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4 tasty ways to use informal recognition

Let me start out by saying that I love, love, love designing formal recognition programs. They’re a great way to deliver what I call the ‘appreciation feeling’ in a formal and structured way, and when done well, do a fab job of bringing culture and values to life as well.

However, if employees are truly to feel appreciated, informal recognition also needs to take place.

To put it another way - you can't have a PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwich) or a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich) with only one of the ingredients, you need them all to deliver a delicious and tasty sandwich!

But since too often companies (and managers) rely solely on formal recognition, not understanding all of the great informal tools they have, in this blog I thought I’d share a bit

about it from my book titled “See it. Say it. Appreciate it!.” Hopefully it will help you and your team understand how to use informal recognition in your recognition “sandwich.”

What is informal recognition?

As the name implies, informal recognition is done in more unstructured, free flowing ways at your discretion. It’s more ad hoc, individual and unofficial, something to let loose and have fun with.

How do you recognize informally?

There’s lots of ways to recognize informally, which is both good and bad, as sometimes you don’t know where to start and what to do. To help you with this, I thought I’d share with you the four categories I group them into when I talk and deliver workshops on recognition. By doing this, it creates a bit of order and structure, and makes it easier to remember and thus action them.

Category #1: Growth/development opportunities

The first category is growth and development opportunities, something I’ve used many times as a manager as a way to show my people that I value and appreciate them for not just one contribution, but for their development and overall career.

From sending employees on formal training classes to being able to attend or present at a meeting, to being given a mentor, to shadowing their manager, there are lots of ways to use this as a recognition tool. And by doing it, it sends a message to the recipient that you value and appreciate them, and are committed to supporting their growth and development.

When respondents were asked how they preferred to be recognized for a significant accomplishment, a study14 found that almost half of them (47%) would choose a new growth opportunity. This was significantly higher than a salary increase (23%), a high performance rating (21%) or even a bonus (10%), which shows the importance employees place on their growth and development.

Category #2: Gifts

This category includes a wide variety of informal recognition tools, from company-branded merchandise to food, to anything and everything in between. When it comes to gifts, I’ve seen companies and individuals put their own individual mark on them, coming up with ways to show appreciation in wild and wonderful ways.

As you select the gifts that are right for your people, keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be costly and it doesn’t need to be complex. It can be as simple as giving them your manager parking spot for the week, or sending them a confetti card, or even giving them a t-shirt that has your company logo on it.

The key is finding something that will make them feel appreciated and, like any other form of recognition, align with the contribution they have made (e.g. you don’t give a big gift for a small contribution).

Category #3: Time

Another popular form of informal recognition is giving the gift of time. I tend to look at time in two ways, with the first being time off. This is something that’s become more important and more valued by our people based on the new ways of working and renewed thoughts on the importance of time in this fast-paced and challenging world. It can include anything from ad hoc time off to development days to days off to volunteer and give back to an important cause.

The other way to give time as a form of informal recognition is by giving your people quality time from you, showing them that they’re valued by giving them your most precious resource, your time. It can be as simple as taking the time to have a quality conversation with them, spending time with them, or working alongside them on a task or project. You may be surprised at how much your employees appreciate you doing this, showing them how important and valuable they are to you.

Category #4: Communication

The final category is communication, which refers to recognizing your people through written and verbal communication practices. Here are a few examples to bring this idea to life:

Informal recognition postcards

Handwritten notes – Many companies use informal and ad hoc handwritten recognition notes as a way to supplement their formal recognition program.

One company I interviewed for my book has what they call a “Celebration Station” set up on each floor that contains recognition postcards. Anyone can select one amongst the range of postcards, write a message, and then send it to someone as a way to informally recognize one another.

Shout outs – Another effective way to communicate recognition is through something called a “shout out.” I love these as you can get your entire team involved, shouting out and recognizing colleagues for the great work and support they’ve provided. My husband, who is a senior engineering manager, starts every team call out with shout outs, and he told me that it’s his favorite part of the meeting.

It can be as simple (and as inexpensive) as a name

During a recognition workshop with managers I asked them to share what kind of informal recognition they were doing with their teams. One person shared that she goes out of her way to use the names of her employees when she interacts with them. By doing this it makes the employee feel valued, respected and appreciated. As Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Let me end by pointing out one more thing to help you with informal recognition, and that is to consider the following when selecting and using any of these tools:

  1. The action and behavior – It’s important to recognize at the appropriate level based on the action and behavior that has been observed. Take the time to consider the scope and impact of the input, the action and behavior, before you select the output, the tool you will ultimately use to deliver recognition.

  2. The person being recognized – When it comes to informal recognition, there are so many ways to do it. In fact, one of the first books I read on this topic is titled 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. But with all of these options, it’s even more important to make sure that you take the time to understand personal preferences, understanding how best the individual would feel appreciated and recognized.

  3. The person giving recognition – And finally, it's important for you to recognize in ways that work for you, reflecting your personality and style. For example, at a previous company, one of the managers was known for recognizing by giving out a bag of handmade cookies that he had baked. This was so personal to him, and something that in turn meant so much to those who received them, and not just because they tasted amazing!

I encourage you to share and discuss informal recognition alongside your formal recognition ones, remembering that they both have an important role to play in delivering that ‘appreciation feeling.’ And going back to my sandwich analogy, the more ingredients you have, the better it will ultimately taste!


Should you have any questions on recognition, either formal or informal, please contact me, I’d be happy to help.


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