Employee Recognition 101: A Guide to Starting Your Program from Scratch

Written by Ivan Dimitrijevic

Software and culture builder. Experienced technology teams leader. Guitar and basketball player.

November 28, 2023

Image by: StockSnap from Pixabay

From GANT charts to endless Google Sheets, it seems that nowadays we plan everything. Managers are happy to brag about long-term strategies and rows of green cells in official Excell table reports. How is it possible then, that we tend to overlook one of the most important factors of success – people who make it happen?

The truth is most employers don’t have the structure necessary to point their employee recognition efforts in the right direction.

One of the most effective ways for employers to make sure they don’t slip up on validating employee contributions is to form and maintain employee recognition programs. We know that recognition is a low-cost, high-return solution, so let’s start with the basics.


How to start an employee recognition program:

Make sure you know your key values.

You can’t reward someone for something if you don’t know what that something is. Industries have their variations but some of the most common values are team work, innovation, and knowledge sharing.

A good employee recognition program should be custom-made to include your particularities but here are some of the most common ideas you could use.


Loyalty awards: Years of service

Loyal employees are rare. Make sure you make them stand out! Host a party and dedicate a portion of your time to shed a spotlight on your long-term employees. While the days of golden watch engraved with the company name are things of the past you could send your employees on a special holiday, give them a statuette, or increase their days off. After all, they deserve it.


Employee of the month

Sounds tacky, but people love having their efforts recognized and the best of the best love to win. Make sure they stand out and try to make it look like a fun game to avoid unnecessary envy. Put their picture up, do a roll call, make them feel special and do it in style.


Best team

When in doubt – foster team spirit. Awarding the whole team not only brings them closer together but it signifies the value your company places on cooperation. Award your best team with a nice trip or an interesting activity, and bonus points if you make sure they get the workshops and additional training they need to keep excelling.


Best innovators

Never ignore good ideas and the people who come up with them. Creative individuals tend to be full of ideas but sometimes there are simply no resources to make them all happen. That doesn’t mean you should forget about those rare people who keep thinking outside the box. Recognize their effort and reassure them their opinion matters. You never know when one of their ideas can bring your company to a whole new level of success.


Best colleague

Yes, sometimes we need to give extra attention to kindness. It’s not always those loud type-A players that make a difference, sometimes it’s that quiet reliable guy in the corner who simply gets the job done and knows how to fix the printer. Make sure small gestures of dedication are awarded and look out for ways to show that they matter – being genuine beets all the pizza parties you budgeted for, plus being nice is free!

Now that you have a plan the trick is to stick with it, here are some tips on how to make your employee recognition program work long-term.


Turn it into a mindset

It’s very common to start implementing change and go all in, only to lose enthusiasm after the initial hype and slowly let an idea fade away. It is crucial to turn employee recognition into a habit, repeating small gestures and keeping the whole picture in place until it stops being an effort and becomes a natural part of your culture.


Don’t let it turn into a chore

Employees can smell fake corporate initiatives a mile away. Make sure to give credit when credit is due, don’t disregard it because it doesn’t fit into your “employee recognition calendar”. Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous, make it a priority.


Make it personal

Nothing says “we are just feeling a quota” like impersonal “congratulations” emails. Make sure your employee knows you are not treating them like a number. If your top star loves basketball, get them front-row seats for an important game, if they love to travel offer a flexible arrangement or an opportunity to work from your office overseas. Be creative and personal, it’s worth it.


Be specific

When publicly praising your employees don’t just say “Ray is great”. View this as an opportunity to showcase your core values and say something like this instead: Ray’s contributions during negotiations secured a new important client, and his presentation skills coupled with his in-depth knowledge of the subject were the reason they chose us over the competition. Thank you Ray, and congratulations everyone”.

To sum it up – when planning your employee recognition program be creative, personal, and consistent. And don’t be afraid to be less corporate and more human, that is the whole point. 

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