems daunting, you can always look at a cost-effective tool like Nectar to streamline everything. Most of the time, the cost of the subscription offsets the costs of managing the program internally. There’s also a perpetually free option that gives you the core functionality  with an unlimited amount of users.

Step 4: Define Clear Recognition Program Objectives and Criteria

Once your budget is set, you’ll want to define your parameters, objectives, and criteria. If you look back on this experience at the end of the year, what would constitute success for you and your team? Set those objectives and look back on them from time to time during implementation. Are you hitting the benchmarks you set?

When Should Employees Receive Praise?

Previously, in Chapter 3, we talked about different scenarios where you should give praise. Praise and positive feedback should be happening all the time.

There are some particular times like birthdays and work anniversaries that create special times for giving rewards. You’ll want to set some automation around these periods for your employees so you don’t miss anyone’s special day.

How Often Should Praise Happen?

Earlier, we talked about the importance of frequent praise. How will you choose to bring that into your program, so it has the most impact on your team? Do you want to do a check-in every week to make sure that praise is happening across departments at a certain rate? What will you do if certain departments aren’t meeting those expectations?

Are You Offering Rewards? If So, What Kind?

You can have an engagement program without rewards, but you’ll probably want to include more tangible items with your program. Think about what kind of rewards you will offer your team. Will you offer gift cards, swag, or experiences? The possibilities are endless. Here are some thoughtful ways to celebrate work anniversaries to get your juices flowing on the type of rewards you want to offer.

Step 5: Involve Managers

The management at your company plays a gigantic role in the success of your program. If you want your program to have a positive impact, start by involving managers right away. 

The Importance of Getting Manager Buy-In

Managers lead your organization. If your staff see their managers enjoying the program and using it to give feedback, they’ll do the same. Go the extra mile and get manager buy-in before rolling this out to your company. You won’t regret the time you spend doing this.

Start Small

When trying to get management buy-in, start small. Find a select group of managers to buy into your program and help you roll it out to managers as a whole. Starting with one or two managers who become champions of the program can help you get it done more quickly.

Pick influential managers who are already rewarding their team frequently (go back to the research you did when carving out a budget for the program.) Chat with those managers about the importance of frequent feedback and how you plan to create a more systemized, budget-friendly approach. Make sure you let them know that you appreciate them for all the work they are doing currently to build a culture of recognition at your company.

Think about Consequences

No one likes to think about the consequences of failing to follow protocols, but this is essential. Managers have access to a lot of company funds. Imagine a scenario where your goal is to have all feedback going through appreciation software, but managers are paying for Starbucks gift cards on their company credit cards. That’s not helpful, and you likely won’t be able to see those expenses right away. Getting manager buy-in early on removes the likelihood that these scenarios happen later.

Step 6: Keep It at the Top of Everyone’s Minds

Now that you're ready to roll out your program, you need to focus on how to keep it at the top of everyone’s minds. Here are a few ways that companies have kept their program visible.

Bake It into Your Workflows (Slack, Teams)

As you start the culture of recognition at your company, build it into your current workflow. Whether you use Slack or Microsoft Teams, you’ll want a program that can use those workflows. For example, create a Slack channel that your team can use to provide feedback to each other. If people need to download a new application or go to a new website, they may not be as likely to use your program. Using an application you already have, like Slack or Teams, will make it easier for your employees to integrate your program into their daily routines.

Make It Visible

Where will all this positive feedback live at your organization? You’ll want to make all of this great information visible to your team and managers. Here are a few ideas of how you can do this:

  • Stream it on monitors/TVs around the office.
  • Use a Slack channel to host your recognition as it comes in.
  • Include recognition in public and internal newsletters.

Remind People Often

It’s easy to slip back into old habits when you’ve been using those methods for years. Make sure that you remind people about how you’d like them to recognize each other in your organization.

Step 7: Make It Extremely Easy

One of the most important parts of building a program for team recognition is making it simple. Giving praise to a colleague should be simpler than writing an average email. You’ll also want to ensure that your employees can do it from a variety of devices.

Any friction that causes people to stop and think about giving recognition is deadly to your program. You want this to become a regular part of their daily routine. Train employees to give praise and use a simple process that anyone can follow (even the tech-averse!).

Step 8: Trust Your People

Trust is essential for workplace growth. We often talk about workplace issues like productivity and engagement, but trust gets discussed far less frequently.

Why Trust is Important in the Workplace

According to SHRM, trust impacts a ton of our workplace experiences

"If employees don’t trust their leaders, they won’t operate efficiently."

Employees who aren’t given trust will seek more approvals (which can be a mess to manage), and they'll struggle to share bad news (which leads to expensive problems that could have been addressed earlier). You want to be trustworthy and show your staff that you’ll back them up. It's the only way to build a workplace community that grows together. So how do you show this trust?

Show Trust by Removing Approvals

Approving every single reward or recognition that happens is the single best way to create a program that’ll never work. You may want to have more control over your program and how things are shared with the team, but you can’t be a micromanager. Let your employees have freedom over how they use their points and awards budget for the best results.

Step 9: Kick Off Your Program

Program kick-off is essential to a well-oiled employee recognition program. If your staff members aren’t used to praising one another, you can’t just unleash the program without any fanfare.

Make an Announcement

You’ll want to announce the program in a way that the whole company can hear it. Consider using multiple communication modes: meeting announcements, emails, internal newsletters, Slack/Teams messages—the whole nine yards. You want people to start using this program ASAP.

Film a Quick Video (or Send Employees to Help Documentation)

All software has a learning curve even if it’s simple. Take a few minutes to film a quick screen-recorded video showing your employees how to use the software. Your software might have some training information already included with itt, so you could also send employees there. Videos are great because they’re more personable, and you can show them exactly how you’ll be using the software in your company’s ecosystem.

Use Your Own Program to Praise Others

You should be the first one to use the program that you want others to adopt. Make sure that you are the biggest champion of this new process by praising your colleagues. Also make sure that your managers are on board with using the program from the beginning. Doing so will make sure all other employees follow suit. 

Step 10: Measure Program Effectiveness and Make Adjustments as You Go

Last, you’ll want to measure program effectiveness. There are a few different ways you can do this:

Send a Survey Before and After You Implement Your Program

Send out a survey to your employees about company culture and engagement before implementing your program. Let them share areas of improvement and consider that feedback. Once you’ve launched your program, review its effectiveness with  a follow-up survey after a few months. Did you notice a big change in your employees? If not, use the data you glean from the survey to make any needed changes to your program.

Look at Program Data

If you are using software like Nectar, you should see data from your first few months. Analyze that data to answer the following questions:

  • Are employees using the application?
  • What are they saying about each other?
  • Who is getting recognized most often?
  • Are employees using it enough for low-level staff?
  • Does anything stand out about usage numbers between and inside of different departments?

Hopefully, you’ll begin to see some data trends that you can use to address larger cultural issues.

YOU Can Build an Employee Recognition Program

Creating an employee rewards program might seem daunting initially, but it’s not as complicated as you think. By following our ten-step process, you will be well on your way to recognizing the employees you manage for all the work they do. Take your time, recognize your team, and create a culture of recognition that your organization can be proud of.

Actionable workplace tips & insights for fellow people lovers

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