Companies that get serious about improving the level of employee recognition in their organization typically establish one or more employee recognition programs to aid the process.

There are twelve steps that I believe are most critical for embarking upon, and being successful at, creating a great employee recognition program. Most of the principles of effective individual and team recognition apply, but additional knowledge and skills are needed to make an employee recognition program successful. This article focuses on the critical steps needed to enable you to be successful in creating an effective employee recognition program. If you follow these twelve steps, there is a high probability that you will be more likely to be successful with your organization’s employee recognition programs.

1- Commit to doing it. The first step in any recognition initiative is to make the commitment to do it. Recognition starts with a desire to make a difference. Most recognition–whether individual, team, or organization–starts because of the initiative of a single individual. From this humble beginning, some great recognition programs have been created. As the old saying goes, every great journey starts with a single step.

2- Find an opportunity. Once there is a commitment to make a difference, you should find the right opportunity. Opportunities for recognition exist everywhere in organizations since, in virtually every organization, there are exemplary employees who are regularly exceeding standards of performance and distinguishing themselves. It is only lack of attention and sensitivity to these individuals that keep us from seeing them. Sometimes we are just too busy to notice organizational recognition opportunities. In what areas of your organization do you think that recognition is most needed and employees are most deserving?

3- Clarify the recognition goal and selection criteria. Be specific about the goals of the recognition program. Believe it or not, this is the step that is most likely to bring success—or failure—for any organizational recognition program. In his book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey advises us to “…start with the end in mind.” What do you envision as the end result of your employee recognition program? Do you want improved performance and results? If so, what performance? What results?

What is the current situation? What is the desired situation? Do you want a particular behavior to be highlighted, such as outstanding customer service? What does the recipient of the recognition look like? How would you objectively determine if one person fits this criterion and another does not? Is there special appreciation warranted for efforts and achievements that rise to a level deserving such special recognition? If so, what do you want to show appreciation for?

The challenge is to clearly define the criteria for the recognition – whether it is performance, behavior, values, or effort– and to make sure the selection criteria are as clear and unambiguous as possible. If your recognition criteria are not objective, your recognition may seem subjective and end up looking like favoritism. Although you can never be 100-percent certain, try to ensure that recipients selected will be acknowledged as deserving of the recognition and the rest of the organization will agree with the selection decision.

4- Ensure executive sponsorship. Organizational recognition, like any successful company initiative, should have an executive sponsor – someone in senior management who can help make it happen, by providing the resources and support needed. If you are a senior executive, then you can be the sponsor yourself; otherwise, you will need to find someone who can help sponsor and support the organizational recognition effort, ideally at the executive level.

5- Maximize the recognition value. Recognition has two aspects: “recognition value” (the positive feelings that result from the recognition itself) and “monetary value” (the monetary worth of the item or event that is often part of the recognition). There is nothing wrong with monetary value, however, items with the greatest recognition value tend to symbolize the reason for the recognition and offer intangible value. For example, a coffee mug personalized for the occasion is much more likely to be associated with the reason for the recognition than a monetary payment or gift card.

The higher the recognition value, the more likely recipients are to experience positive feelings and the less likely non-recipients are to experience envy. In contrast, the higher the monetary value, the more likely it is that the focus of recipients and non-recipients will be on the magnitude of the reward than on the reason for which it was given.

6- Consider potential constraints. Consider the context of what is happening in and around the organization to make sure that this is a good time to initiate an employee recognition program. There is always the possibility of issues, conditions, or other factors (such as adverse business conditions, the threat of layoffs, demotivators, etc.) that can negatively impact even the best recognition intentions. For example, a well-intentioned recognition effort will be marginalized by the announcement of large executive bonuses, because employees will feel that any recognition they received was “a pittance” in comparison. Other constraints might include competition from other programs (such as are engineering initiatives) being launched in the organization that could distract from, or interfere with, the recognition effort. You don’t need to avoid starting a recognition program in these cases, but simply consider their implications and design your program and its timing accordingly, perhaps integrating the recognition initiative with one or more other strategic objectives of the organization.

7- Develop the plan. A plan doesn’t need to be an elaborate document, but it is a good idea to have at least a brief written description of what you intend to do. This plan should at a minimum include the tasks, schedules, and resources needed to successfully implement the program. This could be done in a couple of pages. You might also want to consider involving others in the development of your plan. Involvement can also significantly increase the power and impact of organizational recognition.

8- Solicit feedback. I suggest you take a one-page version of your plan – just the description, without the resources, budget, and so forth—and ask for feedback from peers and a few members of the target audience from which recipients will be selected, as well as your executive sponsor. Ask them if they see any problems with your proposed recognition program. Then, make changes in the program plan, as needed, based on the feedback received.

9- Implement the program. Once you are confident with your program plan, you are ready to implement the organizational recognition program. Announce it with some fanfare and be sure to widely publicize recognized employees through the wide variety of communications channels available to you. It would be wise to accompany the launch of your program with leader training about effective recognition, its importance, and its impact on employee effort and results. You can have the best recognition plan and tools ever, but that won’t be worth much if your leaders are not on board with it, actively using and endorsing the initiative in their daily leadership roles.

10- Monitor the impact. It always pays to carefully monitor the implementation of a new program, especially during its early days to assure that things go smoothly. A growing incidence of cynical employee comments is a sure sign that something is wrong, and your program needs a closer review. The employee grapevine will tell you how well the program is being received. Make adjustments accordingly.

11- Learn from the experience. There is no substitute for learning from experience. You can maximize the learning from your first organizational recognition program by such activities as asking individual employees about their reactions to the program or by inviting employees to participate in a focus group to discuss the organizational recognition program and suggest how it can be made even better.

12- Do it even better the next time. Now that you have an initial successful recognition program, you can always make improvements. Learn from what you have just done, and use feedback to do it even better the next time. No matter how well the program went, there is always room for improvement. Based on your experience, and the feedback received, you should be able to take your next recognition program to the next level.

The Challenge of Sustaining Employee Recognition Programs in an Organization

Probably the greatest challenge of organizational recognition is how to sustain it. All too often, organizational recognition gets started, but never gets to the next level. Organizational employee recognition programs that are implemented and discontinued tend to reinforce employees’ perceptions that recognition is “just another program of the month,” and not a genuine commitment.

Employees get excited about recognition and then become disappointed as motivational programs come and go. This has led to one all-too-common reaction to such programs as being a passing fad. Without an overarching strategy for ongoing organizational recognition, no recognition effort can be sustained for long.

Management, especially upper management, is ultimately responsible for creating a work environment that is conducive to sustaining organization-wide motivation that will best help to attract and retain talent and maximize the performance of that talent while employed by the organization.


Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is the world’s leading authority on employee recognition and engagement. He’s worked with thousands of companies on these topics, including 80percent of the Fortune 500, spoken on six continents, and authored related books on the topic that have sold over 5 million copies. For more information, visit