Report

Want to boost agency performance? Prioritize government employee recognition programs in your incentive awards efforts.

Half of government workers indicate that receiving recognition motivates them to go above and beyond in their responsibilities and makes them more likely to stay with their organization. Which begs the question: are agency leaders focusing enough on employee recognition programs’ ability to boost agency and individual performance?

Research from Eagle Hill Consulting finds that 46% of government employees say they would like to receive more recognition for their work, while nearly a quarter (21%) indicate that they are never recognized for their efforts. What’s more, government employees ranked recognition as more motivating in their day-to-day work than career potential. While traditionally agency leaders have relied on commitment to mission as a motivator, they may also consider the impact employee recognition has on agency performance, engagement, and retention.

Connecting value and recognition

Recognition is essential for employees to feel valued. Without it, employees may feel their expertise, effort, and impact are being overlooked and underappreciated. Investing in a culture of value is one of the most effective and least expensive ways to keep government talent. With recognition being a basic human need, it’s no surprise that studies have linked it to higher productivity and discretionary effort, which fuels business results.

What does a culture of value look like?
An environment where employees feel seen, heard, and believe that their organization recognizes their unique contributions.

Nearly half of government workers say they would like more recognition

We surveyed 750 government workers across the United Sates to understand how they feel about government recognition programs and their sentiments on the recognition they are (or aren’t) receiving. The research finds that 46% of government workers would like to receive more recognition for the work they do. The findings also point to key reasons why recognition is falling flat with government employees.

Government recognition programs need to adapt to new ways of working

It was easier 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 and praise them for a job well done. With the mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote work environments today, these moments are rarer and may even be nonexistent. When employees do receive praise, it’s often delayed until managers and employees are able to connect virtually or be in the office together. Even then, recognition tends 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.

54% of government workers say their organization hasn't developed new ways of recognizing employees' good work over the last year.

of government workers say their organization hasn’t developed new ways of recognizing employees’ good work over the last year.

Agencies have been slow to evolve employee recognition programs to keep pace with the changes in ways of working. In fact, 54% of government employees say their organization hasn’t developed any new ways of recognizing employees’ good work over the last year. Interestingly, the older the employee, the more likely they are to feel this way. Employees also indicated that they see a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the government recognition programs that do exist. They say recognition can be more frequent, proactive, shared widely, and easier to provide. And about one-quarter (28%) think bias around who is recognized is an unaddressed challenge with recognition.

Align expectations and avenues for 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, agencies often have blanket recognition or incentive award 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 agency 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 government employees at all levels need to be recognized—from seasoned leaders to newer employees, especially considering that 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 (44%), time off (38%), and a thank-you note or email (35%). Notably, one of the top preferences is an investment that costs nothing.

How do employees like to be recognized?

44%

prefer cash or gift incentives

38%

prefer time off

35%

prefer a thank-you note

Make recognizing employees a priority

Managers and supervisors often don’t make recognizing employees a priority. In fact, nearly two-thirds (64%) of government employees say their manager hasn’t asked them 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 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.

64% of government employees say their manager or supervisor hasn’t asked them how they want to be recognized.

of government employees say their manager or supervisor hasn’t asked them how they want to be recognized.

The survey results underscore how widespread this lack of recognition is. Nearly half (46%) of government workers would like to receive more recognition at work. This lack of frequent and tailored recognition is a missed opportunity, especially considering that over half (51%) of government employees indicate that recognition makes them more likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities, stay with their organization (47%), be more motivated to support their team (46%), and go above and beyond for customers (37%) (see Figure 1). All are fundamentals of good performance that ultimately benefit leaders and their organizations.

Figure 1. Government employees say receiving recognition impacts their performance and retention.

Q: When my hard work is recognized at work, I am more likely to:

chart showing how recognition impacts performance and retention

Respondents selected all that applied.
Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Job Well Done Survey 2022

Quick and easy ways to recognize a job well done 

icon of newspaper

Create forums and programs to praise employee performance organization wide.

icon of career growth

Offer opportunities to further career growth through learning and development programs. 

icon of employee connection

Connect employees with a mentor or growth opportunity such as a rotational program.

icon of handshake

Make it personal by offering gift cards and a simple “thank you” for a great job. 

icon of megaphone

Give virtual shout-outs using existing platforms or recognition-specific platforms. 

icon of a house

Reward a big win with the chance for employees to leave early on a Friday afternoon. 

Four ways to start building a culture of recognition today

The first thing to do is acknowledge that recognition is more than a human resources priority and goes beyond annual performance reviews—it’s an organizational culture priority. The more value an agency puts into recognition, the more equipped it is to develop programs that make a meaningful difference for all employees. Here’s how to get started:

icon of diversity

Forget one-size-fits-all. The most meaningful recognition approaches are tailored to the needs of different employee groups and embody how they want to be recognized. To do so, seek inputs from managers and employees through focus groups, pulse surveys, and annual employee surveys on how workers want to be recognized. With this input, agency leaders can design demographically-based recognition and incentive award programs customized for the different types of employees in their organization. From there, leaders 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.

icon of leadership

Communicate business value. There’s a direct 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 about building employee engagement and morale. Keep in mind, the best government employee recognition programs are a pipeline for future leaders. Ideally, these programs identify high performers so that the organization can build their skills with career pathing, promotions, and succession planning assistance. As agencies develop recognition programs and explore ways to increase employee participation at all levels, they should communicate these benefits clearly to leaders. The more leaders know, the more effective they will be in modeling a culture of recognition.

icon of employee recognition

Empower managers to recognize their people. In order for government employee 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, it 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 trickledown effect on their teams and feeds an overall culture of recognition.

icon of award

Make recognition easy and convenient. Recognition cultures thrive when employees see those around them—peers, managers, and leadership—contributing in recognizing others. For dispersed workforces, technology platforms can make it easier for employees to participate in acknowledging colleagues. In fact, a quarter of government employees (25%) 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 employee experience. It influences employees’ performance and agency performance too. Yet, agencies 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.

Methodology

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 an augment to collect more interviews from those who work for the government. This augment includes 505 interviews in addition to 245 respondents from the standard survey who work for the government.