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Key principles for effective employee recognition activities

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

One of the toughest tasks for many organizations is to attract, retain and engage top people who will enable the organization to achieve its key goals.

Employee recognition at all levels is a simple and powerful tool to create and sustain a culture that engages and aligns employees with organizational goals. This is proven in many cases and it applies to organizations of every size. What’s more: it is low cost.

Yet research shows employee recognition continues to be a poorly utilized technique. It is done badly everywhere!

A recent WorldatWork survey in the United States found that 65% of workers wanted more gratitude and thanks, while 78% of Generation Y workers thought an increase in thanks would improve their job performance. A recent Maritz survey found that 65% of employees agreed or strongly agreed that the quality of their organization’s recognition efforts affected their job performance.

Huge surveys conducted by Sirota Consulting revealed that only 51% of workers were satisfied with the recognition they received after a job well done. This figure is as conclusive as you could get – it has been reached from interviewing 2.5 million employees in 237 private, public and not-for-profit organizations in 89 countries around the world in the ten years to 2003.

What are we talking about? What exactly is employee recognition? Employee recognition acknowledges or gives special attention to employee actions, efforts, behavior or performance. It meets a fundamental human need for appreciation for one's efforts and it can support business strategy by reinforcing behaviors that contribute to organizational success.

Whether formal or informal, recognition programs acknowledge employee contributions immediately after the fact, usually without predetermined goals or performance levels that the employee is expected to achieve. Awards can be cash or non-cash (eg verbal recognition, trophies, certificates, plaques, dinners, tickets, etc).

The quickest, easiest and very effective form of recognition is the proverbial ‘pat on the back’ or words of praise to a staff member. Anyone can do that, not just their manager or supervisor.

Isn’t employee recognition an HR activity? Yes, it is often coordinated by HR, but the experts advise not to do this because it tends to become associated too much with work conditions and entitlements. Also, recognition has a massive communication component – which is the role of the professional communicator.

A framework for initiating an employee recognition program is detailed in my e-book, Creative ideas for employee recognition.

Key factors in a successful employee recognition program

  1. Empower managers. The most powerful assets an organization has to attract, retain and engage its workforce are its frontline managers. Unfortunately, most of today’s managers don’t have the skills to motivate today’s workforce. Many managers never use recognition as a motivational tool because they don’t know how, they don’t think it is their job, or they don’t think their employees value it. All managers should receive recognition training, which helps them identify employee motivation, assess their own strengths and weaknesses related to recognition, and identify how recognition can help them motivate their employees to achieve their own goals.

  2. Ensure meaningful recognition. Employee surveys consistently show that many employees are not consistently recognized. What’s more, recognition needs to relate to an employee’s own wants or desires or it is a waste of time, not much better than no recognition at all. It is therefore vital that an organization understands what types of recognition are most meaningful to its teams and individual employees. From verbal praise to merchandise to parking spots, employers should consider using online and offline assessment tools to uncover what truly motivates their employees.

  3. Measure success. Gone are the days when recognition was an intangible soft topic. Modern techniques allow you to capture, track and report the desired behaviors on which recognition is based. You can use surveys to understand your people and measure how often meaningful recognition is occurring within the organization. Whether the objective is increased retention or increased employee satisfaction, every recognition program should be based on measurable business objectives and associated recognition measurement.

  4. Commit from the top. Many recognition programs tend to fail because top executives believe that recognition doesn’t improve performance, or employees may not believe that senior managers support recognition. Executive-level briefings by recognition advisers, visible executive involvement in launch campaigns and dedicated senior sponsorship for the life of the program are ways to combat these issues.

  5. Consolidate efforts. Tighter alignment, increased visibility, administrative efficiency, and economies of scale are just a few of the organizational benefits for developing and maintaining a strategic recognition program. This effort should include a documented plan, high level framework for formal recognition and tools for all departments.

  6. Decentralize ownership. An organizational recognition strategy should not stop teams from establishing their own recognition project. Each team should have at least one ‘recognition advocate’ who champions the formal programs, has the tools to launch new informal and day-to-day recognition initiatives, and understands best practices.

  7. Align with corporate goals and values. Alignment happens in individual day-to-day actions of every employee. Therefore, all recognition programs should clearly communicate and encourage the values and behaviors the organization is promoting while not stifling employees who model these behaviors.

  8. Apply consistently and equitably. Employee recognition programs that have no guidelines and allow managers to decide unilaterally who and what gets awarded are quickly perceived as fake. Online help guides, weighted ‘What Award Should I Give’ wizards, value/behavior tracking tools, and embedded approval structures ensure that initiatives are implemented fairly and equitably.

  9. Recognize performance immediately: Recognition initiatives that are not tied to performance or are of forced quantity and timeliness will do little to drive the results the organization is seeking. Organizations should foster a culture where employees are awarded immediately for demonstrating the defined behaviors that drive overall company performance.

  10. Continuously improve. Lack of freshness is the single largest complaint among employee participants in ongoing recognition initiatives. Instead of waiting for annual ‘update’ campaigns, you should meet frequently to share ideas, capture best practices and update the programs. Involved employees should be empowered with the tools necessary to update communications and incorporate program changes.


  • Maritz, Inc.

Other free articles on employee recognition can be accessed in our free articles section.


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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