Research from Eagle Hill Consulting reveals that 37% of employees are recognized for good work once a year or less. With recognition as a basic human need—and a driver of performance and engagement—how can organizations build employee recognition programs in easy and affordable ways?
Organizations are going to great lengths to engage, inspire, and retain talent amid growing concerns over employee burnout, quiet quitting, talent shortages, and lean teams. They’re expanding benefits programs, reinventing performance management, providing new perks, and raising pay. But as organizations tighten their purse strings in a weakening economy, it will be increasingly difficult to sustain recognizing people with “programs, perks, and pay.”
Compensation matters … but so does feeling seen
Creating a culture of recognition is one of the most effective and least expensive ways to keep talent. Recognition is a basic human need and studies have linked it to higher productivity and discretionary effort, which fuels business results. About half of employees (48%) told us they are more likely to stay with their organization when their hard work is recognized.
What is a culture of recognition?
An organizational culture in which employees feel seen and heard, and believe that their organization values their unique contributions.
Recognition is falling flat with employees
To learn how employees feel about the ways they are (and aren’t) getting recognized at work, we surveyed more than 1,000 full-time employees across the United States. The results reveal that 47% of employees would like to receive more recognition for the work they do. The findings also point to key reasons why recognition is falling flat with employees.
Recognition programs have not adapted to new ways of working
It was easy for managers to recognize employees in an office setting before the pandemic. From a high-five or a chat in the hall to a celebratory lunch after a win, there were many organic moments to connect with people. With the mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote work environments today, these moments are rare or non-existent. Even when employees get praise, it’s often delayed until managers and employees are both in the office or on a virtual chat. Even then, opportunities for recognition are more limited. They also tend to be one-on-one, rather than among team members, mentors, senior leaders, or across the entire organization where there is greater opportunity to be seen.
64% of employees say that their organizations haven’t developed new ways of recognizing employees’ good work.
Organizations aren’t evolving employee recognition programs to keep pace with changes in ways of working. In fact, 64% of employees say that their organizations haven’t developed any new ways of recognizing employees’ good work. Interestingly, the older the employee, the more likely they are to feel this way. Employees see a lot of room for improvement for recognition programs. They say that recognition can be more frequent, proactive, shared widely, and easier to provide. And about one quarter (24%) think bias around who is recognized is an unaddressed challenge.
Employees and organizations aren’t aligned on recognition
Employees have different goals and motivations depending on where they are in their careers. They also want to be recognized in different ways. Yet, organizations often have blanket recognition programs for people regardless of their career phase or accomplishments. While some employees might prefer a gift card or tangible reward, others may prefer to be recognized publicly, especially if they see performance at their current organization as a long-term investment in their career. In addition to how to recognize people, there can be disconnects in who to recognize—and how often.
The bottom line is that employees at all levels need to be recognized—from seasoned leaders to mid-career and new employees. Yet, one in five employees report that they are never recognized. The irony is that employees aren’t looking for involved rewards. The most preferred types of recognition are cash or gift incentives (54%), time off (34%), and a thank-you note or email (32%). Notably, one of the top preferences is an investment that costs nothing.
How do employees like to be recognized?
prefer cash or gift incentives
prefer time off
prefer a thank-you note
Not all leaders make recognizing employees a priority
Managers and supervisors often don’t make recognizing employees a priority. In fact, three-quarters of employees say their manager doesn’t ask how they want to be recognized. This could be because they are immersed in their own day-to-day responsibilities and lose sight of it, or count regular performance check-ins as recognition. This could also reflect how organizations incentivize and measure leaders. Many are assessed on overall performance, not on interim goals. As a result, many leaders zero in on meeting their own end goals, not on incremental objectives. They don’t recognize their teams for the milestones they’ve hit along the way, and the daily contributions that move everyone toward achieving their goals go unrecognized.
75% of employees say their manager/supervisor doesn’t ask how they want to be recognized.
The survey results underscore how widespread this lack of recognition is. Nearly half (47%) of employees don’t think they are getting enough recognition at work. What’s more, employees recognize others more frequently than their managers recognize them. And it’s even more troubling that managers aren’t having discussions with employees about the kind of recognition that motivates them. This lack of frequent and tailored recognition is a missed opportunity. Employees report that recognition makes them more likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities (53%), stay with their organization (48%), be more motivated to support their teams (43%), and go above and beyond for customers (38%), see Figure 1. All are fundamentals of good performance that ultimately benefit leaders and their organizations.
Figure 1. Employees say receiving recognition impacts their performance and retention
Q: When my hard work is recognized at work, I am more likely to:
Respondents selected all that applied.
Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Job Well Done Survey 2022
Quick and easy ways to recognize a job well done
Create forums and programs to praise employee performance organization wide.
Offer opportunities to further career growth through learning and development programs.
Connect employees with a mentor or growth opportunity such as a rotational program.
Make it personal by offering gift cards and a simple “thank you” for a great job.
Give virtual shout-outs using existing platforms or recognition-specific platforms.
Reward a big win with the chance for employees to leave early on a Friday afternoon.
Employee recognition programs: How to build a culture of recognition
The first thing to do is to acknowledge that recognition is more than a human resource priority—it’s an organizational culture priority. The more value an organization puts into recognition, the more equipped the company is to develop programs that make a meaningful difference for all employees. Here’s how:
Forget one-size-fits-all. The most meaningful recognition approaches are tailored to the needs of different employee groups. To do this, seek inputs from employees on how they want to be recognized through voice-of-employee focus groups, pulse surveys, and annual employee surveys. With this input, leaders can design demographically-based recognition programs that make sense for the different types of employees in their organization. From there, organizations can zero in on the types of accomplishments to recognize, as well as who is recognized and how often. While there should be guardrails to protect processes and fairness, ideally, managers and supervisors have some leeway as they know their people best.
Communicate business value. There’s a correlation between recognition and higher productivity, retention, and business outcomes.It’s critical that leaders understand that recognizing employees is as much of an exercise in driving the business forward as it is building employee morale. What’s more, they should be reminded that the best employee recognition programs are a pipeline for future leaders. Ideally, these programs identify high performers so that the organization can build their skills and engagement with career pathing and succession planning assistance and promotions. As organizations develop recognition programs and explore ways to increase employee participation at all levels, they should communicate these benefits clearly to leaders. The more that leaders know, the more effective they will be in modeling the culture of recognition. It simply cannot flourish without champions’ support at the highest level.
Empower managers to recognize their people. In order for recognition programs to be effective, managers need to be familiar with the recognition platforms that are available and feel empowered to recognize their teams using those platforms. To accomplish this, managers need training to understand their organization’s recognition culture and programs, the types of accomplishments to recognize, and how to do so without bias or favoritism. At the same time, organizations would be wise to acknowledge that managers also desire to be recognized for their own accomplishments. Doing this means reminding managers of the incremental goals they must achieve to hit their targets, and recognizing them when they do. Celebrating managers’ successes has a trickle down effect on their teams and feeds an overall culture of recognition.
Make recognition easy and convenient. Recognition cultures thrive when employees see those around them—peers, managers, and leadership—contributing. This requires ease and convenience. For dispersed workforces, technology platforms can make it easier for employees to participate in acknowledging colleagues. In fact, about one in five employees prefer to be recognized in public or in social environments. Platforms like Wooboard, Yammer, or Microsoft Teams can help organizations enable recognition across all levels of an organization, creating a drumbeat of celebrating performance and in turn, sustaining a culture of recognition.
Recognition is a fundamental part of the employee experience. It influences employees’ performance and business performance too. Yet employers often underestimate its importance. The first step in driving change? Committing to creating a culture of recognition and ensuring that everyone has a role to play in cultivating it.
The survey was conducted online by Ipsos the week of October 5 to 10, 2022. The survey included 1,347 respondents from a random sample of full-time employees across the United States. The survey polled respondents to understand how they are recognized at work and their perspectives on how recognition is a part of the employee experience. The survey also included 500 interviews with local, state, and federal government workers.