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A beginner’s guide to designing employee recognition programs

10 min read
Employee recognition programs drive engagement and bottom-line business results. Here’s how to design one with your people in mind.

Employees want to be recognised in ways that are as unique as they are – and getting recognition right in a new world of work means taking a tailored and specific approach to your employee recognition program.

If you’re designing a new employee recognition program at your organisation or planning to revamp an existing one, we can help. We’ve taken a closer look at employee recognition programs, why employee recognition programs are important, what makes employee recognition programs great, companies that have the best employee recognition programs, and how to get started designing an employee recognition program at your organisation, below.

What are employee recognition programs?

Employee recognition acknowledges the hard work and accomplishments of the individuals and teams within your organisation.

Employee recognition programs enable leaders to recognise members of their team, peers to recognise one another, as well as cross-team recognition.

Why are employee recognition programs important?

When recognition efforts are thoughtful and genuine, they strengthen the relationship between employees and your organisation. They also help reinforce behaviours that align with your company’s values, mission, vision, and strategy.

Employee recognition programs also:

  • Drive employee engagement. Employees who are highly satisfied with the amount of recognition they receive from their managers tend to stay at consistently high levels of engagement over time.
  • Support employee retention. Employees who feel their work is recognised are less likely to transfer out of their team or leave your organisation. Conversely, if people feel they’re not valued, they won’t be motivated to perform – and they’re more likely to leave.
  • Foster a culture of inclusion by making employees feel seen and fostering a sense of belonging – another top driver of engagement.
  • Encourage high performance. Recognising employees for good work can help keep high performers motivated, engaged in the company vision, and wanting to stay and contribute. This is crucial because not only is top talent hard to come by, it’s also expensive to recruit and hire.
  • Make for happier employees. People want to feel like they’re contributing to their organisation and team goals. So when managers and leaders take the time to demonstrate how much of a measurable impact someone is having on the business, it makes people feel good about what they do.
  • Support a better customer experience. Employees that are recognised – and happy in their jobs – provide a better experience to customers, which helps with customer satisfaction, retention, and bottom-line business results.

What makes an employee recognition program impactful and successful?

The most impactful and successful employee recognition programs aren’t necessarily those that are the most creative or fun, it’s the ones that are consistent, highly visible, and specific to the employee (and action) being recognised.

Here’s what makes recognition programs impactful and successful:

1. Recognition is most impactful to employees when it’s done consistently.

Showing your appreciation is not a one-and-done type of activity. For it to make an impact, recognition should occur with appropriate consistency – not over-done as to lose its efficacy or sincerity – and as close to the event being recognised as possible.

2. Employee recognition programs must be visible to be effective.

This doesn’t necessarily mean publicly visible, some employees won’t respond to being the centre of attention in a public forum, but visible to the individual receiving the recognition. For example, simply saying thank you in person or sending kudos in an email will achieve the desired effect for some. For those employees who appreciate public recognition, sharing the kudos in a public Slack channel or on a team call are also great options.

3. Recognition needs to be specific to your employees’ preferences as to how they like to be recognised.

In other words, match recognition to each individual’s preferred style. Not sure what your employees’ preferences are? Simply ask. Whether it’s during one-on-one conversations or via a team survey, get to know your people and what motivates them; this is a critical component to developing the manager-employee relationship and cultivating trust.

4. Recognition should be specific to the action you’re praising.

Tell employees what you appreciate about their contribution to the company. Be as specific as possible and explain why their work stands out and/or highlight the value of the impact they have brought to the business.

Read more: Your ultimate guide to employee appreciation and recognition

How to get started designing an employee recognition program

Now that you know the value of employee recognition programs, it’s time to take action and build one at your organisation. You might be tempted to start with a quick keyword search; one that will likely reveal lots of conventional employee recognition ideas – happy hours, food trucks, employee of the month awards, and the like – but are they what your employees want?

While these types of recognition are appreciated by some employees, they more often miss the mark.

Here’s how to get started instead:

  • Communicate often. Whether your employees work in the office, from home, or a hybrid of the two, be sure to communicate about recognition with intention and regular frequency. Doing so reinforces the connection your employees feel to your team and your organisation.
  • Establish channels for recognition. Leverage the tools you already use to communicate, such as email, Slack, and team video calls, to recognise employees – no matter where they’re (or you’re) working.
  • Empower employees to recognise each other. Employees that are most satisfied with their organisation’s employee recognition programs are those that are not only aware of how to recognise people, but also who can do the recognising. Your people might not know they can recognise their peers for their good work. Encourage them to recognise their peers via the same channels leaders do.
  • Encourage visibility. For example, send an email kudos and CC the person’s manager to increase the visibility of the recognition. The same goes for tagging employees (and their managers) in a Slack channel.
  • Celebrate key moments in the employee journey. Send gifts on employees’ work anniversaries and birthdays; have treats delivered via a meal delivery service.
  • Host inclusive gatherings, such as a virtual team lunch where everyone gathers via video call and expenses the cost of their lunch.
  • Reward employees with paid time off. Whether it’s a mental health/recharge day or just a surprise day off, PTO is a sure way to make employees feel appreciated.

Keep in mind that non-monetary recognition can have the same effects on engagement and satisfaction as monetary awards. The key to making an impact when you’re recognising employees is to do so in a way that’s specific, relevant, and timely. Indeed, these are goals you should aim for with all feedback – and definitely with recognition.

What companies have great employee recognition programs?

As you build your own employee recognition program, we know it helps to see real-life examples of what you’re hoping to achieve. Here are some companies with great employee recognition programs:


Outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia uses digital feedback to understand its employees, as well as create a culture of recognition; one that’s not just about giving feedback, but one that’s about asking for feedback, as well.

“We’ve learned that when you give someone unsolicited feedback, basically nothing happens,” says Dean Carter, CHRO at Patagonia. “But if you request feedback, the person you request it from is more likely to request feedback themselves. They’re likely to request feedback from three other people. So to create generosity around feedback, don’t encourage people to give feedback; encourage people to ask for feedback.”

This type of peer-to-peer recognition has not only made a big difference to the HR team at Patagonia, but has made an impact on fostering a culture where people opt-in, rather than one that dictates that they must take part.

“We’ve learned that people who are giving feedback digitally are a lot more likely to hit their goals and objectives, and they get a 20% higher bonus than people who aren’t engaging in digital feedback.”

Supplemental reading: Why HR doing things differently is the norm at Patagonia


Another example of a great employee recognition program is Amazon’s annual “Just Do It” award, which is used to publicly recognise employees who go above and beyond to innovate on behalf of customers.

Recipients are presented with the coveted Nike sneaker trophy, which serves as a source of continuing pride for the awardee and motivation for colleagues.


Here at Qualtrics, we align employee recognition with core values of TACOS: Transparent; All-in; Customer obsessed; One team; Scrappy.

If a manager at Qualtrics wants to acknowledge someone for solving a problem in an entrepreneurial way, they might call them “scrappy.” Or, when a team member does everything they can to help a customer smash their targets, they might hail their customer obsession.

This helps to reinforce the kind of behaviours and attitudes we want to see in our people. In turn, it makes our people feel like they’re living the values of the company.

Get started designing a recognition program based on employee feedback [Download Now]