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Breaking Down the Research on Employee Recognition



“The best employee recognition tactics do something no tchotchke or gift card ever can- they make employees feel valued, respected, and even loved.”— Ashley Bell

You don’t have to look hard to find data supporting the benefits of employee recognition programs. But let us provide a snapshot of some of the data for you:

  • 72% of workers report that motivation and morale would improve if they felt more recognized for their work (HR Magazine).

  • 50% of employees would stay with an organization if they were more tangibly recognized (CareerBuilder).

  • 40% of employees who do not feel meaningfully recognized will NOT go above their formal job responsibilities (CareerBuilder).

  • Effective employee recognition can boost productivity nearly 50% and result in a 20% increase in business outcomes (Snacknation).

  • Yet, 40% of senior decision makers said they do NOT think regular employee recognition has a big impact on retention (HR Magazine).

The data presented above proves that a disconnect exists between what employees want and what managers/organizations are currently doing in regards to employee recognition. However, it does NOT address actions organizations and managers can take to bridge this gap. It is not as easy to change a culture of recognition as it sounds. Managers cannot simply flip a switch and solve their employee recognition challenges. There are many factors to think about. Below, I have outlined some popular tactics organizations are taking in regards to employee recognition, and areas for concern with each.


Let peers recognize each other. This is one that I came across frequently during my research. There is data to support it. Social recognition programs where everyone in the organization can give and receive awards- to blanket their culture with frequent, yet personal and specific recognition, is common at nearly 60% of organizations surveyed (Globoforce 2017 Survey Report).


The Cons. I have a number of concerns with relying too heavily on peer recognition programs. First, I have seen this quickly turn into a “popularity” contest throughout an office. Peers are more likely to recognize those that they are friends with and perhaps socialize outside of the office with. In turn, this quickly can get away from the true purpose of employee recognition. Peer recognition can turn quickly in a Facebook “like” contest instead of a true performance based metric. Additionally, allowing employees to see who recognized them can make those recognized feel like they are obligated to return the favor to those that nominated them, even if that individual does not deserve the award.


Recognize employees on a regular basis. Research suggests that employees who receive recognition on a regular basis (once per week) increase individual productivity, receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and are more likely to stay with their organization (Inc.com). Furthermore, those employees surveyed who received recognition in the last month were nearly 30 percent more likely to feel meaning and purpose behind their work. Thus, in order for employees to find meaning and truly see the greater goals of the organization in their work, they must receive frequent validation and recognition.


The Cons. Recognition once a week?! I don’t know about you, but that research shocked me. While I could find little evidence on weekly recognition being a detriment to an employee recognition program, my experience tells me this would have far reaching consequences. First, a lot has been discussed about the “every kid gets a trophy” principle, and this may be a sign of that trend. I am all for frequent recognition, but once a week seems like it would lose its appeal. Recognition should be special. To be special, it must be somewhat infrequent. In my opinion, if an organization celebrates everything then nothing is truly celebrated. The frequency of recognition should be discussed. It has to make sense for your organization and the teams specifically. For instance, a fast-moving inside sales team may need more frequent recognition versus a slower moving finance team.


Promote any and all employee recognition across social media. This is a growing trend as the social media continues to expand its reach. Companies now have separate Instagram and Facebook profiles specifically for recruitment efforts (See @DisneyCareers or @InsideIndeed). This offers companies a great opportunity to showcase employee recognition. Plus, it allows employees to share their own recognition with their followers.


The Cons. This seems like a no-brainer in our social media addicted world. However, I would caution that managers should seek approval before blasting an employee’s picture across social media. To some, this will be all the recognition they will ever need. To others, they will hate the idea of their picture on social media. Know your employees’ preference before you post on any forms of social media.


Celebrate career milestones. With employees switching roles and companies more often than ever, it is time to celebrate career milestones you never thought you’d have to. Long gone are the days where companies only reward those who have been with the company 5, 10, even 50 years. Now, employees want to be celebrated for their year anniversary and even at their 6 month mark of employment. How can managers do this effectively? Take your employee out to lunch at six months and use this time to not only celebrate but reflect on their time thus far and how you can become a better manager to them.


The Cons. Career service awards, or awards based on tenure, were never designed to be the only source of employee recognition. For instance, recognizing an employee for 25 years of service does very little to motivate other current employees. Why? Tenure is not necessarily a tangible performance related metric. Imagine you’re an employee who thinks you will only be recognized in 23 years… Doesn’t do much to motivate you as you walk back to your desk, does it?


Tips to create a truly effective employee recognition program.

  1. Commit to recognition year-round. Plenty of managers choose not to make employee recognition a priority, because they’re either too busy, or they do not understand its importance. Managers must plan and truly commit to employee recognition. Don’t let it turn into the treadmill you bought for your new year’s resolution that now acts as an expensive clothes rack.

  2. Ask your employees what they want. One of the easiest, and most forgotten, forms of employee recognition is simply asking employees how they most like to recognized. You may be surprised how useful this can be! This allows managers to personalize their recognition awards.

  3. Make your programs known across the organization. What good is a recognition program if no one in the organization knows about it? Are you doing enough to promote and educate your employees about each form of recognition? Highlight exceptional coworkers at your next all company meetings or share on your internal website to spread awareness (as well as to reward the employee).

  4. Timing is everything. Providing instant recognition is a simple and quick way to boost employee confidence. Instant recognition is always appreciated!

My favorite non-monetary forms of recognition.

  • A gift that proves my manager truly knows my interests. Our VP once gave me a golf book because he knew I enjoyed golf. It was a super inexpensive gift, but I knew he got it just for me. He put some thought into it and personalized the gift.

  • A hand-written thank you card. Yes, a simple “Thank you” can be all the difference.

  • A team-wide lunch or food truck brought to the office. Who doesn’t love a good free lunch?

What are your favorite forms of employee recognition?

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