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April 3, 2018

Three tips for effective employee recognition

Recognizing employees for a job well done is a critical piece of engagement. It’s more than checking a box, however – it must be strategic. Here are three tips for getting it right.


"I hope my peers or manager don't acknowledge me for doing a great job on this project," said no employee ever.

The act of recognizing employees for a job well done is a critical piece of employee engagement, but employers forget about it all the time, says Ceridian product manager Deb LaMere.

It’s positive reinforcement 101. Employees want to feel valued and recognized for what they contribute to their organizations. And employees look to their managers for the motivation, communication and relationship building that keeps them engaged in their jobs.

According to two separate studies cited in Harvard Business Review, regular recognition directly impacts employee morale and productivity.

One study found that of the companies employees say had strong recognition programs, 87% felt a strong relationship with their direct manager (only 51% felt that strong relationship in companies that didn’t have recognition practices). Further, of those who said they received a form of appreciation once a month, 82% reported a strong bond with their bosses, compared to 63% who received recognition less frequently.

A second, 2015 study found that seven out of 10 employees who reported receiving a form of appreciation from their supervisors said they were happy with their jobs. However, without recognition, only 39% said they were satisfied.

Recognition, then, is a critical piece of the puzzle for managers to master.

It’s also easily executed. “Recognition is simply saying thank you,” says LaMere. “You don’t necessarily need a big or robust program in place. It’s about acknowledging employees, and recognizing good work when it’s done.”

Managers and HR leaders need to understand that recognition should be strategic. The act of recognition means more than checking a box, or celebrating Employee Appreciation Day once a year. Recognizing employees, whether formal or informal, should align with the company’s values, reinforce organizational purpose and help to build culture.

Other important points about recognition:

  • It should be facilitated at all levels and in every direction – not simply relegated to manager-to-employee acknowledgement.
  • It should happen frequently (recall the study cited earlier).
  • It should be specific – tell the employee why they’re being recognized, acknowledge exactly what they did, and how it ties back to organizational success.

Three tips for effective employee recognition

Get to know your employees

“Great leaders understand how employees want to be recognized,” says LaMere. “What this really comes down to is managers talking with their employees and getting to know them.”

Specifically, adds LaMere, understand employees’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsically, what are they passionate about, and what is naturally satisfying to that employee? Extrinsically, how would they like to be recognized (be it a gift card, a quick note, or a verbal acknowledgement)?

The more personal the recognition, the more you show you understand and appreciate your employees. Research from OGO found that 76% of people save handwritten thank you notes.

One way to get this intel on employees is by building it into the onboarding process and having employees share information about themselves that is sent to their manager on their first day. Managers can also do this informally and learn more about their employees during a one-on-one meeting.

Talking to employees is also valuable to get a sense of whether or not your recognition programs or initiatives are working. Leaders may uncover that employees are looking for an official or structured program in addition to regular and informal nods.

Make it timely

Building on the idea that engagement should be ongoing, recognition, too, should be in-the-moment.

“Managers shouldn’t wait for a one-on-one meeting or performance review to tell someone they’ve done a good job,” says LaMere.

Mangers should take the same approach with recognition as they would with providing feedback in a coachable moment, she adds. In short, acknowledge employees right away. Even if you need some time to provide a personal or specific reward for an employee, send an email or write a note so the moment isn’t lost.

Tie recognition to organizational values

Tying back to company values is a powerful way to encourage recognition, and reinforce culture.

Traditionally, most recognition programs have been focused on tenure, or the length of time an employee has been with an organization.  A culture-based approach lets employers showcase those employees who demonstrate company values, while positioning them as role models for the larger organization. It also creates an opportunity to recognize employees for something other than big wins.

In creating a performance development culture, supporting employees in their progress towards achieving their goals is vital, as is showing respect for their experience and skills.

This blog is part of our series The five keys to employee engagement. Read more about the five keys in the previous blog here.

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