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HR's guide: The best ways to provide rewards & recognition to employees

HR's guide: The best ways to provide rewards & recognition to employees


Are you at risk of coming off as inauthentic with your tokens of appreciation?

With Employee Appreciation Day coming up on 3 March 2023, you may be trying to gather inspiration on the best ways to show some appreciation for your team. 

Done well, employee recognition dramatically helps people feel valued and included in a workplace community. However, when it’s generic, impersonal, or rare, it’s much less likely to hit the mark.

As a study by the O.C.Tanner Institute explains, “done well,” means recognition that is highly integrated into an organisation’s culture. This involves much more than plugging recognition tools into a company’s existing technology —it means ensuring recognition is part of each employee’s everyday experience.

Through years of research, the study has developed eight specific measurements, based on employee perception, to determine the level of recognition integration (RI).

When recognition is integrated, it happens frequently for a variety of accomplishments, large and small, and comes from both leaders and peers. It is personalised for the individual, seen across the organisation, and the programmes and tools to give it are updated often.

Organisations that achieve high RI do an exceptional job of ensuring recognition is embedded into their culture. In that vein, highly integrated recognition has a powerful impact on organisations, increasing the odds of several positive outcomes and decreasing the odds of some negative ones:

  • Great work (+1,181%)
  • High engagement (+784%)
  • Thriving culture (+648%)
  • Employee attrition (–29%)
  • Employee burnout (–80%)

Regrettably, only 21% of workplaces studied worldwide have highly integrated recognition.

So, why do such low numbers remain, even despite the benefits? The answer isn’t as simple as improving recognition programs or tools. An underlying discovery makes it challenging for any organisation to achieve a high RI culture: Memories of recognition experiences from prior workplaces have a profound and enduring influence.

Past experiences with recognition affecting perception 

Past experiences can shape or bias how we perceive current and future ones, even when our situations are different. And this applies to employee recognition as much as any kind of experience.

As elaborated on by O.C Tanner, studies by MIT show that the human brain encodes prior experiences, using them as signals and potentially biasing our perception in existing, new, or uncertain environments. Our brains subconsciously use these memories to create expectations of how things should be. This explains why past recognition experiences shape employees' perceptions and expectations of recognition moving forward.

In the research, employees reported having, on average, four non-monetary and three monetary recognition experiences each year, with 71% saying “not feeling valued” was a significant part of why they left their previous jobs. Only 11% of employees previously worked for a company that scored high in RI.

In line with what was previously mentioned, the data suggests these deficient recognition experiences don’t fade away easily. People who had poor recognition experiences with previous employers have much better odds of reporting several shortcomings in their present environments:

  • Recognition is inauthentic (+355%)
  • The leader is not genuine when giving recognition (+283%)
  • Would prefer not to receive recognition (+427%)

Combatting employees’ previously poor experiences (due to recognition that was infrequent, impersonal, or flawed in any number of ways) is now one more reason organisations need cultures with highly integrated recognition.

It’s also important to note that while cultures with low RI will negatively affect employee perception of recognition in their future jobs, the opposite also stands true. Employees who have worked in cultures with average or high RI are more positive about their current organisations.

This means organisations need to be prepared for employees who come from cultures with high RI if they hope to match or exceed expectations. The research shows employees who experienced high RI in their previous jobs but low (or even average) RI in their current job are more likely to feel recognition at their organisation is inauthentic and meaningless.

This is also true for several cultural perceptions. Employees who experienced high RI in their previous jobs but low RI at their current jobs are typically more pessimistic about aspects of their organisation’s culture.

Frequency for higher recognition integration 

More frequent recognition contributes to high RI by increasing the amount of recognition given, as well as expanding the number of people giving recognition and the reasons for recognition.

Per the study, the benchmark for recognition in cultures with high RI is now at least every other week.

Organisations with low RI show fewer sources (typically leaders and current team members giving recognition), while those with high RI have more (leaders, current and previous team members, and department peers giving recognition). Expanding the eligible sources of recognition improves the frequency, and ultimately, RI.

Organisations with low RI also show disproportionately segmented reasons for recognition, which can significantly impact teams and projects. By contrast, organisations with high RI have more reasons, such as giving extra effort, helping coworkers, delighting customers, improving projects. Providing more reasons and ways to recognise inspires more recognition and increases RI. As the frequency of recognition increases, it also helps ensure employees receive recognition for a wider variety of accomplishments.

Small, frequent recognition more beneficial than big, rare events

Many organisations save their employee recognition for a once-a-year event, like Employee Appreciation Day. Further, when it comes to budgeting, some spend too little, often on small, generic trinkets, while others spend extravagantly— but no more effectively— on cash, gift cards, or awards.

However, research on gift-giving shows that expensive, infrequent gifts do not have the long-term impact one might expect. Smaller gestures given more often, over time, are much more meaningful and valued—especially if they are personalised. The same proves true with recognition.

Frequent, tailored recognition experiences spread throughout the year have a larger, more lasting impact on RI and workplace culture than singular company-wide, all-employee events, no matter how much organisations spend.

Having conducted an experiment on company-wide recognition to determine thresholds of effectiveness,the report discovered that giving a company-wide award with a value of US$5 decreased the probability of engagement and perception of recognition authenticity. On the contrary, an incremental improvement appeared when companies offered awards worth US$50, US$250, and US$500 (although the improvement is smaller at US$500). The study included awards worth US$25 in its pilot, but their impact was not substantively different from that of US$5 awards.

Interestingly, since organisations with high RI give recognition frequently, they already achieve increased engagement and recognition authenticity without needing to spend larger amounts on company-wide recognition. A US$5 award only marginally decreases the likelihood of engagement in cultures with high RI, but the negative impact of a US$5 award is amplified in cultures with low RI. 

Similar results were observed with recognition authenticity. Lower amounts of company-wide giving decrease the likelihood that recognition will be perceived as authentic in low-RI environments. At the same time, the higher amounts of US$250 and US$500 do not considerably improve it.

As such, since organisations with strong RI have invested in holistic, meaningful, and frequent recognition experiences, they seem to be able to invest fewer dollars, per experience, in company-wide recognition and still see a positive effect on outcomes. 

Further, small-dollar awards are insufficient and even counter-productive for company-wide recognition in any culture, with awards worth between US$50 and US$250 being more effective.

Lastly, for organisations with larger budgets (perhaps US$500 per employee for a single event), data indicated that splitting it into two or more recognition moments can have a greater impact than giving it all at once.

To sum it up, establishing and maintaining high RI requires more frequent giving from more sources for more reasons. Organisations can make intentional, straightforward adjustments to their recognition solutions that allow more frequent, meaningful, holistic recognition and ensure all employees feel valued and appreciated — no matter what the employees’ prior recognition experiences.


Per the study's recommendations, organisations that want a culture with integrated recognition and more positive experiences for their people should build the following into their employee recognition strategies.

1. Onboarding experiences that are rich in recognition

Since employees bring their past recognition experiences along with them as they move to a new organisation, onboarding is a perfect opportunity to show appreciation from day one. Unfortunately, less than half (43%) of employees reported an onboarding experience that was more than just a day of orientation and a folder of benefits.

For a successful experience, consider creating a curated, integrated-recognition experience for new employees. According to the research, there seems to be a baseline of onboarding experiences organisations with high RI provide.

Only 33% of employees report receiving a foundational onboarding experience, and even fewer (19%) have experienced the ideal.

Providing opportunities to recognise and be recognised during the onboarding process has both immediate and long-term impacts on employee perception of culture and inclusion.

Onboarding is the perfect time to connect and introduce people to a culture with high RI in positive and memorable ways. It is also a great chance to neutralise prior poor recognition experiences as they start at a new organisation.

Latest data shows that a traditional onboarding experience is suboptimal and ineffective. 

2. More holistic recognition

To ensure recognition is thoroughly integrated, organisations must provide a variety of ways, reasons, and people to give it.

The people should include both leaders and peers across the organisation. Reasons can range from an everyday effort to above-and-beyond work to major achievements to career milestones. When it comes to ways, organisations should give employees a wide selection of methods and tools for recognising, as well as access and authority to them.

The following are the fundamental recognition tools most organisations need to move from low RI to average RI, as suggested:

  • Personalised messages of appreciation
  • Verbal recognition as part of a meeting or gathering of colleagues
  • Online formal recognition platform

For an organisation to move from average RI to high RI, its employee recognition programmes should incorporate the following:

  • Micro-monetary recognition, such as monetary eCards
  • Symbolic awards, particularly for prestigious accomplishments
  • Celebrations that include others being recognised
  • Time for employees to socialise after recognition moments
  • Recognition from customers
  • Recognition tools and solutions embedded within an existing technology ecosystem

3. Targeted recognition training

Not all employees, or even leaders, know how to give recognition as meaningfully as they can. Nor do they completely understand the benefits of it. This means there is a large opportunity to focus resources and training on recognition best practices.

To move from low to average RI, organisations should train senior leaders, frontline leaders, and all team members about the role of recognition, including:

  • Why recognition matters
  • How to personalise recognition in a meaningful way
  • Why recognition is important for both large and small accomplishments
  • Why recognition should be a priority
  • How to give recognition purposefully

To move from average to high RI, organisations should emphasise how to give holistic, personalised recognition, focusing on the impact of recognition and providing guidance for creating meaningful recognition moments for all employees.

These two targeted strategies, along with proper recognition tools, increase the odds of achieving an average RI by 745% and a high RI by 869%. The best employee recognition programmes have resources and training embedded in their tools to ensure leaders and employees create positive recognition experiences in real-time.

Photo / The O.C.Tanner Institute

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