HR Consulting

How to Develop an Effective Staff Recognition Program


Staff recognition programs can play an important role in helping staff feel valued and improving individual and collective performance. That said, there are a few pitfalls to be wary of. This article provides a few tips to help you on your way to developing and implementing an effective recognition program in your business.

So, you’re taking the plunge and are planning to implement a staff recognition program….great stuff! It seems easy enough – throw out a few bottles of wine or movie tickets, shake a few hands, smile for the camera and you’re done! Happy staff, happy workplace, more productivity and higher profits…hooray!

The bad news is that it’s often just not that easy. Despite positive intentions, staff recognition programs are unfortunately one of those things that can end up being a negative on the business rather than a positive. Staff end up dissatisfied because the “wrong” people get the awards, the “right” people never get them, the “reward” is lousy anyway (how many coffee mugs can a single person use, after all!?), and/or it’s seen as yet another passing fad that staff just need to ride out till it disappears.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Staff recognition programs can indeed be very successful and live up to the expectations that we have of them – staff feeling valued, increased staff satisfaction, a bit of fun AND improved individual and business performance. Here are a few tips to help you on your way;

1. Get staff involved in developing the program – It sounds obvious enough, but it’s rarely done: if you want a program that delivers results, that your staff are comfortable with, that provides the genuine recognition that they want, then get them involved in helping to develop it. Let staff know what you are thinking, ask for a couple of volunteers to help you, and send out the draft program to all staff for comment. What do they think is important and should be recognised (refer point 2 below), what would they value as a form of recognition, how and who will decide who gets recognised? Getting them involved doesn’t mean you need to agree to all of their suggestions (free trips to Fiji for all staff could get expensive after all!), but it is important to genuinely consult and consider their suggestions.

2. Clearly link the recognition criteria to desired behaviours and/or business outcomes – One sure way to get a return on your investment in such a program is to ensure that the criteria on which the recognition is determined are clearly linked to desired behaviours and/or outcomes that are important to your business. What do you need and really value in your employees? What are those core behaviours and outcomes that will ensure your business succeeds? Is it teamwork? Exceptional customer service? Ability to generate sales? Make more widgets more quickly? Exceeding quality standards? The ability to be innovative, look for new ideas and follow them through? Is it the ability to effectively lead a team?

Whatever it is (and it might well be a few things), it is critical that you’re very clear on just what they are, that you communicate them well, and that as best you can you define the nature of the desired performance (eg. How many sales is worthy of recognition? How do we determine exceptional customer service as opposed to the usual standards required? – there may of course remain an element of subjectivity for some elements of your recognition program).

3. Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce the link…then repeat – Once you communicate the desired behaviours and outcomes on which recognition will be based, be sure to constantly reinforce those behaviours and outcomes when actually giving the recognition and communicating it to others. Eg. Jane is receiving recognition for providing exceptional customer service. When communicating, be sure to tell people exactly what the recognition is for and why it constitutes excellent customer service; “Congratulations to Jane who I am pleased to say is receiving recognition for her excellent customer service. Last Wednesday an elderly woman fell over in the store, grazed her leg and dropped all her groceries. Jane immediately called for first aid, stayed with and comforted the woman while she was attended to, called the woman’s son to come and take her home, then repacked all her groceries and had them put in the car for the woman. A great example of how we at XYZ seek to provide exceptional customer service – congratulations and well done Jane!”).

Done well, this is a key point at which you will get a return on your investment: Jane feels terrific, all staff have a great example of just what constitutes exceptional customer service, and hence are clearer about your expectations.

4. Avoid the common pitfalls, for example;

Recognition and/or Reward – Is your program about “recognition” and/or “reward”? If you use the term “reward”, then in my experience people may well expect a tangible (and sometimes large!) reward. My tip is to keep it purely as a recognition program – any gift that comes with it should be regarded as a token or symbol of appreciation rather than a direct reward as such. Cash bonuses, sales commissions and the like are better seen as part of your remuneration system, rather than your recognition system.

Freddo Frogs – handing out a few Freddos at a staff meeting does not in itself a recognition program make! Even worse, don’t single out people, say thanks and give only them a Freddo (yes, this was the practice in one workplace I worked with! Let’s just say the impact was not positive). This may have worked in kindergarten but is not appropriate in the workplace. They are valued staff members, critical to our business success, they are not performing seals!

Reward or Punishment? – Just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so is one person’s reward another person’s punishment. Public acknowledgement and communication is good and will help you get a return on your investment in a recognition program, but dragging the “lucky” recipient up in front all the other staff and asking them to say a few words is not everyone’s cup of tea. If they don’t want to, don’t push it – congratulate them, thank them, tell others exactly what the recognition is for, then leave it at that.

Fair-go for all – ensure your criteria for recognition is inclusive: sure sales are important, but not everybody in your business is in a role where they can get recognition for achieving the most sales. Good recognition programs include a range of behaviours and outcomes that give people in all roles an opportunity to be recognised.

Employee of the Month – whilst McDonalds seem to like it, I suggest steering clear of these sorts of schemes. What if a couple of staff have done great things this month; does one just miss out? What if no-one demonstrates exceptional performance and/or no nominations are received? What message does “sorry, no Employee of the Month” send to staff?

Employee of the Year – Programs that allow for frequent, multiple recognitions are far better than “big bang” recognition for one person once a year.

Winners and Losers – be careful about how you communicate recognition. Just because someone “wins” recognition shouldn’t mean the rest are losers! Be sure to communicate that you appreciate the efforts of everyone, though in this particular instance Jane went “above and beyond” and hence deserves this special recognition.

5. Maintain, then review – Launch your program, ensure it maintains momentum, don’t delegate the task of providing recognition just because you are too busy or have had too much cake, constantly reinforce desired behaviours and outcomes, and then review after 6-12 months. Again, seek staff input to ensure your program is having the desired effect.

6. Don’t give up your day job – An important part of any manager’s job is to provide constant feedback to staff. Just because you’ve launched your whizz-bang recognition program, don’t relinquish your day-to-day role of supporting and encouraging staff. Apart from being common courtesy, a simple “thanks” or “job well done” will still be an important part of your armoury in getting the best out of your staff.

So, Staff Recognition Programs….not as easy as they might first appear, but nonetheless, properly developed and implemented they can be a valuable tool in maximising people performance.