How To Create Smart Employee Recognition Programs In 2024

Retain your best employees.


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Arielle Executive - Sydney, Melbourne, New York

Last updated: February 7th, 2024

employee recognition programs
Arielle Executive - Sydney, Melbourne, New York

Last updated: February 7th, 2024

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Employee recognition programs are essential for building a workplace culture where team members feel seen, valued and challenged.  Science shows we are more likely to continue behaviours that are reinforced with positive rewards.

The flip side – when our work goes unrecognised, our productivity drops, and we refuse to go above and beyond.

Your responsibility as a manager is to design, execute and maintain a goal-based employee recognition program that will drive employee engagement in your business.

How To Build A Smart Employee Recognition Program.

The social media-driven ‘quiet quitting’ movement highlighted the anti-hustle sentiment permeating workforces.

Gallup estimates that over 50% of the workforce has embraced the concept.

successful employee recognition programs

Above: If 80% of Australian are actively disengaged or not engaged, are the remaining 20% carrying their weight?

Feeling disconnected from their work and under-appreciated by their bosses, many employees have pared back their efforts to the bare minimum.

Before you attempt to reverse the trend with gift cards, pawternity leave, company swag and increased flexibility, consider this:

A lack of meaning is the root cause of disengagement.

No amount of perks will have a positive impact on employee engagement – unless you tie your employee recognition program to:

  • A real company vision and mission…
  • Underpinned by clear company values.

Employees feel appreciated when they are united around a real purpose, and receive meaningful recognition for contributing to the mission’s success.

Lack of meaning shows up as incessant – yet insatiable – demands, workplace activism, an “us vs them” mentality and petty workplace conflict.
benefits of employee recognition programs

20 Examples Of Employee Recognition Ideas.

Successful employee recognition programs can be structured or spontaneously delivered, but either way — the actual recognition methods you use to recognise people are critical.

Having a wide swathe of ideas on standby will help you make recognition more personal and effective, aligned to the specific person and reason you’re recognising them.

Here are 20 employee recognition ideas for making employees feel valued:

  • Write a personalised thank-you note or send an email expressing your gratitude (inexpensive, yet effective).
  • Create an employee recognition notice board in a high-traffic area of your workplace, with pinned images and signage that spotlight employees and their achievements.
  • Share praise through internal communications channels like Slack or Teams, via the CEO’s company-wide newsletter, or at all-hands and team meetings.
  • Time off after a big project to help employee/s recover, in recognition of the extra time and effort they put in.
  • Random days off as an expression of thanks for demonstrated commitment to upholding company values and improving company culture.
  • Celebrate unique milestones such as birthdays or personal wins like completing a marathon, as well as professional wins like a promotion or completed project.
  • Mark anniversaries of an employee’s tenure at your company, which might include small one-year celebrations and much more elaborate shindigs after a 5-year stint.
  • Give the employee a novelty customised gift, such as a custom-made mug from Etsy or a book by an author they care about.
  • Give a home-delivered subscription of the employees’ choice, which could include meal kits, fruit/veg or gourmet snack boxes, magazines, beauty boxes or craft kits.
  • Give company swag that both gives people a thrill and instils pride in working at your company, like branded jumpers, vests or notebooks.
  • Organise wellness sessions, with de-stressing activities off-site (e.g., yoga class), or bring self-care to work via an on-site masseuse, nutritionist or meditation practitioner.
  • Offer life-hack seminars on company time that help employees get their finances, mental health, and home life on track — or perhaps a cooking class or decluttering workshop.
  • Let an individual choose a team reward, such as an outing like bowling, gocart championships or laser tag, or choose the destination/cuisine for a team lunch. 
  • Create values-based peer awards where votes are cast for a colleague who’s displayed a particular company value or attribute, and the winner gets a small reward or temporarily takes possession of a ‘trophy’ or team mascot.
  • Let your team select a volunteering activity that aligns with their personal values, giving them a chance to take time away from work and give back to the community.
  • Offer the employee additional training, development or attendance of a major conference or industry event — above their regular benefits — to show you’re investing in their growth.
  • Consider offering monetary rewards or luxury incentives (e.g., bonus, a luxury holiday, or VIP concert tickets) for exceptional performance.
  • Invite employees to meet with leadership in either a relaxed setting like a small lunch to build relationships or sit in on executive meetings — depending on the employees’ wishes.

(Related: Human Capital Management: The Ultimate Guide).

An employee recognition program can have unintended negative consequences if implemented poorly or inconsistently. Remember to:

  • Clarify and reinforce the normal organisational practices for managing performance. What are the success metrics, and what does exceptional effort look like?
  • Remain fair and consistent in the distribution of employee rewards. If you celebrate birthdays one month and forget the next because a big project takes precedence, colleagues who missed out will feel de-motivated.


Encourage all managers to recognise their employees. Give them the resources to do so effectively (guidance and budget), so it’s not a case of only certain teams benefiting from feeling valued. 

Structured vs Unstructured Employee Recognition Efforts.

A structured employee recognition program is the best approach because it increases the odds of recognition efforts being delivered consistently.

Creating a defined plan for employee recognition might include:

  • Points-based, peer-based and/or values-based measures of achievement that make employees feel appreciated for both reaching goals and their soft skills (e.g., strong collaboration skills, empathy or commitment to ethics).
  • Competitions to promote specific rewards based on employees achieving a certain target within a certain timeframe. For example, the person who gets the best client satisfaction rating each quarter.  
  • A software-based method for capturing data, coordinating reward allocation or facilitating peer-to-peer recognition on a daily basis (e.g., a dedicated CRM pipeline that tracks employees’ progress towards rewards, and enables key stakeholders to have confidential discussions.

Expert Tip.

The downside of structure is the risk that recognition becomes stale or a box-checking exercise that senior leaders don’t approach with creativity or sensitivity. Remembering to vary your tactics for delivering recognition help alleviate this.

An unstructured employee recognition program is spontaneous and flexible.

This also makes it more unpredictable and more easily derailed.

An unstructured program relies on the motivation and supportive nature of leaders and colleagues within your business.

If a leader doesn’t naturally have an open communication style or strong emotional intelligence — they might overlook the necessity of regular positive feedback and recognition.

Unstructured programs have no set rules or guidelines. Instead, they tend to:

  • Lead to recognition of most visible efforts.
  • Focus more on one-on-one and peer-to-peer exchanges of praise and appreciation.
  • Highlight behaviour input – for example, if an employee consistently arrives on time, has a positive attitude, or makes the office fun and vibrant.

Expert Tip.

Whilst structured recognition programs give employees a greater sense of fairness, unstructured benefit programs can feel more genuine – and can be more effective at improving employee morale short-term. What works best will depend on your team size, culture, and the resources you can dedicate to program delivery.

Private vs Public Delivery Of Employee Recognition.

You can deliver the reward in either a public or private setting. This will impact the employees’ perception of the reward.

Some employees may love a public announcement where everyone can pat them on the back, while others will prefer a private, nuanced conversation, where they receive an acknowledgement from their boss.

You may choose to recognise employees via a mix of public and private actions — such as a handwritten note from a direct manager as well as a team lunch.

To determine the extent to which your acknowledgement should be public or private, put yourself in the individual’s place and consider:

  • Would it be more important to them that a specific person delivers the message, or that other people know about the news?
  • Would the recognition be more meaningful if you included highly personalised language, anecdotes and in-jokes that may not translate to a broader audience?
  • Could recognising this more widely potentially make them feel uncomfortable (e.g., praise for overcoming a barrier or up-skilling in areas where they felt deficient)?


Despite private recognition having its place, remember that social recognition allows the whole team to appreciate an employee’s contributions. Publicly recognising a shy person doesn’t need to put them on the spot (e.g., CEO thanks in a video message to the team).

7 Steps To Creating An Employee Recognition Program.

The below steps will allow you to create an employee recognition program that feels authentic to your business, regardless of industry.

1. Remember Your Core Values.

Firstly, understand and remember your company values. Using core values to track progress or as a reward metric is the best way to ensure the following:

  • That company vision and purpose underpins the employee behaviours you want to promote and see more of.
  • Everyone understands why a particular employee is recognised, plus how they can elevate their standards.

Expert Tip.

By outlining key steps towards a reward, employees understand that favouritism is not the deciding factor.

2. Decide On A Budget.

You need capital to recognise employees, but don’t be concerned – it can be a small amount.

Companies can set aside a monthly amount for employee recognition programs and factor this into budgets.

Be sure to include the following:

  • The monthly cost for specific employees or team rewards/bonuses.
  • Administrative costs.
  • Employee recognition software to track employee performance (if your existing CRM or HRIS can’t be adapted to this task).

Expert Tip.

Be sure to include cost-effective benefits in your employee recognition program, such as a pet-friendly office, a meditation room or a case of beer on Friday afternoons. You can enact these regularly without incurring financial strain.

3. Define Criteria That Triggers Employee Rewards.

Let’s talk program parameters – what actions constitute steps forward for the team? 

You can consider the following objectives and adapt to suit:

  • Input: Does the employee contribute to their team and the broader company goals and strategy? 
  • Output: Does the employee ensure their workload is managed and assist others where possible? Do they take initiative? 
  • Efficiency: Does the employee submit their work on time? 
  • Quality: Does the employee go above and beyond to produce quality work, adapting to suit feedback?
  • Outcome: Are clients impressed and wish to continue working together? Does the campaign exceed goals and expectations? 

Discover more performance metrics here


You will recognise different achievements in different ways. For small achievements, consider gift cards, and for significant contributions – team parties or a bonus. 

4. Get Buy-In From Senior Management.

As a leader, you must drive check-ins and rewards for the program’s success. Once you’ve developed an outline, be sure to: 

5. Roll Out The Employee Recognition Program!

We recommend a clear event to kick off the employee recognition program so that all employees are excited and on the same page.

You should:

  • Make a general announcement either in-person or digitally. 
  • Follow up with an informational video via email or other messaging platforms. The video should cover all the details of the employee recognition program. 
  • After the announcement, host an event (team lunch or office breakfast) marking the program’s start. 

Expert Tip.

Encourage employees to nominate someone they believe deserves a benefit in the program’s first week and reward them quickly to kick-start momentum.

6. Keep It Front Of Mind.

Make it easy for workers to engage with the new employee recognition program by keeping the program fresh in their minds.

Be sure to:

  • Mention the program in meetings or online, plus hint at the potential rewards. 
  • Include the program rewards in newsletters or announcements. 
  • Be sure to announce the names of those who have won as the program continues. 
  • And – set reminders to check in with employees on their feelings towards being recognised and valued in the workplace. Welcome their feedback. 

7. Measure Program Results.

Most importantly, stay across analytics and data. To measure the success of your employee recognition program:

  • Send out surveys to understand how employees feel about the program and what they would like to change or adjust (e.g., use a cheap tool like SurveyMonkey or Typeform if your existing company ERP, CRM or HRIS can’t do it).
  • Track who gets recognised, why, and how often (again, if suitable software isn’t available, use a simple spreadsheet).
  • Measure employee retention before and after the program’s start.
  • Adjust the recognition program according to the data received to ensure it always aligns with employee needs.  


If the program is not benefiting employees, don’t be afraid to design a more effective and supportive one. The best leaders encourage learning by experimentation

Top 3 Benefits Of A Smart Employee Recognition Program.

Private and public recognition of your employees drives employee engagement and strengthen your employer brand.

1. Increased Employee Productivity.

Truly productive people don’t need to be prodded into action. They instinctively strive to perform well because they feel most fulfilled when they do. Recognition helps them reach this state more often

Recent Gallup research affirms praise is powerful: 74% of employees who feel appreciated and praised in the workplace agree that their work is more valuable and of higher quality.  

2. Stronger Sense Of Belonging.

Employee recognition programs help employees feel like they belong.

An aligned team working towards a shared goal or against a clear competitor (or nemesis, if you prefer darker expression) creates life-long bonds and deeply emotional experiences.


Employees who have worked on high-performance teams report those being their peak life and professional experiences.

3. Reduced Staff Turnover.

Employee recognition programs drive employee engagement. This, in turn, helps retain your employees, which reduces your hiring and training costs.

More than 40% of employees have cited lack of recognition as a reason to quit their jobs, and almost 60% have said they’d leave due to feeling disrespected at work.

New hires are expensive to find, onboard and train. Smart recognition programs reduce employee churn. “Nuff said.

Plan And Deliver Ideal Employee Recognition Programs.

Make it an urgent goal to introduce effective employee recognition programs if you want to cultivate a positive culture where employees know they’re valued and will proactively work towards your company’s objectives. 

Building programs that reward and recognise good work, desirable behaviours and people’s inherent value as human beings not only encourage productivity, collaboration and empowered leaders — it reduces turnover and the chances of disengagement and misconduct. 

Create a formal employee recognition program without delay, and start seeing ROI before the end of this year.


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