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The Ultimate Guide to Employee Recognition [2023]

I believe that the best company cultures and most successful businesses both empower and recognize their employees. They provide a positive work environment, have regular and transparent communications, are diverse, offer a sense of fun, and tie projects and goals back to their mission, vision, and core company values. A positive company culture may be the deciding reason someone applies for a career opportunity with a company, invests in it, or even becomes a client.

Throughout my Human Resources career spanning nearly three decades, I worked with over fifty employers from startups to corporate 100 companies, including my own consulting firm. I have witnessed the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly. I am grateful for all of these experiences as each taught me unique business lessons for building a culture of recognition. I have been able to maximize the value of these lessons for businesses I have supported. 

In some of the prior companies I have worked with, there was a belief that it was the responsibility of Human Resources to create a positive culture and employee experience. I can recall a time when my personal performance review had a goal tied to the culture of the company. Metrics were in place related to employee retention, employee and manager satisfaction, manager feedback regarding the quality of hires as it related to the performance of the newly hired employee, etc.

I remember this because it was early on in my career and I felt this incredible weight on my shoulders to make the company culture the best it could be. If there were concerns with the metrics the company identified, my performance and hard work would be in question. It was then that I started to really look at what impacted the culture of a company. I remember thinking it was not fair that I was solely responsible for this. Some colleagues told me that life was not fair and that I was immature in the way I was thinking. But honestly, this is one time when I really can say, even looking back, that this really wasn’t fair – in fact, it was absolutely absurd. 

Employee Appreciation Creates a Company’s Culture, Not HR

Culture is a shared responsibility among team members. There are too many variables that come into play to believe that certain metrics fall on one person or team.

While Human Resources may drive some of the initiatives, workplace culture needs to be supported from the top down and requires participation at all levels. Employees’ contributions and acceptance of recognition are what create the culture. And, I can’t emphasize this enough… creating a culture of recognition requires the buy-in and support of senior leaders who genuinely care for and respect their employees.

A successful culture of recognition will only prosper if managers embrace, encourage, and actively participate in cultural initiatives including any change management which needs to take place. I learned that it was okay to respectfully challenge beliefs on culture and where responsibility should fall – I supported my thoughts with facts and professional experiences. 

Essential Components of an Employee Recognition Program

Starting any new program can feel overwhelming. With a recognition and rewards program, it is okay tostart small. In fact, it may be better to start small so you can carefullybuild the momentum of the program and determine what is and isn’t working as it progresses.

The Plan: What Milestones and Achievements are We Rewarding, and How?

Depending on the budget, geography, and size of a company, there are lots of different options and types of employee recognition, rewards, and tools to consider.

You’ll also need to establish a guiding set of milestones and achievements that would trigger a form of recognition. Common examples include birthdays, work anniversaries, years of service, and goals reached. Additionally, you can choose to recognize creative achievements, rights of passage, and general good work that is unique to your industry or organization.

The Goal: What is The Intention of Implementing Our Employee Recognition Program?

When working as the Head of Human Resources for a healthcare organization, I discovered three universal culture drivers which, to this day, I believe employees not only desire, but deserve.

These are to be cared for, respected, and well-informed.

At the time I made this discovery, I was presenting my findings to the leadership team on a recently completed employee culture survey. There were several speakers before me and the agenda began with comments about patient satisfaction. 

As I listened to some of the challenges with patients, I started to make some parallel observations on how employees were feeling about the way they were being treated. I was a bit taken aback as I thought the patient satisfaction conversation had jumped to my employee survey feedback insight. The points raised were identical! I could not help but chime in and ask how or why some of my findings were being discussed as the survey was confidential. We all looked at each other confused for a moment. They shared that the insight was from a recent patient satisfaction survey. It was then I realized we had two different surveys going on at the same time, but patients and employees had the exact same concerns and ultimately, needs, which were not being met.

I realized that what clients and patients wanted was true of employees, vendors, etc. Everyone wants to be cared for, respected, and well-informed. Ultimately, all of these themes are essential for any relationship to thrive. From that point forward in my career, I worked to embed these themes in all of my employee recognition initiatives and in my personal life as well.

Striving for employees to be cared for, respected, and well-informed will only enhance the chances of a high-performing, positive work culture. 

The Practical Execution: What Types of Employee Recognition are Happening in Our Organization?

There are many different ways in which companies can categorize employee recognition. While there are times when a more serious approach may be preferred in some recognition initiatives, remember that recognition can and should be fun.

There are endless ideas for in-person and remote company events (, Offsyte). At a high level, there are three main types of employee recognition as seen and described below. For employee recognition to be most effective, you need all three.

Image source:Blueboard

The Fundamental Types of Employee Recognition

In essence, recognition should happen top-down (from leadership to employees) bottom-up (from employees to leadership), and peer-to-peer. In each instance, there are tiers in which the recognition should be given. These can also be tied to the types of rewards you offer your team.

Formal Recognition 

This type of recognition is typically managed by a Human Resources or People Operations team. It is typically centralized in order to provide more structure and consistency in certain recognitions. This may include employee tenure awards, anniversaries, service awards, culture awards, etc.

Many times there are formal events associated with these types of recognition, making it a form of public recognition (recognition that happens in front of peers). By nature, formal recognition is infrequent — reserved for year-end parties, quarterly gatherings, or a small ceremony to announce employee of the month. For that reason, it can’t be the only form of recognition your people get.

Pro-tip: Having anEmployee Recognition Event Checklist is always a good idea!

Performance reviews are another great vehicle to tie in cultural initiatives company-wide so that everyone is measured and accountable for culture.

Informal Recognition 

This type of recognition may have some general guidelines associated, but it tends to be a bit more relaxed in structure. For instance, the execution could be varied by location or department. Examples may includeSpot Awards, a handwritten note to a direct report, employee shoutouts on your social media accounts, intranet board thank you’s and announcements, site-specific contests, etc. 

A big part of informal recognition is peer-to-peer recognition (recognition within the same rank). It is essential for your team to have the means of giving shout-outs and praise to their colleagues at any time, both privately and publicly. Dedicating a Slack channel to recognition is an easy and highly accessible means of achieving this.

Day-to-day Recognition 

This is the least formal type of recognition but equally important as it comes from all levels and every employee. Day-to-day recognition is ingrained in how people treat each other in your organization. Prime examples are thanking a colleague for their help, congratulating the sales team on landing a new client, and general verbal praise for good work. As a part of your company culture, leadership sets the tone here.

From a verbal thank you to an appreciation note, culture needs both informal praise and formal recognition. 

Bear in mind that, while it is easy to recognize your best employees on a regular basis, everyone plays a role in the organization’s overall success, and is therefore deserving of positive feedback. Don’t let an introverted staff member or unsung employee’s work go unrecognized.

Getting Started with Your Employee Recognition Program

Before initiating a program, it is best practice to send out employee surveys to gauge interest and determine the best activities, rewards, etc. based on what your employees enjoy. You can start by suggesting some commonemployee recognition ideas to see how these resonate with your team.

Fortunately, there are many tools companies can use to create surveys for free (examples includeGoogle Forms,Survey Monkey, andSoGoSurvey).

A great way to increase employee awareness and engagement is to establish aCulture Committee with a focus on recognition. While monetary rewards are appreciated, a recognition and rewards program does not need to break the bank. A Culture Committee should allow for creative ideas and consideremployee award titles as well asnon-monetary incentives. I have also seen how wellness and giving-back programs can tie in nicely with these types of programs. 

Employee Recognition Software

There are a lot of moving parts here. Fortunately, there are also a number of resources andrecognition software programs which can help companies to manage different employee recognition initiatives.

In a manual recognition program, a work anniversary or other achievements can easily go overlooked. Making use of a SaaS tool or employee recognition platform makes it easier to keep tabs, stick with the program, and maintain consistency. These tools can be solely focused on recognition, or assign integrated rewards (like gift cards, spot bonuses, and other perks) tied to pre-set milestones. Some recognition software also offers gamification and mobile access which can increase engagement.

Do Your Due Diligence

The best tool for your organization depends on your unique needs. Consider some expert guidance beforebuying recognition software and researchbest practices for employee rewards.

Additionally, global companies should consider local differences and preferences, communication styles, as well as any tax implications for monetary incentives.

The size of the company, along with short and long-term needs are equally important. I recommend that Legal review any contracts when it comes to purchasing or subscribing to any kind of software. Many times, there are hidden fees that can add up quickly, or pricing may not be all-inclusive or vary based on the number of employees. This may drastically increase the total cost over time as your organization grows. Also review the length of contracts, cost of technical upgrades, etc.

Consider the ease of using the rewards system with internal resources versus outsourcing more technical features and customer support. The timing of implementation and how that works with the billing should be confirmed, especially if there are multiple modules that do not go live at the same time. Companies shouldn’t have to pay for something that they are not fully utilizing.

Prepare for Change Management

Whenever a company implements new software, it is good to get buy-in from IT, Legal, HR, and Finance heads to plan out any potential concerns. Input from all departments is also necessary to ensure that you have the right solution.

This is a big undertaking and I have seen companies really fall short in realistic expectations of the amount of time, planning, and resources involved. The key to success is having strong project management, a communications plan, organizational buy-in, and training. Some of the softer skills related to culture may require training of managers. It is worth investing in talent development of their soft skills (emotional intelligence, handling difficult conversations with their teams, etc.)

Implementations take time, require resources (typically more than planned), and generally include costs outside of just the system. These usually come in the form of people and time.

Have a plan and some faith. An automated recognition program can be extremely impactful to companies and provide a lot of benefits if a company is fully prepared to invest in its people and commit to consistency and continuous improvement in the program. 


Culture is not something that changes overnight. A culture of recognition is a team effort and starts with senior leaders who value and respect their employees while actively participating in programs. For any employee recognition program to be successful, planning and communication are essential. Companies need to be willing to put in the initial work, time, and commitment to building employee recognition into their day-to-day operations.

A positive work culture is one that should be celebrated and shared. Remember,  when starting a recognition program, companies should ask:

Does this empower and recognize employees?
Am I providing regular and transparent communications?
Do I have diverse recognition and rewards that offer a sense of fun?
Are projects and goals tied back to the company’s mission, vision, and core values?
Are senior leaders actively participating?

There are countless ways to drive recognition in an organization and tools which can support these efforts but all of this is driven by the people in the company. Done correctly, a company can reap many benefits in attracting, acquiring, and retaining top talent, driving employee engagement, and ultimately impacting customer experience, sales, and the bottom line.