An employee recognition program is a proven way to increase engagement, boost morale and minimize attrition — when it comes to retaining talent, it’s hard to beat a clever, personalized gesture of appreciation.

However, many recognition efforts come across as inauthentic or even self-serving — trust us, your workers see right through “special rewards” that are tied to making quotas. To prevent your program from suffering that fate, get creative, keep programs timely and tailored to the workplace and have a smart mix of individual and team rewards.

That way, you come across as sincere in your efforts to make employees feel valued.

What Is Employee Recognition?

Employee recognition acknowledges the accomplishments and hard work of individuals, teams and entire workforces within a company. The point is to create a bond between employees and the organization so that everyone feels respected, valued and appreciated. Ideally, rewards both support the work employees are doing and recognize who they are as people while staying true to company values.

Examples of recognition-based awards include peer-to-peer programs where people give kudos to their colleagues, rewards for excellence in customer service based on input from clients and bonuses tied to suggestions that increase revenue or cut costs.

A recognition program is key part of the “retain good people” step in a modern employee experience roadmap.

Key Takeaways

  • Employee recognition programs are designed to acknowledge the accomplishments of people within your organization.
  • The best methods to recognize employees offer regular, immediate and specific feedback.
  • Switching up different ways to recognize employees ensures that your efforts come across as thoughtful, sincere and genuine.

What Is the Best Way to Recognize Employees?

Providing regular, timely, specific feedback is the most effective way to recognize employees. It's not enough to demonstrate appreciation to everyone once a year, though an all-staff offsite is great for esprit de corps. Instead, recognition needs to be given regularly, whether that's weekly, monthly or quarterly, and it should happen as soon as possible after the event that spurred the salute.

Additionally, ensure that written recognition and any gift or monetary reward is relevant to the employee's actions, preferences and values.

What Should Employees Be Recognized For?

While it would be nice to recognize everything your employees do, too many blanket kudos will come across as inauthentic and formulaic. Instead, take the time to recognize both large and small achievements through formal and informal methods. The goal is to communicate the value of employee achievements.

Recognize employees for:

  • Taking initiative, such as solving problems outside of their job functions and developing new systems or processes.
  • Charitable efforts, both internal and in the community at large.
  • Raising the morale of their teams.
  • High-quality work that attracts positive customer feedback or reduces costs/improves products and services.
  • Their skills, mentorship and thought leadership efforts.

Note that it’s important to measure the results of your program so you can fine-tune recognition efforts. The most efficient way to gather data is to add “employee satisfaction ratings” as an element of manager evaluations within your human resources management system (HRMS).

An HRMS is also where compensation planning, attendance, goals and learning reside — all four are elements of a recognition program.

50 Thoughtful Employee Recognition Ideas for 2021

Meaningful employee recognition comes in a variety of forms, both formal and informal. To ensure your people don't get jaded or find your efforts formulaic, use a mix of recognition types.

When selecting a reward, keep the individual’s personality in mind. Some employees love recognition-based rewards where they're publicly thanked, like on social media or in a newsletter. Others prefer to stay out of the limelight and appreciate lower-key rewards, like a gift card for a dinner out with family.

Mix and match our employee recognition ideas to create a thoughtful program that aligns with company values and meets employee needs.

1. Surprise employees with lunch or sweet treats.

Providing meals on busy workdays shows your employees you're thinking about them and appreciate their discretionary efforts. You don't have to get extravagant — it can be as simple as ordering pizzas or leaving snacks in the common area. If you plan ahead, there are subscription services, such as SnackNation and Eat Club, that will deliver munchies and let employees order their preferred meals.

2. Celebrate birthdays.

Employees who don't mind public gestures will enjoy celebrating their birthdays. Ask a manager to bring a cake for the team to share, send a gift or give that person a day off. Since there’s an app for everything nowadays, check out Bonusly or to automate birthday reminders and rewards.

3. Recognize employees on social media.

Giving employees a shout out on company social media feeds is a simple way to thank them publicly. Share a shout out on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or wherever your company has a social media presence. Encourage clients and colleagues to add positive comments. As a bonus, you’re putting a human face on your company for customers and social followers.

4. Offer extended breaks.

Rewarding employees with longer breaks is a simple way to recognize their hard work. Depending on your company's structure, consider providing an extended lunch break for individuals or teams on certain days. Don't forget to ensure someone can cover if, for example, that employee is in a customer service role.

5. Support sabbaticals for long-term employees.

Sabbatical leaves aren’t just for academia. By offering sabbaticals at, say, five, seven and 10 years with the company, you enable your most senior employees to pursue personal causes or interests, such as taking a class, traveling, doing a service gig with a charity, writing a book or volunteering.

6. Pass out a rotating trophy.

Purchase or create a fun trophy — think a plastic superhero figurine, stuffed animal, even a life-size cardboard cutout of the CEO — that you can pass around the company as someone new is recognized. Give it to an employee who has demonstrated excellence, such as behavior that aligns with company values, and let them keep it at their desk for a week or another predetermined period.

Make sure that the employee hands off the trophy to the next deserving staffer. When recognizing the employee, explain what the trophy stands for and the specific action they're being recognized for.

7. Host an Employee Appreciation Day.

The first Friday of March is National Employee Appreciation Day. You can use this day or any other one of your choice to host an appreciation day to publicly show your team you care. Ideas include an experiential day trip with team-building activities or an awards ceremony recognizing major accomplishments or years of service to the organization. For other ideas, ask your employees what would make them feel appreciated.

8. Provide professional development opportunities.

Encouraging your employees to further their professional development shows them that leaders care about their careers and benefits the company. Consider offering stipends to complete post-secondary education, covering professional certification courses, purchasing a corporate MasterClass subscription or bringing in a service such as wiseHer, which provides on-demand expert advice and education.

9. Celebrate the small, daily wins.

Follow our advice about being timely by starting all meetings with recognition of recent employee or team wins; it’s a great way to boost morale. Individual managers should take the lead here.

10. Create an employee wall of fame.

A wall of fame can be as simple as creating a space where you put up photos of employees who have done exceptionally well — include what specific action they've taken to garner this recognition.

For companies that work mostly virtually, the wall doesn’t need to be physical. A page on your in-house or, if appropriate, customer-facing site can highlight employees for a variety of accomplishments. Encourage involvement from employees by asking them to nominate co-workers.

11. Send a card.

A handwritten thank-you note is a simple gesture that goes a long way. Receiving a card is memorable, and it’s a physical keepsake. Send cards to employees’ home addresses or leave them on their desks. Ordering branded cards can be a nice touch.

What should you write for employee recognition? When penning a thank-you note, be specific as to what you’re thanking the employee for and note some specific ways you appreciate their work.

12. Schedule a hackathon.

A hackathon is an event lasting a day or two during which employees from different teams come together to brainstorm and develop something — new products or services, an ad campaign or a customer service initiative.

A twist: Dedicate the hackathon to helping a deserving customer or nonprofit.

Rewarding employees this way gives them an opportunity to break out of their routines, work with colleagues from different departments and contribute to the company’s or customer/nonprofit’s success. There are plenty of guides to running a successful hackathon; set your mission and ground rules and watch the innovation flow.

13. Implement a peer-recognition program.

As meaningful as recognition from management is, people often appreciate kudos from colleagues even more. Implementing a formal program for employees to show appreciation and recognition ensures that feedback is provided more regularly. Your human capital management (HCM) software may offer the ability for employees to submit peer recognition.

14. Conduct town hall meetings.

Regular, open communication between senior leaders and employees is an important factor in minimizing turnover. Town hall meetings are a great way to encourage open dialogue between executive decision-makers and their staffs. The goal is to communicate strategy, show employees why certain decisions have been made and offer employees a chance to provide honest feedback.

Hosting regular town hall meetings sends the message to employees that the company cares enough to get their insights and that their opinions matter. A largely remote workforce can still get together using today’s advanced collaboration tools.

15. Organize service days.

Organizing a day where employees can support a good cause helps with team-building and provides a break from the office. It could be a hackathon, as discussed, or teams could work with groups like Habitat for Humanity or local charities to serve meals, sort donations or tutor kids. Paying employees for the day and potentially making a cash or in-kind donation to the charity shows that the company cares about more than the bottom line.

16. Give employees a day off to volunteer.

Instead of or in addition to a companywide day of service, many companies allow employees to take a paid day off each year to volunteer at the nonprofit organizations of their choice. Work with HR to ensure there is a way to manage days off effectively, such as asking employees to note the exact charity and activity they'll participate in. Again, consider an in-kind or financial contribution to honor the employee’s efforts.

17. Host a private lunch.

Employees who aren't fans of public recognition might prefer being taken out to a private lunch with a senior member of the organization or their direct supervisors. This one-on-one time can foster meaningful connections and keep executives attuned to the workforce.

18. Provide gift cards or discount programs.

Giving gift cards can help bypass some of the complexities that come with cash incentives, though they may still be considered taxable income. Allow employees to choose the retailer they like the most to ensure they'll enjoy their rewards. Or, enroll your company in an employee discount program like those from Working Advantage, Entertainment Benefits Group or Next Jump. These offer great prices on tickets and discounts with merchant partners.

19. Provide teams with a discretionary rewards budget.

Instead of allowing only managers to approve expenditures for employee recognition efforts, give each team or employee a modest budget to recognize fellow employees with a gift or group dinner or happy hour. Establish guidelines, such as what might count as an occasion to purchase a gift, what may be taxable and so must be cleared by finance and how to keep track of spending so they can navigate your expense management system.

20. Share positive customer feedback companywide.

When customers or vendors shower employees with praise, share it throughout the company. You could do this by putting up a display similar to the employee wall of fame or sharing compliments on social media or in companywide memos or newsletters.

21. Publicize good deeds done for the community.

When employees do good in the community or go above and beyond for a customer, feature them on your website, or even in an advertisement for the company.

22. Treat employees and their families to an offsite event.

An annual companywide outing helps workers get to know each other outside of work and offers a chance to relax and recharge. An offsite doesn’t need to be an elaborate outing to a resort — even a cookout at a local park will make employees feel appreciated.

23. Host a wellness day or program.

Attention to employee health and well-being is a top talent management trend for 2021. Common workplace health and well-being benefits include subsidies for gym memberships and increased mental health coverage. On a smaller scale, a spa or wellness day offers employees a chance to relax and feel rejuvenated without spending the kind of money required for a major offsite. If you can't afford to book a spa outing, consider hosting one at your office. Hire massage therapists, nail technicians or yoga instructors to create a mini spa experience without the hefty price tag.

24. Give out DIY certificates.

While a gift card could raise tax implications, a voucher for a half-day off or a free lunch at the cafeteria is an inexpensive way to provide recognition.

25. Implement an employee recognition parking program.

Reserving a few premium parking spots for employees who have done exceptional work is a public reward. Your company can go so far as to decorate the space or put up a sign indicating the parking spot's purpose.

For those who use public transportation, companies can offer a monthly pass.

26. Host brainstorm sessions outside the office.

This isn’t an outing — it’s a meeting, just not in your offices. A change of scenery can often boost productivity and engagement. Let your employees know in advance what you hope to accomplish and what they’re expected to contribute so they can prepare. Places to host such days include a private room at a restaurant or hotel or even a movie theater — any location that offers privacy and A/V support.

27. Give thanks from senior management.

Workers at larger corporations may not have direct lines of communication with senior leaders. That's why it can feel special for an executive to formally recognize employees and deliver a heartfelt message. This can come in the form of a phone call, prerecorded video or handwritten note. Just make it personal.

28. Gamify the workplace.

Gamification can work well as a productivity and motivation tool, giving employees a fun way to hit milestones or complete training. Gamification is all about moving a boring process into an interactive format that uses points, levels, rewards and other gaming mechanisms to motivate employees. Again, there are apps for this, including Edgagement, Hoopla and Gametize.

29. Write a LinkedIn recommendation.

Having a leader write a recommendation on LinkedIn can increase employee loyalty because you're publicly demonstrating your confidence in that person. It can make employees feel deeply valued.

30. Offer monetary support for employee commutes.

Commuting can easily be a large expense, especially if employees live far away or your HQ is in a city with significant traffic. Instead of offering an occasional reward, like a dedicated parking space, provide a small stipend for gas or subsidize individuals who choose to carpool.

31. Provide free parking.

Parking may be scarce depending on where your office is located. If your building doesn't have private parking available, paying for reserved spaces in a public lot will earn praise from employees who hate the thought of paying to park their vehicles at work. But make sure you don’t disincentivize carpooling or use of public transportation.

32. Hire food trucks.

If you don’t have a cafeteria or variety of local lunch spots, solving the problem of where to go for lunch will go a long way to winning brownie points. Options include hiring a food truck or bringing in a caterer. Do so on a regular basis and you may be able to negotiate a discount with the vendor. The Roaming Hunger app will connect you with local food trucks across North America; also check for apps that cover your local area.

33. Give employees a shorter workday.

Rewarding employees with the ability to finish their workdays early may be an alternative to offering extra breaks. It gives employees an incentive to be more productive in meeting their targets or completing their essential tasks while still being paid the same. Many companies, for example, offer summer hours where employees can leave a few hours early on Fridays from Memorial to Labor day with manager approval.

34. Offer late starts.

Similar to shorter workdays, you can reward employees who have done exceptional work by allowing them to come in late. It's a fairly simple gesture that you can implement successfully, assuming there's a system to handle the temporary staffing shortfall.

For both of these items, the point is giving workers flexibility in their working hours.

35. Give company swag.

People love free stuff, and swag is no exception. Don't skimp on quality. Order items that are useful or that employees are sure to like, like wireless earbuds, water bottles, phone covers and high-quality apparel.

36. Trick out your break room.

A break room should be a place where employees can rest and recharge, so a clean and inviting environment is a must. Depending on budget, you can upgrade the furniture and appliances, add fun additions like a library or a game console and even a snack station.

37. Find concrete ways to show staff their positive impact.

Find ways to formally show your staff how their actions have directly and positively impacted the company, customers and the community as a whole. Perhaps it's showing the amount they've donated collectively to a nonprofit or how, for example, a specific project helped to increase revenue.

38. Recognize achievements outside of work.

Your employees have outside interests. In addition to professional achievements, recognizing personal successes shows that you care about employees as a whole person, and not just what they do for the company.

39. Start a formal mentoring program.

When implemented correctly, mentoring programs give those who mentor a sense of accomplishment and shows mentees that someone cares about them at the company. Or, look outward and partner with an organization like Mentoring Minds to help employees share their expertise outside the company.

40. Recognize work anniversaries.

Companies with high turnover might want to recognize yearly anniversaries. Reward people for staying by formally recognizing their work anniversaries and paying a bonus that grows larger every year. Maybe Year 1 is 2% of salary, and that grows a point or two every year.

41. Feature employee thought leadership.

If your company has a blog, open up the opportunity for employees to contribute content. Or, maybe a customer service expert has product insights to share with the sales or R&D team. An internal newsletter featuring employee insights lets people share their know-how.

Also consider podcasts by marketing leads, lunch-and-learn sessions by IT experts on a variety of topics, even a speaking gig at a corporate event your company is hosting or sponsoring.

42. Offer a choice of experiential rewards.

Pricier tiered rewards can make top-performing talent feel appreciated for their extra efforts. Experiential rewards such as flying lessons or a wine tasting tour are a level up from items like gift cards, and employees are more likely to remember them.

43. Leave small notes.

Leaving thoughtful sticky notes on a colleague's keyboard, mug or desk is a small but pleasant gesture that shows others are thinking of them.

44. Pledge or match donations to an employee's chosen charity.

Companies can pledge a predetermined amount to donate to an employee's preferred charity — an alternative to service days or giving time off to volunteer. Set guidelines to ensure it's a legitimate and reputable charity, and collect receipts from nonprofits for tax purposes.

45. Give personalized swag.

Personalized swag takes giving away company-branded swag one step further. The more creative these items are, the more memorable they'll be. Some ideas include unique signs for their desks, hand-painted portraits of employees or engraved mugs.

46. Recognize employee skills.

Recognizing skills is just as important as calling out employee achievements. Take a restaurant server who’s very knowledgeable about wines and might be a flight risk given high restaurant turnover. Invite her to give a talk to colleagues, or consider covering the cost of a sommelier course so she sees a growth path. The idea is that nurturing skills encourages employees to work to their full potential. Companies can go so far as to give recognition awards for various skills they hope to cultivate — examples include public speaking, creating effective systems or learning a new software system well enough to be a designated “power user.”

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47. Host a drawing.

Host a lunch or meeting where employees' names will be drawn out of a hat to receive a reward. These names can come from peer nominations — the more times someone is nominated, the more entries they'll get, increasing their chances of winning.

48. Start a weekly team breakfast or lunch.

It can be in the form of bagels on Friday, tacos every other Tuesday or an offsite lunch at the end of each quarter. The point is to be predictable so that employees can look forward to getting together.

49. Publish a yearbook.

Creating a yearbook is a permanent way to showcase employees for their work over the last 12 months. Get creative — it can be a homage to a traditional high school yearbook where employees can add their favorite quotes or memories from the past year.

50. Provide monetary rewards for suggestions that pay off.

Your employees are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of the business and are a great source for suggestions. Maybe a warehouse employee comes up with a more efficient way to do inventory that saves $3,000 in contractor costs, or an HR manager devises a better employee onboarding process that reduces new-worker attrition by 15%. Managers can work with finance to estimate the positive impact on revenue and reward the big thinker with a bonus representing 10% of the first year’s savings. When employees are incentivized to drive out costs and increase efficiency, it’s a win/win.

Recognizing and rewarding your employees is about balancing formal and informal systems while finding thoughtful ways to show appreciation. The point is to connect with everyone as humans so that employees feel respected, trusted and encouraged to push out of their comfort zones.

While striking this balance may feel challenging, being patient and implementing feedback on employee recognition ideas will pay off in worker satisfaction. Great talent management processes are agile, and having the right human resource systems in place gives companies the ability to quickly adjust to the workforce’s shifting needs, and in the process play an important role in building talented and resilient businesses.