Effective employee recognition increases organizational performance.

The key principles of effective employee recognition

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. Read further in this article about the key principles for effective employee recognition.

One of the toughest tasks for many organizations is to attract, retain and engage top employees 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!

For instance, Gallup analysis in 2022 found that about 40% of US workers reported that they received recognition or praise for doing good work just a few times a year or less. Also, a 2023 joint Gallup/Workhuman paper reviewed correlations between employee recognition and employee outcomes across hundreds of organizations and thousands of teams in different industries. The paper, “From Praise to Profits: The business case for recognition at work,” reported that “globally, one in four employees in Gallup’s database strongly agree that they have received recognition or praise for doing good work in the last week.” The figures vary industry by industry and by different generations of workers.

A 2019 survey by SurveyMonkey and Bonusly found:

  • 82% of employees considered recognition an important part of their happiness at work
  • 38% preferred to receive positive feedback in 1:1 meetings with their manager, followed by team meetings at 25%.
  • 89% of executive-level leaders believed recognition was conducted fairly at their company – but only 62% of people in intermediate positions agreed with them.

Earlier, 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 involved interviewing 2.5 million employees in 237 private, public and not-for-profit organizations in 89 countries around the world over 10 years. This is discussed in the book, “The enthusiastic employee – how companies profit by giving workers what they want,” by Sirota, Mischkind, Meltzer & Irwin (2005).

What is employee recognition?

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. This provides external motivation that supplements the employee’s internal motivation.

Whether formal or informal, effective employee 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 eBook, How to create a top employee recognition program.

Gratitude is practically the same as recognition

Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone (Emmons & McCullough, 2004), as discussed by Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury in Positive Psychology, 26 May 2021:

Grateful workers are more efficient, more productive and more responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and trigger feelings of closeness and bonding (Algoe, 2012), who says “gratitude is important for forming and maintaining the most important relationships of our lives, those with the people we interact with every day.”

Employees who practice expressing gratitude at work are more likely to volunteer for more assignments, willing to take an extra step to accomplish their tasks, and happily work as a part of the team.

Also, managers and supervisors who feel grateful and remember to convey the same, have a stronger group cohesiveness and better productivity. They recognize good work, give everyone their due importance in the group and actively communicate with their team members.

Gratitude makes a leader compassionate, considerate, empathetic, and loved among others.


Image (above): The neuroscience of gratitude and how it affects anxiety & grief.

Broad factors for an effective employee recognition program

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.

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. These  varied initiatives increase effective employee recognition.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Align with corporate goals and values

Alignment happens in individual day-to-day actions of every employee. All effective employee recognition programs should clearly communicate and encourage the values and behaviors the organization is promoting while not stifling employees who model these behaviors.

Apply consistently and fairly

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

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. You should foster a culture where employees are awarded immediately for demonstrating the defined behaviors that drive overall company performance.

Continuously improve

Lack of freshness is the single largest complaint among employee participants in ongoing recognition programs. 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.

If you are looking for guidance on how to recognize your employees for great work, read my article explaining how to do it.

If you want to find out more on how and when to recognize employees for good work, my helpful ebook, Employee Recognition: The secret to great team performance, explains how to implement this fabulous activity in your team or within your whole organization.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash.

Article updated in January 2024.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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