Top tips to increase the effectiveness of an employee recognition scheme

recognition schemes

Need to know: 

  • Effective strategies will vary from one employer to another, but embedding a culture of appreciation will make a solid foundation for any recognition scheme.
  • Employers should consider introducing peer-to-peer recognition, as well as using a scheme to link specific behaviours to core values.
  • Monetary incentives may help gain employee buy-in, but employers should carefully consider the reasons behind offering them.
  • Staff input is key, both for ensuring that the skills being rewarded are diverse, and that the recognition methods are engaging.

Entrenched recognition systems are fast becoming the norm; according to a March 2019 survey conducted by Xexec, 64% of employers provide a recognition scheme. Considering the potential benefits to motivation, performance and engagement, the 36% that do not may well be missing a trick.

However, from points, prizes and leaderboards to lavish annual award ceremonies, there are many different ways of implementing recognition schemes.

Jamie King, head of global reward at Xexec, says: “From one [employer] to another, they’re going to have radically different things, because it is unique to the [organisation] and what it is trying to achieve.”

The basics

The underlying foundation of any strong recognition programme is simply a culture of saying thanks, says Karen Bolan, head of engagement at AHC. “[Schemes] don’t have to be complicated or complex; actually, people value just receiving a thank you,” she says. “Recognition systems don’t need to have loads of budget sitting behind them. It’s still the thought that counts.”

This might mean, rather than a platform or app, simply providing managers with cards to hand out when they want to acknowledge positive behaviours, creating a general awareness of the positive benefits of recognition within the organisation before committing to a full scheme.

Core values

Whether via an intuitive interface or hand-written cards, employers should consider linking rewards to their values and business goals.

“Core values are often just five words sitting in a brochure, they don’t really have meaning to people practically,” explains King. “Recognition can help familiarise people, if every time you make an award you’re assigning it to core value.”

For example, following a rapid period of growth, independent finance organisation MotoNovo Finance wanted to ensure that celebrating people was at the centre of its culture. It launched recognition platform Mo, which allows organisations to reward and track positive behaviours linked to core pillars.

Alex Latchem, training and development officer at MotoNovo Finance, says: “It’s not all about sales, distribution and performance. One of the things we do is support each other’s wellbeing, which we really put a focus on within the platform; if [employees] are happy and they’re well, then actually that’s one of the ways we can [reach] growth targets.”

Long-term versus instant

Traditionally, recognition schemes might have meant annual award ceremonies, employee of the month accolades or quarterly monetary rewards to be decided by a panel. However, as technology becomes more immediate and employees expect gratification in real time, organisations should consider whether these long-term approaches are right for them.

“Instant recognition from a line manager or a more senior manager can be really effective,” says Bolan. “If [there is] a judging panel that sits behind a monetary reward, that can often take time and delay the recognition; people prefer to be thanked in the moment, so they still link it to the behaviour or project.

“Recognition systems that allow for in-the-moment recognition, but also have bigger [long-term] awards, are also worthwhile. The broader [the] approach, the better.”

Peer-to-peer recognition can be the key to creating this balance, says Takashi Sato, managing director at reward and recognition software provider Unipos Europe: “Peer recognition is coming from the people you work with day to day; it can highlight the small wins. An organisation is a collection of all these small wins, connecting to a bigger win.”

Encouraging everyday peer and line manager recognition can also be the answer for those employers that lack the capacity for expensive, logistically-demanding annual ceremonies.

Monetary incentives

Unipos’ platform, like an increasing number of others, provides a monetised, points-based system for peer-to-peer recognition. Individuals have 400 points per month that hold a small value each, usually equating to the price of a cup of coffee each week.

This system was created following trial and error, explains Sato. With no reward, most users lacked motivation to recognise others, but higher amounts invited abuse.

Incentives can also help ensure that employees are encouraged to take the first steps into a recognition programme, which can, in turn, be a draw for others. “What we see is that the passive or sceptic user, once they start to receive messages from their colleagues, then becomes the sender,” Sato explains. “They start to feel like [they] should give back. It’s a positive cycle.”

But it is important to be deliberate, says King: “There has to be conversation about why [the employer is] giving financial rewards, what it is hoping to achieve. Money is an easy answer, but it’s not really an answer to most things.”

As an alternative, employers could consider a mid-point between financial and non-financial reward, such as rewarding employees with time off. MotoNovo, for example, rewards staff with half days of annual leave that can be accrued and taken together.

Timothy Diredja, learning and development consultant at MotoNovo says: “Each [employee] is different, and it’s about celebrating that rather than being prescriptive. We recognise that [the employee has] demonstrated the behaviour we want, and so [they] can take this time as a reward to support [their] wellbeing.”


Whatever system is in use, having clarity can be the key to making sure it is effective and successful.

“One of the things that’s really important is that it’s open and transparent, and employees believe the system to be fair,” says Bolan. “[Employers should] make sure there’s at least an understanding and awareness among the people giving out the recognition as to what should be rewarded and what shouldn’t; that is a system that gets some credibility.”

Employers should also be wary of disadvantaging offline employees, or those who might be off-site or on the road. In addition, the skills and behaviours being rewarded should not focus on a specific group at the expense of others.

Two-way communication

Employee feedback, particularly through the use of champions or forums, can help ensure that it is not only a small group of senior managers that decides what skills should be rewarded and how.

Adam Whatling, global engagement and technology lead at Love2Shop, says: “Get employee input from day one, not by sending out a 60-page survey that will bore them, but by asking them a few simple questions about how they want to be recognised. Get employees to feel like they’re part of the journey.”

Communication campaigns are also integral for maintaining a successful programme in the long term, continually reminding staff of the importance of thanks and acknowledgement.

This is where technology, and the influences of social media in particular, can come into play, by allowing employers to publicise recognition via a news feed, as well as communicate with the masses and ensure everyone is engaged. “Once [an employer has] a single, public timeline and [it] really starts to visualise all these data sets from department to department and team to team, [it will] start to really see that people are going the extra mile,” says Sato.

Whether via a mobile app or a team meeting shoutout, no recognition scheme is complete without some form of social engagement, says King.

“[An employer] might have a great culture, good morale, good teamwork, one vision, and [clear] core values, but there’s no real celebration of achievements; hence the need for social recognition, communicating that to whoever needs to hear it,” he explains.

Building behaviours

When done correctly, recognition schemes can have a fundamental effect on organisational strategy by helping to embed the behavioural building blocks for good business.

This means remembering that, while someone who is forever outpacing their targets might be a star on paper, their behaviours may still have a negative impact.

Organisations should, therefore, move away from rewarding just big achievements and end goals, and instead recognise the positive behaviours that help a team progress, says Whatling. “What we’ve started to do is try and steer people away from ‘star culture’ and embed a ‘commitment culture’, so that we’re working more collaboratively,” he says.

This means taking a long-term, holistic view of culture, of which recognition is only a single element, and not a complete solution.

“Recognition shouldn’t just be relied upon to maximise engagement,” Whatling explains. “[Employers] have got to have all the other things to make sure they’re driving the right culture. [Recognition] is a very critical part, but not the only critical part.”