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Top 20 Employee Recognition Ideas to Boost Employee Engagement

Ajay Ruhela

Last Updated: 2 May 2023

In this article:

Like all HR sponsored initiatives, cost discussions play into the decision making process when it comes to implementing an employee recognition framework.

Much like our employee experience framework where we keep employees at the center of experience delivery we should also focus on creating a recognition framework which is not only seamless but also runs at low or no cost, prohibiting a financial barrier to entry that may handicap smaller organizations and prevent them from retaining their top talent. Before we jump into planning out an employee recognition toolkit, let’s discuss the larger construct.   

What is employee recognition?

Employee recognition is timely, informal or formal acknowledgement of a person’s work, behavior, and/or impact that supports the organization’s goals and values. It is a reflection of the quality of work done alongside the above and beyond discretionary effort demonstrated by the employee. This, in turn, boosts overall employee experience at an organization.

What really matters in the workplace is helping employees feel appreciated; appreciation being a fundamental human need and a key component of talent retention.

Employee experience tanks if rewards and recognition initiatives are superficial

Successful rewards and recognition programs and employee recognition toolkits require buy-in and participation from three specific groups or people:

  1. Manager
  2. Team
  3. Organization

If one, or all, of these entities fails to participate meaningfully in an employee experience framework then any rewards and recognition toolkit is sure to nosedive.

Gift vouchers. Gratitude notes. Coffee mugs. Certificates. Each of these is a form of employee recognition utilized by organizations today. But what do these organizations actually get in return for investing in rewards and recognition considering that R&R as a market has been growing at ~14% between 2016-2017 and is one of the fastest growing HR outsourcing markets today?

The reality is, without concrete data most HR teams do not have a solid answer. Literature on recognition suggests a causal behavior that goes something like this...

Screenshot 2019-12-02 at 12.10.50 PM

Why Employee Recognition is More Important Than Ever in 2024

In today's competitive job market, retaining top talent is crucial for any business success. Employee recognition has always been an important tool for keeping employees engaged and motivated, but in 2024, it's more vital than ever. Here's why:

The Great Resignation: The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people view work. Many employees are re-evaluating their priorities and seeking out workplaces that value them and their contributions. A recent survey by McKinsey found that 40% of global workers are considering leaving their jobs, creating a significant talent shortage for many organizations.

Remote and Hybrid Work: The rise of remote and hybrid work models has made it more challenging for managers to stay connected with their teams and recognize individual contributions. Out of sight can often mean out of mind, making it even more important to have intentional recognition programs in place.

Employee Burnout: The ongoing pandemic, economic uncertainty, and increased workloads have all contributed to rising employee burnout rates. Recognizing employees for their hard work and achievements can help boost morale, reduce stress, and create a more positive work environment.

Building a Culture of Appreciation: Recognition is not just about rewarding individuals; it's about building a culture of appreciation where employees feel valued and respected. This type of culture fosters collaboration, innovation, and ultimately, better business results.

So, how can you implement an effective employee recognition program in 2024?

Here are a few tips:

  • Make it personal: Tailor your recognition to the individual employee. Consider their preferences, values, and what would be most meaningful to them.
  • Be specific: Don't just say "good job." Tell the employee exactly what you're recognizing them for and why it was important.
  • Be timely: Recognize employees soon after they've done something great. The sooner you recognize them, the more impact it will have.
  • Be sincere: Make sure your recognition is genuine and heartfelt. Employees can spot a fake a mile away.
  • Be consistent: Don't just recognize employees once in a blue moon. Make recognition a regular part of your company culture.

By following these tips, you can create an employee recognition program that will help you boost morale, improve retention, increase productivity, and build a stronger company culture. In today's competitive job market, employee recognition is no longer a nice-to-have; it's a must-have.

Types of Employee Recognition

There are many different ways to recognize employees for their hard work and achievements. Here's a breakdown of different types of employee recognition commonly used in HR:

1. Verbal Recognition:

The simplest yet powerful form of recognition, a heartfelt "thank you" or "great job" delivered at the moment can work wonders. It's immediate, personal, and costs nothing, making it a go-to for everyday appreciation.

2. Written Recognition:

Taking a step further, handwritten notes, letters of appreciation, or personalized emails allow for more detail and permanence. They serve as tangible reminders of achievements and can be treasured by employees.

3. Public Recognition:

Acknowledging accomplishments in team meetings, company newsletters, or even social media platforms can significantly boost morale and inspire others. Public recognition shines a spotlight on individual or team efforts, fostering a sense of pride and belonging.

4. Awards and Prizes:

Formal recognition programs with awards, trophies, or gift certificates add an element of prestige and healthy competition. These are ideal for celebrating milestones, exceeding targets, or demonstrating exceptional values.

5. Incentives:

Financial incentives like bonuses, commissions, or profit sharing directly reward high performance and motivate employees to strive for excellence. Non-financial incentives like extra time off, event tickets, or special project opportunities can also be highly engaging.

6. Peer to Peer Recognition:

Appreciation coming from colleagues holds immense value as it's based on firsthand experience and shared goals. Peer-to-peer recognition programs encourage a collaborative culture and empower employees to celebrate each other's successes.

Remember, the most effective recognition programs are personalized, consistent, and aligned with your company culture. Consider the individual's preferences, the nature of their contribution, and the overall impact on your organization when choosing the right recognition type. By implementing a diverse and well-rounded recognition strategy, you can create a truly engaged and appreciated workforce.

Why Rewards and Recognition programs fall flat

1. Outdated employee experience surveys

Recognition, historically, has been a bottom-up approach, with individual departments or business units making decisions about when, why, and how to recognize employees.

This is only exacerbated when recognition programs require inputs from outdated yearly surveys. Having unhelpful or dated employee engagement tools prevents any sort of streamlining or centralization of the recognition and reward process.

When you rely on fragmented data spread across a large organization with minimal actionable feedback, the cost of a recognition program becomes massive. Further, due to its highly dispersed nature and lack of feedback from recognized employees, end outcomes become difficult to quantify.

Without insights from an employee experience platform into how authentic or genuine a reward and recognition program feels on the ground level it’s impossible to truly measure if your initiatives are working.

Wondering how AI can improve your employee engagement

2. Luxury, Not Necessity

This highly fragmented recognition approach creates the perception that recognition is a “nice-to-have” local initiative. While annual events incur huge costs (centralized tenure awards, outstanding performance events), they rarely make a substantive impact for many organizations and, as such, offer paltry ROI. This, in turn, sabotages the perception that an employee recognition toolkit is relevant.

However, if it had been conducted using best practices from an employee experience framework and measured with a strong employee engagement platform HR departments could see that ROI from rewards and recognition can be stellar.

Attrition of top talent is a quick path to failure for any business, so having the right tools and ways of thinking in regards to rewards and recognition is crucial. R&R is not a luxury; it’s a central aspect of any high performing HR team’s agenda in 2020.

Transforming perceptions on Rewards and Recognition 

One fundamental issue facing the R&R sphere is that many of the most common recognition programs, including long service awards, or tenure anniversaries (programs that exist in almost all organizations) are frequently viewed by employees as an entitlement, not a form of recognition.

With an increasing millennial and Gen Z population entering the workforce, the need for a differentiated and personalized recognition program is absolutely critical for engagement, as highlighted by the recognition causality cited prior.

This new, young workforce population expects to feel valued and supported at work. Many millennial and Gen Z workers cite actualization at the workplace as one of their key drivers in choosing whether or not to remain in an organization or move onto one where they’ll feel more valued. While this has been painted as a “spoiled” mentality, in reality it’s exponentially healthier than working in an organization that makes you feel expendable or useless.

Especially in times of uncertainty feeling respected and supported at work is a key component of driving productivity. Not running an effective rewards and recognitions program, particularly in regards to a younger workforce, is a quick way to atrophy top talent at an alarming rate.  

How RnR programs helps with employee retention

With unlimited resources at hand it would be easy as pie for a whole lot of us to craft the best possible types of rewards and recognition for employees. But in the real world, where HR continuously struggles with budget approvals, improving the bottom-line will always be viewed as more critical than a swanky offsite.

One way to offset this perception is having an effective employee experience toolkit that will help show decision makers that rewards and recognition can reap massive ROI. Studies, like our recent What Motivates Employees in 2020, have shown the fiscal impact successful recognition programs can offer if implemented correctly and tracked with an appropriate tool, like Amber.

However, in the absence of a strong employee experience platform, there still are a myriad of ways the organization can implement non-monetary rewards for employees to help make them feel special and like they’re valued, in turn increasing the odds you’re able to retain them.

2 key anchors to base your employee experience toolkit on

The best employee recognition toolkits are built from the bottom up on two key fundamentals:

  • Make sure it covers at least one of these three things: work, behavior, impact
  • Make sure you model your framework to touch ways to recognize employees at different organizational granularity: Manager, Team, Department, Business Unit, Organization 

Making sure you’re targeting these key focus areas will ensure that the money you’re spending on employee engagement and rewards and recognition won’t go to waste. Let me now elaborate on what I like to call low-to-no-cost approach to building a reward system for employees. The list is not exhaustive but I am hoping will inspire you to devise your own and inculcate them at your organization. 

Here are the top 20 employee recognition ideas for 2024

1. Create gratitude notes for an employee’s contribution to their own work, the well-being of their co-workers, and positive impact on the workplace.Multiple studies have shown the correlation between gratitude and increased well-being not only for the individual being recognized but for all people involved in the process. It feels great to see someone you’re mentoring, or who reports to you, succeed! It means you’re an employee-first leader.

2. Give an employee an extra long lunch break voucher that they can redeem at any time, giving them an opportunity to de-stress on a day where they might be feeling the pressure.

3. Provide candy or other snacks to your troops on a certain day every week. Everyone likes a little sugar to get them through the day! Take this interaction opportunity to learn what your team is working on and recognize their high performance or positive attitude.

4. Sending a letter of praise to someone’s spouse or family is what I like to call a “potent recognition potion.” Making your family proud feels amazing, and an organization that recognizes that has their finger on the pulse of their employee base.

5. Volunteer to help them slog through their least favorite task. For me, that is data cleaning when I’m looking for feedback insights (take note coworkers!).

6. Remember their special days (birthdays, anniversaries) and get them a nice card. Have everyone sign it, it feels great to feel valued. In a remote work setting, a card in the mail can feel even more valuable.

7. Pass around an office trophy to the employee of the week. It’ll create a fun sense of competition in the office and lets employees compete for bragging rights. Fostering healthy competition is a great way to get employees to give it their all.

8. Get their car washed and spruced up. I know after driving around Gurgaon for even a few days my car is a mess!

9. Provide “Lunch on me” coupons, preferably to their favorite restaurant.

10. Buy lunch for them along with three or four coworkers of their choice. Taking a team out to lunch is a great way to bond in an informal setting, where you can learn more about each other as people rather than employees.

11. Give them a book from their favorite author, but make sure it’s one they haven’t read yet! Even better yet, read the same book simultaneously. Show them you’re interested in what they like, it’s really humanizing.

12. Send a handwritten note of praise. Make sure it’s not a generic “thanks for all you do” letter, but a note with specific praise so that they know that you recognize exactly what they do.

13. Create a 'Life Saver' Award. I like to give out packs of Life Saver candies and a gift certificate to an employee who pitched in during an emergency or staff shortage as a way to shout them out for going above and beyond.

14. Copy senior management on your thank you note to keep them in the loop about the employee’s efforts and accomplishments.

15. Organize a department- wide water-gun fight in the parking lot in an employee’s honor (on a casual day that is!) Make sure you check the weather in advance, I’d much rather have a watergun fight when it’s 38C/100F than when it’s 15C/60F! Fortunately in India we have a lot more of the former than the latter.

16. Give them a standing ovation from the entire team. Being recognized in a company wide setting lets your employee know that it’s not just their manager, or team members, that recognize all they give to the company. Everyone notices, and everyone is there to let them know it!

17. Submit information about your employee’s achievement to the editor of your department newsletter.

18. Give an employee movie tickets. Right now that may be a tad tricky, but for future reference who doesn’t love a free movie ticket! Besides, buying popcorn basically costs the same as the ticket anyway, so it’s more like a 50% off coupon.

19. Celebrate a promotion with an item that will be useful to an employee in a new position. For example, a first time manager might like a new day planner, someone who got bumped up the hierarchy in the design team might like a new editing software, or I might like food (I always like food.)

20. Use this old classic: Say, “Thank you.” Two simple words that feel so good to hear.

Additional tips for effective employee recognition in 2024:

  • Use technology to your advantage. There are a number of great employee recognition platforms available that can help you track and manage your recognition programs.
  • Get creative. There are endless possibilities when it comes to employee recognition. Don't be afraid to get creative and come up with unique ways to recognize your employees.
  • Make it fun! Recognition should be enjoyable for both the giver and the receiver. Make it fun and engaging to keep employees motivated.

By following these tips, you can create an employee recognition program that will help you attract, retain, and engage top talent in 2024 and beyond.

Also, here are some pictures if you want to visualize a happy, engaged workplace where employees feel heard and valued (that’s the end goal of rewards and recognition programs anyway).Effects of good rewards and recognition programs happy employees

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