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6 Steps for Building your Recognition Program

Building (or rebuilding) an employee recognition program can be one of the most rewarding things we have the pleasure of doing as HR professionals. But it can also be one of the most challenging, trying to get it right for both your people and your business. 

To help you in your quest to get it right, let me share with you at a high level the six steps I use when helping companies build their programs, and which I cover in my book (Appreciate it! The Playbook for Employee Recognition).

1. Determine your recognition objectives

The first step is to set your recognition strategy by determining your objectives. You do this by answering the question “why”– why do you want and need to recognize your workforce? This will give you the target to aim for as you develop your individual recognition plans. Here are four things to consider as you determine your recognition objectives:

  1. Your company’s mission, values and culture - The starting point is to align your recognition strategy with your company’s mission, values and culture. This will help you achieve your overall vision and goals (your mission), the actions and behaviors you desire (your values), and reflect who you are as a company (your culture). Do this and all the “pieces” fit together in a cohesive picture and direction. If you don’t, there will be confusion and a lack of focus.

  2. Your business and people objectives - Next, you want to align your recognition strategy with your business and people objectives. For example, do you have objectives based around developing new products to focus your workforce on innovation? Do you have people objectives around developing stronger teams to focus your workforce on collaboration? Consider these when developing your recognition strategy so that it reinforces and drives employees to meet these objectives.

  3. Your business and people challenges- Next, it’s important to align your recognition strategy with any business and people challenges that you may have. For example, is engagement, productivity, and/or retention a problem that could be positively impacted by your recognition plan? Consider these as you develop your strategy and individual programs so that they become a strength and not a weakness.

  4. Your reward strategy - And finally, it’s important to align your recognition strategy with your overall reward strategy. Since recognition is just one element of your rewards, along with pay, benefits, incentives, etc., it’s critical that they all work together, completing the total rewards picture and objectives.

2. Set your recognition principles

Now that you’ve answered the critical “why” question, you have one more thing to do before moving on to build your recognition program, and that is to create your recognition principles. These are what help you define your program, what it stands for, what makes it unique and what it says to your employees and the external marketplace. Finding the right principles will help you create recognition plans which truly drive and support your “why,” aligning with your company’s mission, values and culture. 

You may be wondering, what is the difference between your recognition objectives and principles? Your objectives are high-level, and your principles are the next level. Your principles need to guide the design of your recognition program so that your recognition objectives are met. They are both important, and need to be determined and set up front.

3. Determine the number of levels

It’s now time to start building your recognition program, getting  into the nitty-gritty details by answering the important questions of “what,” “who” and “how.” But before you do this, you need to build the framework of your program using the recognition pyramid model I cover in my book, determining the number of levels that it will have. Think of it as a blueprint for your program – the clearer the levels are in your pyramid, the more successful it will be in helping you achieve your objectives. 

Here are high level definitions for the four levels of the recognition pyramid:

  • The “everyday” level – The bottom level of the pyramid, the widest part, is “everyday” recognition, and is typically given by anyone at any time for day-to-day accomplishments and achievements. For this reason, it touches the most employees as it happens the most frequently. It recognizes moments that, although important, are of low impact, meaning they impact a small number of people and/or customers with minimal impact to them and with little extra work and effort required.

  • The “above and beyond” level – Here is where the pyramid starts getting a bit narrower, symbolizing how fewer employees would typically receive this type of recognition as it’s harder to reach this level of achievement. It recognizes moments that are of higher impact, meaning where employees or teams have excelled, going above and beyond to get the job done. Think of it as a ladder, with employees needing to work that much harder to get to the next rung of the ladder, which in this case is your recognition plan.

  • The “best of the best” level – The top level of the pyramid symbolizes those who went above and beyond the most – often outside of their typical job role – symbolizing performing at the highest level within your organization. It recognizes moments that are of the highest impact, having a larger or more long-term impact on a group or the business, requiring more work and effort to accomplish this. Again, think of it as a ladder, but this time think of the bell at the top that you ring when you get to the very top. 

  • Years of service level – This level of the pyramid as explained earlier sits outside of the primary levels of the pyramid, and is used to recognize employees for hitting certain key tenure milestones. 

Now before you ask me how many levels there should be in your pyramid, let me say that there is no perfect or magic number, the key here is to come up with the number of levels that will ultimately help you meet your recognition objectives. If it takes one level to do this, great! And if it’s four, that’s fine as well. 

4. Design your recognition plans

Once you’ve decided on your recognition levels, the next step is to design your individual recognition plans. To do this, you’ll need to determine the following for each of your recognition levels: 

  • Determine the “what” - Start by answering the question “what,” which will help drive your reward and recognition strategy, as well as send a strong message to your employees about what is appreciated at your company, and how their contributions are valued. There are two parts to this question, which I describe as the “in” and the “out.” The “in” represents what goes into recognition, so what needs to happen to be recognized. The “out” represents what goes out of recognition, so what the person recognized will receive when they are recognized. 

  • Decide the “who” - The next question to answer is the “who,” which is when you decide who will be able to give, receive and approve recognition and recognition awards. Keep in mind that the answers to the questions may differ from recognition plan to recognition plan, which is absolutely fine as the intent and goal of the plans will differ. 

  • Decide the “when” - The final decision you’ll have to make is the “when,” which has to do with when employees will be recognized under each of your recognition plans. As with the “who,” the “when” may differ from recognition plan to recognition plan, which again is absolutely fine.

5 – Decide how your recognition plans will work

The next question to answer is the “how” – how will you ensure that your recognition program and individual recognition plans deliver on your objectives once they’re in place? I want to stress that this is just as important as designing the “right” recognition program, for I’ve seen fantastic ones fail if this isn’t done well. During this step, you’ll need to answer the following four questions:

  1. Manage – how will you manage and operationalize your recognition plan?

  2. Communicate – how will you communicate your recognition plans to ensure your employees engage with them?

  3. Train – how will you train your workforce to ensure they understand and engage with recognition?

  4. Measure – how will you measure your recognition programs to understand if/how they are meeting your objectives?

6 – Design your recognition branding

The final decisions you’ll need to make relate to the branding of your recognition program, which includes the names and designs. Although this isn’t absolutely necessary, I’ve found it to be extremely helpful in making that all-important first impression with your employees, making them decide in an instant whether they’ll engage with your recognition program or not. I actually love working on this step, as it’s where you give your hard work a meaningful and often fun personality. During this step, you’ll need to do the following: 

I hope you find these six steps helpful in building or rebuilding your recognition program and plans. Should you require further details on how to get this right, you can find them in my book (Appreciate it! The Playbook for Employee Recognition), or feel free to contact me directly. All the best!


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