Workplace Wellbeing

Why Employee Recognition is an Important Part of a Thriving Workplace

From understanding the nuances between recognition and rewards to crafting personalized strategies, learn how to foster a motivated and engaged workforce.

Written by
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Dr. Amy Marschall
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
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Two men clapping to congratulate a work colleague

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    When an employer’s attempt to show appreciation to their employees misses the mark, it often goes viral—like the hospital gifting nurses pet rocks for Nurses Week. 

    Employees who feel recognized and rewarded by leadership work harder and are more likely to stay with their company, but when recognition initiatives fall short, they can do more harm than no initiative at all.

    Here are the most common mistakes employers make in attempting to recognize and reward their employees, and how you can retain top talents through highly effective initiatives.

    Employee recognition vs. rewards

    Employers can use both recognition and rewards to communicate appreciation to employees. While these two approaches share the common goal of expressing gratitude and honoring exemplary efforts, they possess distinct characteristics.

    Recognition is acknowledgment and praise for an accomplishment or achievement. It takes the form of verbal compliments, praise, and awards—all of which celebrate a job well done.

    On the other hand, rewards involve tangible offerings given to reinforce positive work performance. This category encompasses monetary bonuses, trips, or physical prizes.

    Both recognition and rewards serve as powerful indicators of an employee’s value within an organization. Considering that individuals are motivated by various forms of reinforcement, it’s beneficial to diversify how employees are recognized and rewarded, catering to each individual’s unique preferences and inspirations.

    What are the benefits of employee recognition and rewards?

    In the wake of recent trends like the Hidden Resignation and quiet quitting, employers have realized the need to cultivate a positive workplace to motivate and retain their employees. Within this framework, rewards and recognition stand as pivotal pillars.

    When employees know they will be recognized or rewarded for good work, they are more inclined to do good work and less inclined to look for other jobs. They feel valued, which fosters loyalty. Additionally, they trust management to treat them well, which improves morale.

    In addition to creating a positive work culture, rewards and recognition nurture positive communication. When management points out and reinforces good work, it lets employees know what they have done well and what is expected of them in their role.

    Good work often goes unnoticed. A wise character said on Futurama, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” We are more inclined to notice mistakes and shortcomings than a job well done. Because of this, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of punishing and reprimanding rather than rewarding.

    Employees who only encounter critiques may feel frustrated or inadequate, hampering their motivation to improve. Furthermore, focusing only on shortcomings lacks constructive value. They will hear what they shouldn’t do, but moving forward is challenging without knowing what they need to do differently.

    What does recognition mean in the workplace?

    Employee recognition includes structured, formal gestures of appreciation and informal yet impactful positive feedback from leadership. This approach allows managers to acknowledge specific achievements, positive attitudes, motivation, teamwork, and other areas where an employee excels.

    When an employees’ work is recognized, they often feel more confident in their abilities and motivated to consistently deliver exceptional work for the organization. Since confident, motivated employees stick around, recognition is an important part of retaining good people in your organization.

    Common mistakes to avoid in employee recognition initiatives

    Even employers with the best intentions can stumble in the realm of employee recognition. Common mistakes to avoid when implementing employee recognition initiatives include:

    • Favoritism: While certain employees may exhibit unique strengths, it’s important to recognize each individual’s distinctive strengths. Overlooking some while repeatedly recognizing others can inadvertently foster inequity.
    • Sole focus on output: While recognizing performance is important, it’s not the sole aspect of employee recognition. Even with projects that don’t yield anticipated outcomes, recognizing diligence and dedication contributes to a more comprehensive approach. A positive work culture extends beyond productivity, encompassing attributes like teamwork and peer support.
    • Scheduled recognition: Although scheduled recognition aids in ensuring consistency, longer intervals between awards, such as annual or quarterly, can lessen their impact due to the passage of time.
    • Vague and impersonal recognition: To avoid favoritism, employers might be tempted to recognize all employees similarly. However, this approach lacks authenticity and fails to reinforce each individual’s unique strengths.
    • Competitive recognition: Initiatives like “Employee of the Month” can inadvertently breed employee competition, potentially undermining teamwork and collaborative dynamics.

    Informal employee recognition

    When an employee demonstrates good work, prompt acknowledgment is invaluable. Informal recognition can occur at any time and doesn’t require planning. 

    Leaders can informally recognize employees in many ways, including:

    • Shout outs: A simple yet impact strategy involves publicly celebrating an employee’s achievements during a meeting or through a team-wide email. Considering individual preferences is important, as some might prefer a more private approach.
    • Private notes: A personalized note, message, or email is a direct and sincere way to highlight an employee’s exceptional work.
    • One-on-ones: Most people associate being called into their boss’s office with getting into trouble. Your workplace can flip this culture by calling people in to praise a job well done.
    • Colleague feedback: Recognition doesn’t solely rest with management. Encourage employees to identify and appreciate their colleagues’ achievements. This inclusive approach uplifts those receiving praise and those extending acknowledgment.

    Formal employee recognition

    Since it can be easy to fall into a rut and forget to recognize good work, scheduling specific initiatives and times to recognize employees is an important part of recognition. Establishing dedicated times for recognition not only helps to avoid oversight, but also mitigates the risk of favoritism. 

    Formal recognition can take many different forms:

    • Awards: Implementing regular award ceremonies serves as a structured platform to celebrate employees’ contributions. Quarterly or annual awards, aligned with different company values, can spotlight those who embody the desired cultural traits.
    • Performance reviews: Incorporating recognition and positive feedback into performance reviews elevates these assessments beyond mere evaluation. Acknowledging an employee’s strengths underscores their value within the organization.
    • Milestone recognition: Paying tribute to significant milestones, such as years of service, underscores the lasting impact of an employee’s dedication. 
    • Events: Crafting team events like team-building retreats or festive gatherings extend tangible appreciation to employees, underlining their integral role in the company’s success.

    What do rewards mean in the workplace?

    Rewards constitute tangible benefits that stem from commendable performance, distinct from explicit acknowledgments of particular achievements. This approach leverages incentives to drive motivation, allowing employees to strive toward desired rewards while affording employers a direct means to exhibit appreciation for exceptional work. 

    Rewards can include monetary bonuses, raises, flexibility in scheduling, physical prizes, or other desirable perks beyond compensation.

    At its core, positive reinforcement draws from behavioral psychology principles. By pairing positive outcomes with desired behaviors, individuals are naturally inclined to repeat those actions. This approach fosters a sense of accomplishment and contentment, promoting a happier and more motivated work environment. 

    Common mistakes to avoid in employee reward initiatives

    While rewards and reinforcement draw on psychological principles, executing these initiatives successfully can be more intricate. Avoiding common pitfalls in rewarding employees is crucial. 

    Here are some prevalent mistakes to steer clear of:

    • One-size-fits-all approach: Recognizing that individual preferences vary widely, avoiding uniform reward systems is essential. Attempting to apply the same rewards universally overlooks employees’ unique motivations and desires.
    • Lack of authenticity: Promising rewards without genuine commitment or investment can ring hollow. Employees are wise and discern insincerity, potentially leading to disillusionment and resentment.
    • Undesirable rewards: Like the hospital that rewarded nurses with pet rocks, undesirable rewards can backfire. Failing to assess employee preferences before selecting rewards risks the unintended consequence of alienating employees with offerings that miss the mark.

    How to effectively reward employees

    Recognizing that diverse individuals derive value from distinct rewards, establishing effective reward initiatives requires dedicated effort and investment. Employers genuinely committed to expressing appreciation through tangible rewards can take specific measures to ensure these initiatives are effective:

    • Seek and act on feedback: Engage employees directly to understand their preferences and desires for rewards. Use this valuable input to design reward programs tailored to your company’s dynamics.
    • Personalize rewards: Acknowledge the diversity of preferences by offering an array of rewards. Empower employees to choose rewards that resonate with them, enhancing the impact of the recognition.
    • Invest in employee rewards: Demonstrating a sincere commitment to employee recognition entails investing in substantial and meaningful rewards. Meager offerings can inadvertently convey a lack of value, while thoughtful rewards underscore their significance.
    • Sustain ongoing rewards: While one-time rewards can boost morale, cultivating lasting motivation involves creating a system where employees can continually earn rewards through sustained effort. This instills a sense of ongoing achievement and dedication.

    Thoughtful recognition and reward initiatives fosters employee well-being

    Rewards and recognition are two important and effective ways to boost morale and show your employees that you appreciate and value them. However, missteps can undermine these efforts. Ineffective or insincere rewards and recognition can inadvertently lead to employees feeling undervalued.

    Fortunately, there is a positive way forward. By embracing targeted, actionable measures, you can genuinely acknowledge and reward your employees, nurturing a culture of collaboration and well-being that brings out their utmost potential.

    Discover five ways to create an environment that makes it easy for all employees to gain the workplace accommodations they need.

    About the Author
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    Dr. Amy Marschall
    Spring Health Provider

    Dr. Amy Marschall is a clinical psychologist licensed in South Dakota, Montana, New York, North Dakota, and Florida. She got her doctorate from the University of Hartford in 2015 and completed her internship at the Psychology Training Consortium, Central Region. She has a full-time clinical private practice, Resiliency Mental Health, where she provides therapy and psychological assessments. She is also a speaker, educator, and author.

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