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8 Min Read

How to Build an Employee Recognition Program That Inspires and Motivates

Nicole Klemp

When done right, employee recognition programs can positively impact individual employees and create better business outcomes. Top performers who are adequately recognized for their efforts are often more highly engaged and productive and less likely to leave their organization.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get recognition wrong, and too many companies miss the mark when it comes to incorporating it into their company culture or building a formal recognition program. 

According to Gallup, it’s not uncommon for employees to feel that their best efforts are routinely ignored, with only one in three workers surveyed receiving recognition or praise for doing good work. (The study also found that employees who don’t feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they plan to quit within a year.)

Read on to learn some of the business benefits of employee recognition programs, practical ways to build a formalized program, and some dos and don’ts for giving more authentic feedback and praise.

Develop a business case for recognition

To formalize an employee recognition program, you first need to secure leadership buy-in. The best way to start that conversation is by showing the business value of recognition. To build a business case for your employee recognition program, show how focusing on employee recognition can impact real business outcomes. 

Here’s a great example: According to SHRM, a 2022 study by the Achievers Workforce Institute found that almost 2/3 of employees said feeling “meaningfully recognized” would reduce their desire to job hunt, and 57% said feeling recognized would reduce the likelihood they’d take a call from a headhunter. Incorporate stats like this from trusted sources to strengthen your case.

It also helps to outline how an employee recognition program could address some specific business problems that leadership is already trying to solve (e.g., turnover, low engagement, etc.). And if you’re asking for budget dollars to implement a new HR SaaS software to administer your program, explain how the potential benefits outweigh the costs.

Recognition highlights performance

When making your case for employee recognition, a great benefit to mention is the ability to call out high performers and raise the bar for others. Recognize and reward employees for great work to show their peers what success looks like at your organization or in a specific role. This is an excellent motivator for the entire team to level up and create a culture of high performance.

Establish clear objectives and criteria for your program

A critical early step in building a successful employee recognition program is clearly defining what employee behaviors or actions should be recognized. Tie your recognition program to business objectives and use your organizational values to determine which behaviors should be rewarded or praised (e.g., recognizing an employee when they go above and beyond for a customer). 

It’s also helpful to decide approximately how frequently recognition should happen. More consistent recognition is generally most effective in motivating employees, so you may need to put some processes in place to enable it to occur on a more regular basis. You don’t have to be overly prescriptive, but it’s good to give leaders some guidance on best practices and remind them to make recognition a priority.

How recognition is delivered also matters. Encourage people leaders to talk with their teams about how they prefer to receive feedback or praise. Some people don’t like the attention of a public shoutout, while others thrive on that kind of recognition. 

Managers are key to employee rewards and recognition

The employee-manager relationship is one of the biggest drivers of a good (or bad) employee engagement, so it’s critical that employees are recognized by their managers in appropriate and timely ways. 

By recognizing team members for a job well done, managers can encourage more gratitude and positivity on their teams and create a culture of recognition where employees feel valued and appreciated.

Regular check-ins help managers keep tabs on what their employees are working on and gives them more visibility into the great work happening on their teams. Offering feedback and praise during 1-on-1 meetings is an efficient way for managers to support their direct reports’ growth and development. (This is also better for those employees who prefer to receive recognition in a one-on-one setting rather than a public one.

3 ways technology enables an effective recognition program

A good employee recognition program works most efficiently when using the best employee recognition software, which can simplify the process of giving and receiving feedback. It should also integrate seamlessly with other systems and workflows, which is especially important for distributed or remote teams.

According to Gallup’s study referenced above, technology plays three critical roles in enhancing the power of recognition:

  1. Technology gives people leaders a nudge. “The reality is busy people often need to be reminded or nudged to recognize others,” said Chris French, executive vice president of customer strategy at Workhuman. “Technology can be used to remind managers to look for opportunities to recognize employees and also to illustrate what effective recognition looks like.”
  2. Technology can help “elongate” recognition moments. “It becomes not just one moment but many moments elongated over time,” French said. “Research shows that the reminder of the moment triggers the same area of the brain as the actual recognition moment itself.”
  3. Technology allows you to measure recognition data. An employee recognition platform makes it easier to collect and analyze data about recognition patterns in organizations. “That data allows you to see any bias in recognition practices, for example, so you can have more-equitable practices going forward,” French said.

In organizations that use 15Five, managers and peers can give virtual High Fives to recognize their team members’ outstanding work as it happens. This helps connect employees both in and out of the traditional office setting. 

Make sure recognition is fair and inclusive

When formalizing an employee recognition program, it’s essential to consider your organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Who in the organization has been recognized most in the past, and for what actions? A clear definition of what success looks like will be critical here, as recognition can go very wrong when only specific types of people or “insiders” get an oversized share of the praise.

Recognition is a dish best served in a psychologically-safe environment. Psychological safety in the workplace refers to being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career. 

Employees at all levels of the organization should feel they can do their best work — and be recognized for those efforts — while being their true selves. If people feel they have to pretend to be someone they’re not in order to earn recognition, the program is failing them.

4 dos and 4 don’ts of employee recognition

While there’s no secret sauce or scientific formula for a great employee recognition program, there are a few things that have proven to work well in most organizations, and a few common mistakes to avoid. Here are a few of those “dos and don’ts” (or “don’ts and dos” in this case).


  1. Treat recognition like a box to check. You can’t (and shouldn’t) force people into recognition, or it can start to feel like another task on the to-do list. Create an environment where people want to recognize others.
  2. Offer impersonal praise. When great work happens, know who put in the effort and make sure they’re credited. A team-wide attaboy isn’t always sufficient for the individuals on the team.
  3. Give generic recognition. If a manager has 10 people on their team and all 10 get the exact same Christmas card with the same greeting, don’t be surprised if they’re a bit underwhelmed. Individuals deserve to be treated as such.
  4. Be inauthentic. People can smell fake recognition a mile away. See #4 below to do authenticity right.


  1. Communicate regularly. The right cadence will vary for different organizations, but know that “regularly” means more often than once a year during a performance review.
  2. Tailor praise to the recipient. As mentioned above, find out how each employee prefers to be recognized and respect their wishes as much as possible. 
  3. Make recognition specific and personalized. Be specific when calling out someone for a job well done. Just saying, “Tyler is a rockstar,” is vague and not valuable for Tyler or anyone else.
  4. Be genuine & authentic. Give recognition when you genuinely feel it’s deserved, without any hidden agenda or ulterior motive.

Want to learn how other companies build the best employee recognition programs?

Check out our customer stories to hear how top companies recognize employees, deliver feedback, and manage performance with 15Five. 

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