Employee Development

How to build a culture of employee recognition

Ettie Holland By Ettie Holland on 8.09.2016
Employee recognition in practice

The agency recruitment world is an acquired taste, but there’s one thing they do really well: employee recognition.

Like sales, agency recruitment is totally results-orientated and completely quantifiable. That single-mindedness breeds transparency: if you’re succeeding in sales, you’re recognised for that success through commission and/or other incentives.

The same can’t be said for employees in most other disciplines. For most people success isn’t as tangible as it is for salespeople, and recognition suffers as a result.

In fact, comprehensive research suggests that nearly half of workers are unsatisfied with recognition in their workplace. (Sirota Consulting, ‘The Enthusiastic Employee’) .

Why should you care?

You should care because the business costs can be huge. Recognition is a fundamental psychological need. If you don’t recognise your employees’ successes, they won’t feel valued. If they don’t feel valued they’ll be less motivated, less productive and less loyal.

So much so that companies reinvesting less than 1% of their payroll costs into recognising their employees are nearly 80% more likely to suffer financially. (SHRM/Globoforce Employee Recognition Survey)

Poor staff recognition means retention rates suffer. Engagement suffers.

A lack of recognition breeds a lack of accountability, and lack of accountability can destroy an organisation from the inside out. Just look at the VW scandal.

None of this will be news to you.

Most business leaders agree that recognition is important but like all these things, it’s easier said than done. Workforce recognition is still being done exceedingly badly, despite the consensus. It’s still undervalued as a leadership technique. We’re still paying lip service without implementing actionable strategies. And we’re still losing money because of it.

So, without further ado, here are some practical ways to build a recognition culture so you can start boosting employee productivity and morale. You’d be surprised how many organisations are still behind the curve on workforce recognition– don’t let that be you.

Practical strategies to improve employee recognition

Decentralise Responsibility

Smaller companies often tend to be better at recognising their employees, by virtue of their size. The fewer employees you have, the easier it is to give personalised feedback. There’s no reason you can’t replicate these efforts at scale though, by decentralising responsibility for staff recognition.

All too often employee recognition is left to HR, but it should be a front-line responsibility. Rather than an enterprise-wide recognition program, build a series of programs at department or team level. Proactively target managers on their commitment to rewarding and recognising their team and hold them accountable.

Encourage C2C recognition

We tend to think of recognition as being solely hierarchical, but it needn’t be. A word of thanks from above can go a long way, but so can colleague-to-colleague recognition. You could introduce a basic message board where employees can nominate colleagues for a job well done, for instance, anonymously or not.

Celebrate Small Wins

Employees celebrating

Organisations make the mistake of being overly regimented about employee recognition. A formal program can be a really good thing, but should be complimented by an informal, ad hoc approach that centres on small wins.

Big wins are easy to celebrate, but they’re fewer and further between – leaving lots of dead time for employees to become disenfranchised and unmotivated.

Instead, look at the small successes that contribute to the overarching strategic goals; £0.5M revenue-growth starts with that new account. Give your employees a roadmap for success, from the ground up. A great client call. A productive business development session. A cold email that generates leads. Don’t wait for your end-of-years; an ad hoc word of praise can be invaluable.

Create recognition feedback loops

Hierarchical reporting structclass="tz-padding-bottom"ures exist so senior decision-makers can understand business performance, but this information is often purely performance-focussed. The leadership team will generally only find out that Sales is doing well, not that Shari secured that new account or Jack doubled his personal revenue targets.

A simple change here can reap big rewards. Ask managers to include a summary of their biggest wins in their reports, so these individuals can be personally recognised for their successes. Director-down recognition can be incredibly powerful.


The above point isn’t to suggest you should praise your team endlessly, despite what the millennial stereotype would have you believe. “Job well done Aaron, you’re on time for work!” isn’t quite along the right lines.

Rather, effective employee recognition is about finding the counterpoint between strategy and implementation. Recognition is meaningful when it’s framed in terms of the bigger picture. People’s jobs are meaningful when they’re framed in terms of the bigger picture.

Make your team understand how they contribute to the whole and you’re making their successes feel significant. That’s the value of proper staff recognition, as opposed to random affirmation.

Strike the appropriate balance

The key to an effective employee recognition program is to ensure the link between recognition and reward is appropriate. Recognition is about balance – too much, and you devalue success. Too little, and you court failure.

It’s easier said than done, and there’s no definitive answer. The most effective way to ensure you striking the right balance is to start at the front-line. Don’t just guess: find out what your workforce think and leverage that insight accordingly.

Cater to individuality


When it comes to rewards, even the deepest pockets can’t make up for a deep understanding of your employees’ drivers. There’s no one-size-fits-all here; one person’s reward is another person’s rubbish.

Maybe a bonus would make Ahmed’s day, but Chris would love an extra day’s holiday. An incentive trip abroad might be Sally’s dream reward, while John hankers after a hand-carved plaque. The better you understand your employees’ triggers, the better placed you are to say thank you in a meaningful way.

You could consider offering employees a ‘menu’ of rewards to choose from, so you know you’re always hitting the mark.

Balance public and private

Public acknowledgement can be a powerful tool. Even something as simple as a company-wide email can instil a strong sense of pride, and takes little effort to implement.

At the same time, a private word of thanks can feel particularly personal and can add variety. Aim for a mixture of public and private feedback so recognition always feels authentic, not rehearsed. The key to building a genuine culture of recognition is to spot and seize natural opportunities for praise – not manufacture them.

Encourage skills sharing

An organisation’s ability to learn is a primary differentiator of success, so skills sharing programs can offer real competitive advantage. This is a win/win solution in terms of employee recognition too, allowing you to highlight and capitalise on employees’ core strengths.

Set up informal and formal sessions where more experienced employees can share their skills with others, be that through group training or through mentorship. Flattery will get you everywhere.

Actively recognising employees might be the more natural domain of sales, but all departments in all organisations should heed the same advice. Workforce recognition is too important to ignore. Businesses that embrace employee recognition will carve themselves a competitive edge; those who won’t will struggle to keep up. Any ambitious growth strategy must begin at home.

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