The transformational role of employee recognition – more than just movie vouchers and watches?

A key theme we see consistently in employee engagement surveys is the topic of recognition – a manager demonstrating to their employees that their work is valued, in a way that reinforces their behaviour and emotional connection to the organisation.

So why do we get it so wrong, so often? Many top tier organisations have employee recognition programs that fall flat, and it is not uncommon to see employees leaving an organisation in droves, despite any number of perks and sweeteners.

Recognition is defined as the act of seeing or identifying, or the acknowledgement of something as valid or entitled to consideration.

When we consider what recognition actually is, words such as see, identify and acknowledge come up – and these are at the core of how employees define recognition.

Indeed, much of the academic research into this area indicates that when we are talking about recognition, employees are looking for meaning, not things – with tangible rewards (e.g. bonuses or gifts) seen as a vehicle for delivering recognition, but not necessarily recognition itself.

In her well regarded 2009 publication Make their Day, Cindy Ventrice outlines that employees actually need to see an acknowledgement of their specific accomplishments and sincere appreciation of their personal value to the organisation, for recognition to be useful.

In fact, the evidence around employee recognition indicates that recognition is memorable because of the consistency and regularity with which it is offered and that it sends a strong message that they are valued.

So – what isn’t recognition?

It is not perks, bonuses, plaques, awards or incentives. These things might be part of the recognition experience, but without the meaning or thought behind it, they can end up missing the mark – which might explain why so many firms with extravagant bonus and recognition programs seem to be ineffective in retaining employees.

Ventrice outlines that, for recognition to be effective, it needs at least one of the elements of praise, thanks, opportunity and respect – and ideally is a combination of these. So what do these elements look like? 


Employees want their manager to notice what they have done right and acknowledge their progress. Ventrice recommends that managers aim for clarity and ensure the praise is proportional to the accomplishment, and also timely. Additionally, she suggests considering whether public or private praise would be preferable for the employee.


Sincere thanks is a form of recognition that works – and describing why the person is being thanked, again aiming to be specific, accurate, clear and concise. Gestures such as handwritten notes are useful for expressing praise and appreciation and are likely to be kept by the employee for longer.


This might look like providing employees with new opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way and learn new skills, or more opportunity in how the work gets done. Potentially this could involve the individual’s workplace aspirations, learning opportunities and needs, as well as autonomy – increasing their freedom in incremental stages as they demonstrate the ability to work well on their own. This taps into increasing employee intrinsic motivation – finding a way to engage and retain them by providing a clear pathway forward in the organisation.


It can be argued that respect must be present for recognition to take place. Managers are advised to consider employee needs as they make decisions, allowing for personal crisis and learning details about each employee who works for them.

As managers, it is useful to keep in mind these principles when considering how to best recognise employees. At the end of the day, employees are also individuals who have different wants and needs – for some public recognition and fanfare will be optimal, whereas for others a handwritten note of appreciation and the opportunity to attend management training will meet their recognition needs.

Managers would do well to be curious and interested in what will reinforce their employees’ performance and tailor recognition strategies around this.

What kinds of recognition programs are effective in your organisation? What novel ways have you found to recognise good performance and convey genuine appreciation, which don’t necessarily involve perks and bonuses? Please feel free to leave your comments below.

Get in touch

Request a Demo