15 Meaningful Employee Recognition Ideas that Work

Jul 25

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Do you know the two main factors that drive employees to stay with their current employers, become active members of their teams, and contribute to the company’s success?

The first is pretty obvious: interest in the work. Seventy-four percent of employees reported that the biggest factor in whether they stay on with a company is whether they’re interested in its mission and enjoy the work.

The second biggest factor, with nearly as many reporting it as critically important, is employee recognition. Sixty-nine percent of employees report that employee recognition is the deciding factor in how engaged they are at work and how loyal they remain to their employer. 

However, coming up with meaningful employee recognition ideas can be tough as they need to be authentic, creative, and timely.

In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about employee recognition, including how to measure whether you’re getting it right, and some fun employee recognition ideas. 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Introduction

Across industries and demographics, one thing that top-performing teams have in common is that they’re intentional about recognizing their employees’ work.

The best teams have employee recognition programs that honor and reward their teammates on a regular basis.

Companies with great employee recognition programs see a number of benefits from this initiative. When employees believe that they’re recognized for their work, they’re 2.7x more likely to be highly engaged in the workplace. 

Employee engagement can have huge impacts on individual and team performance.

Statistics on the benefits of employee recognition
Source: Based on linkage case study

That’s why it’s so important that team managers and C-suite executives make intentional efforts to build an employee appreciation program that engages and celebrates their team members.

What is employee recognition? 🏆 

Employee recognition is the act of acknowledging an employee for what they’ve done to contribute to the success of the team.

Employee recognition can be offered publicly or privately, and with or without physical gestures like gifts or financial bonuses. 

It’s important to note the difference here between employee recognition and employee appreciation.

Employee appreciation celebrates who the employee is:

“John, you are such a dependable employee. Thank you!” 

Employee recognition, on the other hand, celebrates what the employee has done to help the company succeed:

“John, those three days of overtime you worked pulled in $10,000 in revenue. Incredible work!”

These are, of course, over-simplified examples. And it’s important to note that employee appreciation and employee recognition are both important. But the nuance is worth pointing out, and targeting specific employee behaviors or workplace results for recognition will go a long way in increasing engagement. 

How do you measure employee recognition? 📐

Although it can be kind of tricky to wrap your arms around at first, there are actually ways to measure how much your employees are feeling recognized and how effective your employee recognition program is. 

There are a number of ways to measure the overall effectiveness of whether your team recognition ideas are hitting the mark: 

  • Asking for Direct Feedback: There’s no better way to take the pulse of your recognition program than to ask the employees themselves. Check in with your team members on a regular basis and ask how well they feel recognized for their efforts and achievements at work. You can also ask for input about what gifts or gestures would resonate best within an employee recognition program. 
  • Analyzing Retention Rates: Research shows that employees who are recognized consistently are more likely to stay loyal to their organization for longer periods of time. A high retention rate may indicate that your employees feel properly recognized for their performance. A low retention rate, on the other hand, is an almost surefire indicator that it’s time to rethink how to give recognition to employees.  
  • Noting Behavioral Changes: Employees who feel properly recognized are more motivated, more productive, and more satisfied. Take note of any increase (or decrease) in these workplace indicators, as they can give clues as to how engaged your employees really are. 

There are also some tangible metrics that can be measured that will help shed light on how well the employee recognition program runs. Take stock of the following data to track the implementation and effectiveness of your program:

  • Number of managers trained in implementing the recognition program
  • Number of awards, gifts, or other recognitions awarded to employees
  • Number of employees who receive recognition

Dan Silivestru, Co-Founder and CEO of Chocolate Soup, one of Thriver’s service partners, measures employee recognition by its meaningfulness and impact. 

“From our own experience with our previous startups, we know that personalized gifts and handwritten notes are more meaningful and create a bigger impact than a gift card. Gift cards can potentially be a taxable benefit, too. When we work with our clients, we look at the outcomes of the recognition program. Are employees sending an email to say thank you? Are they sharing their recognition with their team? Even better – and much more impactful than employer branding – are they sharing their recognition on social media with their networks?”

– Dan Silivestru, Co-Founder and CEO of Chocolate Soup

Dan’s note about employer branding is an important one. Many companies try to kill two birds with one stone by offering branded SWAG as an employee recognition gift. While this isn’t necessarily a bad way to recognize employees, it’s important to keep in mind that the gift or gesture of recognition should really be about the employee themself – not just an easy opportunity to promote your brand. 

The right way (and wrong way) to do employee recognition 👍👎

Many companies claim that they have effective employee recognition initiatives in place. The truth is, though, that not all employee recognition programs are created equal. There are definitely “Dos” and “Don’ts” when it comes to rewarding your employees for their workplace contributions. 

“Recognition programs fail when employees don’t feel valued and their basic needs aren’t being met,” says Dan. “Giving them a pair of branded socks or a new hoodie doesn’t fix that. When employees don’t feel valued, they’ll go find an employer who truly values them. Employee recognition programs that succeed have covered those core needs. Their employees are well compensated, have the tools they need to do their best work, and have a team where they feel they can truly be their authentic selves.”

The takeaway? There’s two here, actually – employees need to have their basic needs met aside from any employee recognition program, and employee recognition needs to be personalized, authentic, and meaningful.

That being said, there are a number of best practices that will help just about any employee recognition initiative succeed. 

  • Include Everyone: It’s absolutely imperative that each of your employees has an opportunity to participate and be recognized in the program.
  • Be Consistent: Recognize your employees regularly and without hesitation. Something like a once-per-year award ceremony can give the impression that recognition is given just to check a box and say that it’s been done.
  • Personalize Your Recognition: Employees should be recognized for their own unique achievements. Avoid generic or thoughtless recognition, or giving multiple people the same acknowledgement or gift.
  • Make It More Than Money: While it’s true that money is a virtually universally-appreciated gift, that’s not always what recognition is all about. Giving someone an extra paycheck every three months can come across as somewhat cold and insincere (regardless of how much the money is sure to be appreciated). As Dan Silivestru states, personalized gestures go a very long way in helping employees feel recognized as part of a broader recognition effort. 

15 Employee recognition ideas

It can feel overwhelming to choose employee recognition ideas that speak to the heart. Here are 15 of our favorite ideas on how to recognize employees. The ideas cover a wide range of budgets, time commitments, and workplace demographics. 

Happy employees smiling and hugging each other

1. Kudos Corner 🙌

Here’s an easy (and free) way to keep employee recognition rolling – set up a “Kudos” Slack channel (or whatever messaging platform you use) where your employees can go to drop a quick acknowledgement or celebration for their fellow colleagues. This is also a great way to keep morale up throughout the busy work week. 

2. Gift Boxes 🎁

Gift boxes are a surprisingly creative employee recognition idea. A gift box can include just about anything your employees might love – everything from gourmet treats and snacks, to SWAG and luxury soaps. They’re easy to personalize and are sure to brighten up anyone’s day.

3. Social Media Shoutout 📱

The best kind of recognition is public. And what better way to share how awesome your employees are than by shouting it from the proverbial rooftop of social media? 

If a member of your team has been really going the extra mile, or crushed a recent project or goal, go ahead and tell the world. Post about their accomplishments and what they bring to the team on your company’s Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Just make sure you have their permission first. 

4. Wellness Activities 💆

One way to help employees feel recognized for their efforts is to invest in their wellness on their behalf. 

Planned wellness activities can show your employees that you notice how hard they work, and that they deserve time and space to take care of themselves, too. Wellness packages might include a yoga mat + free yoga class, a meditation experience, or a free massage. 

5. Professional Development 💡

Some careers require that employees continue their education in order to be promoted or earn a raise. But training can be expensive and time-consuming. 

Employers can show how much they recognize this effort by planning, paying for, and arranging logistics for employee professional development. Go the extra mile by allowing employees to choose their own training – options range from leadership classes, communication training, and creativity workshops.

6. Gift of Time ⌛

Here’s another easy and free employee recognition idea: time off. Gift outstanding employees hours or even days off to celebrate extraordinary effort and accomplishment. Your employees will appreciate the gesture and acknowledgement of their need to decompress, and they’ll come back to the office rejuvenated and ready to keep doing great work. 

7. Happy Hour 🍸

Team happy hour is another universally-loved employee recognition program idea, and it’s come a long way from the standard Thursday night meet-up at the local dive bar. Treat your employees to celebrate their achievements with happy hour options like Paint & Sip, a mixology class, or a brewery tour. 

8. Secret Santa Recognition Program 🎅

For ongoing employee recognition, you might consider setting up a “Secret Santa” type program, where employees are assigned other teammates to acknowledge and recognize. 

Not only is this a great way for employees to feel recognized, but it’s also a great exercise in peer-to-peer recognition and team-building.

9. LinkedIn Level-Up 🌟

If your employees are really going above and beyond in their professional contributions, let the world know on LinkedIn. Some employers are hesitant to go this route, because they think it might give the impression that they’re encouraging job-seeking elsewhere, but this idea can actually have the opposite effect. 

After all, why would an employee leave a team where their talents and achievements are celebrated and bragged about? 

10. Plants 🪴

Who doesn’t love a new indoor plant? Accompanied by a handwritten personalized note, a new plant makes for a great employee appreciation gift. Employees will be reminded of how much they’re celebrated every time they see the plant on their desk. 

11. Team Lunch 🥘

Lunch on the house is a great way to show your employees recognition for all the little things they do throughout the day to keep the team moving. There’s no limit to the culinary or budgetary options you can choose from. 

To really hit it out of the park, make it a recurring thing once or twice a month. 

12. SWAG 🧢

Although we’ve given SWAG a bit of a hard time in this article, it can still be an appropriate option for employee recognition – if you do it right. 

Don’t use SWAG as an excuse to get your brand out there. If you’re going the SWAG route, make sure the gift is something really awesome. Branded earbuds or a portable speaker, for example, are solid “upscale” choices that are functional for just about everyone. 

13. Celebration 🎉

For a team that went above and beyond to complete a project or meet a milestone, you could go all out and plan a celebratory bash to recognize their efforts. Events like food tours, garden parties, or even Wine & Whiskey Disco are great ways to try something new and treat your employees to something they might not have otherwise tried. 

14. Handwritten Note 📝

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with offering your employees recognition through a simple handwritten card or note. In fact, assuming the note is highly personalized and heartfelt, this kind of gesture goes a much longer way than yet another company hoodie. 

15. Retreat ☀️

For teams who need to decompress after putting in 100%, a company retreat is a great option for employee recognition. Many retreat sites offer end-to-end planning, if you choose, to take some of the weight off of logistics and allow managers and HR to enjoy the experience, too. 

Ultimately, says Dan, “the best types of recognition are personalized gifts that celebrate personal and professional milestones. Employees want to share their work lives with their family and friends – and also share their personal lives with coworkers. Giving them recognition gifts that show who they are inside and outside of the workplace accomplishes both.”

Keep those thoughts in mind as you develop your recognition program.

Conclusion 

When it comes to employee recognition ideas, it’s perfectly okay to adopt the mentality “it’s the thought that counts.”

Recognition ideas don’t have to be flashy or expensive – it’s the personalization that really makes the difference. 

We couldn’t agree more with Dan as he sum up his thoughts on employee recognition: “It always comes down to one thing – make it as personal and as meaningful as possible. No one really wants more SWAG. It’s great for major company milestones or if an organization rebrands, but if you’re looking to truly recognize someone, do it with something that shows you put thought and care into the gift. I always say that you need to put the same thought into an employee recognition gift as you would for a friend or family member.”

For even more ideas on creative and personalized employee recognition gifts, check out the Thriver marketplace. Each of our providers has been thoroughly vetted for outstanding customer experience, and Thriver’s Culture Experts are on standby to help you plan your next big event. 

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