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8 tips for getting your recognition rewards "right"

One of the most challenging (and daunting) parts of designing a recognition program is determining the rewards. Get it right, and you deliver what I call the “appreciation feeling,” get it wrong and . . . . well let’s just say that it’s not the outcome your people and business deserve and need!

Over the years I’ve gotten it both right and wrong, so to help you learn from my mistakes and embrace my successes, let me share with you eight tips:

1. Make it meaningful The first thing to think about is how your rewards can be meaningful, e.g. relevant, important and valuable to the recipient(s). It might seem obvious, of course we want them to be meaningful, but too often companies fail to understand their people and give out awards that lack meaning and thus impact.

Always, always, always, start by listening to and understanding what matters and is meaningful to your employees, and you’ll have a better chance of your rewards being right for them.

For example, at many companies handing out certificates to recognize employees just doesn’t work, with employees not feeling appreciated by this act as it could be deemed a bit old-fashioned. However, at the University of Lincoln, a key part of one of their recognition plans is for their vice-chancellor to present recognition recipients with a certificate during their annual awards ceremony. This has meaning because it is something they do with their students to symbolize their achievements and contributions and thus it delivers the same meaning and impact to their staff. What works for one company or organization might not work for another, which is why it’s important to get feedback from your employees from the start.

2. Connect it to the contribution and impact Build a connection and relationship between the reward you give (or don’t give) and the contribution and impact of the actions and behaviors.

For example, I remember a time when a business partner wanted to give a member of my team $1,000 for the support they had given them during the annual pay review process. By doing this there would have been a disconnect between their actions and the reward, as this was part of their job and thus their efforts and the impact were not above and beyond what was expected. By giving this reward it would have not only sent the wrong message to the employee (and the rest of my team), but it could have caused problems in the future as they would have expected similar rewards for similar actions going forward.

3. Consider the relationships between recognition plans Ask yourself, how do rewards for one recognition plan compare to rewards for another one? These relationships are based on the impact of the actions and behaviors, so it’s important to look at the relative step and relationship from one plan to another. For example, at one company when we looked at the relationships we saw a big jump from one recognition plan to another, so we doubled the reward. However, at the next level plan, we saw a smaller jump, so the reward was only slightly higher. The key here is to understand, map out and then address these “jumps” as you determine your rewards.

4. Consider the relationships to other reward programs The other relationship to consider as you develop your recognition rewards is in respect to your other elements of reward, e.g. pay, bonuses, incentives. The reason I suggest reviewing this is that often I’ve seen companies where the recognition reward is the same if not more than an annual bonus award. In these situations, you need to ask yourself – is the level of contribution for both the same? Often the answer is no, as an annual bonus is for work achieved throughout the year, where a recognition reward is often for a shorter time frame and effort. Bottom line, review them together to ensure they connect, align and fit together into a cohesive total rewards package.

5. Consider offering choice Over the years, more and more companies are offering their employees choice when they receive their recognition awards. The benefits of this is that it lets them decide what will make them feel appreciated, respecting their individual preferences and the overall diversity of your workforce. A common way to do this is with gift cards, vouchers and points through an online recognition platform. This lets your employees decide when and how they want to use them, putting decision-making in their hands. One of my favorite stories about a point system was shared with me by one of my employees. He explained that he had saved up points so he could use them to buy a new pair of shoes, and that every time he wore them they reminded him of all of the people who had recognized him. Love it!

6. Find a balance Besides choice, another key element of effective recognition programs is balance, especially when there’s so much diversity in our workforce and in the work that is being done. And when it comes to recognition rewards, this is absolutely key, trying to strike that perfect balance between financial and non-financial rewards and formal and informal recognition.

7. Do it your own way The next thing to ask yourself is, how can you design recognition rewards in your unique way? In interviewing companies for my books I have collected some great example, here are a few to help and inspire you:

T-shirts – At Nav, a U.S. FinTech company, they give out t-shirts that display the value they are being recognized for. As Levi King, CEO & Co-Founder explained to me, “We’re not a workplace of plaques and certificates, we are t-shirt kind of people.”

Miniature wagon – At Radio Flyer, an American toy company best known for their popular red toy wagon, they give out golden wagons, which are miniature replicas of one of their products, as a way to recognize one another for living their company values. The wagons are passed from one employee to another each month along with a handwritten “you are awesome” note. The recipient of the wagon adds their initials on the bottom of the wagon before passing it onto the next person.

Golden toilet – At Venables Bell & Partner, a U.S. marketing agency, they have a bit of fun with their annual awards, creating ones that are fun and quirky, aligning with their culture. One example is their golden toilet award that is given to the employee who “takes care of shit gracefully and with class,” explained Paul Venables, Founder & CEO, with the winner receiving a full-size golden toilet.

Name a star At Virgin Group, the umbrella group for Virgin businesses, all employees who are recognized as part of their group “Star of the Year” program have a star named after them. This not only creates a lasting memory, but truly makes them feel like a star.

8. Remember, it’s not about the money! Last, but certainly not least, is to make the point that it is never, ever, ever all about the money when it comes to deciding your recognition reward. Keep in mind that the first reward is the reward of being recognized, and then if it’s right, the second reward can have a financial value.


I hope you’ve found these eight tips helpful in determining the “right” rewards to deliver the appreciation feeling at your company. If you’d like to read more about this, as well as other tips and stories relating to recognition, you can read my book titled “Appreciate it! The Playbook for Employee Recognition.”


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