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Boost Employee Engagement: Building a Strategic Recognition Program (Recognition Series #1)

A lack of recognition is one of the most common reasons employees leave an organization. And even more concerning than the hard costs of employee turnover (backfilling a role costs easily 50 to 200 percent of the role’s annual salary), Gallup research indicates it’s the most talented employees who are the quickest to leave.

Clearly, solving that recognition problem and effectively showing appreciation for your high achievers is a business imperative. But how?

By following the best practices below, you’ll be on track to design an employee recognition program that aligns with your company’s values, vision, and purpose, and also one that works — that is to say, one that empirically encourages achievement, boosts employee engagement, and yes, retains your top performers.

Define the desired outcomes.

Recognition programs show your employees exactly who and what is valued in your organization and why.

Do you want people to stay at your company for decades? If so, honoring employment anniversaries is a must. (And according to a 2019 World at Work study, that’s the most common type of recognition companies are offering.)

But if that’s not enough — surely there are also other business outcomes you want to encourage, behaviors you want to amplify, or even processes you want to promote — you need to go well beyond the 5-year pin.

Indeed, the best employee recognition programs tend to be tied directly to a company’s performance management. That may mean celebrating your boldest innovators and your top sellers; it may also mean honoring those who mentor fiercely or collaborate productively.

Escape the inertia trap.

Most companies haven’t changed their employee recognition programs in at least five years, according to the aforementioned World at Work study. While legacy recognition programs can certainly have value in their heritage, it pays to consider how things have changed since they launched.

So, inventory the evolution of your brand and business, the makeup of your workforce, and even advances in organizational psychology. Then, review any existing means of recognition in a way that leaves the door wide open for transformative improvement.

Such analyses have given rise to successful recognition programs that honor behaviors as diverse as wellness and, as famously encouraged by best-selling author Adam Grant, helping others.

Know your audience.

In the spirit of knowing your employees’ love language, many companies have started asking new hires about their preferred mean of recognition during the orientation process. Because while no one turns down money, repeated studies, including Gallup’s most recent State of the Global Workplace report, show that many other means of recognition — not least of all, public recognition — outrank it.

As for that public recognition, live events done right can be a powerful way to put your most honored employees on a proverbial (or hey, even literal) pedestal in a way that generates big returns.

Remember: Unsung heroes don’t love being unsung.

Don’t mistake this as a tip to honor everyone — that’ll only frustrate your highest performers. But do commit to giving visibility and showing gratitude to the people whose contributions are highly valued but infrequently heralded.

One surefire way to make this happen: Enable and encourage 360-degree feedback, where all employees are invited to recognize or nominate for recognition any of their colleagues.

Also, make a point to celebrate small wins. Timely, specific, sincere bits of recognition are a low-investment, high-impact part of the employee recognition toolkit.

Measure, religiously.

As always, measure — and beware self-serving data points. Sure, you can pat yourself on the back when something works well, but also, remember that employee recognition programs require ongoing iteration and improvement. Program measurement should focus on identifying opportunities for such improvement.

Measurement also should circle back to the desired outcomes defined at the outset. Are you going for a lift in engagement and an increased sense of purpose and belonging? Do you want to improve your company’s performance with respect to recruitment and retention? Or cultivate a spirit of competitiveness that drives increased sales? Measure it, qualitatively, quantitatively, and consistently over time. And use the insights you glean to evolve your program and maximize results.

Would you like to craft a recognition program that will help you honor, retain, and engage top employees, while delivering an increase in target behaviors across the board? Send us a note at

Recognition Series #2 - Sales Recognition Best Practices

Recognition Series #3 - Designing an Effective Recognition Event