How to Design a Powerful Recognition Program

 In Employee Engagement

Calling all high achievers. You have set out to design a powerful program that will make your people feel valued, engaged and driven to reach their potential. You aim to build an initiative that doesn’t just check a box but that will have measurable impact on business outcomes. So, how do you achieve that goal? What makes the difference between a successful recognition program and one that falls flat? Where do you start?

It can be simple when you have a trusted framework in your arsenal. The following 4-step formula is both a roadmap to creating a high-impact program and a snapshot of key decision points to consider. Let’s get to it.

1. Strategize

The first step is to be crystal clear on why you are implementing a recognition program. What specifically do you hope to achieve? Are you looking to increase engagement? Reinforce your core values? Improve productivity? Increase retention of top talent?

A recognition program is a way to communicate with your employees. The objectives at the center of your program will tell your people what you value and what to strive for.

Determine (1) your goals, (2) the operational & financial resources required to meet those goals, and (3) how you will measure effectiveness.

Helpful tips:

  • Align your recognition approach with business goals. What behaviors will affect results? What metric will change as a result of your program?
  • Hold focus groups to evaluate your current recognition practices. What’s working and what’s not? What would people like to see more of or less of?
  • Consider how your strategy intersects with Talent Management. How could recognition complement performance reviews, recruiting efforts and benefit plans? Would there be any conflicts with current programs?
  • Involve other key functions such as HR, Finance, Legal and Marketing, as rewards may impact multiple departments. For instance, if you decide to offer time-off as a reward, it would hit the radar of both managers and HR/payroll. Should you offer tangible rewards, legal and finance would consult on tax implications.
  • Determining how much you can invest in the program will dictate the design. RPI recommends companies spend between .5%-3% of annual payroll on employee recognition and reward programs.​ According to SHRM, companies that invest 1% or more of payroll in values-based rewards and recognition are 3x more likely to rate their program as excellent.

Organizations employ a variety of recognition program types, from formal (structured program) to informal (spontaneous gesture of appreciation). What are the most common? According to a recent survey by WorldatWork, here are the top 5:

  1. Length of service (tenure) – 72%
  2. Above and Beyond Performance – 62%
  3. On-the-spot – 55%
  4. Retirement – 46%
  5. Customer Service – 34%

It is important to remember that employee recognition is not one-size-fits-all. As you consider what makes sense for your organization, ensure your program is rooted in your unique mission and culture. What do you stand for? What defines you as a place to work? This will help guide your approach.

2. Design

Now that you’ve established a business case, examine the various design elements that support it.


This is paramount to the success of your recognition program! Being extremely clear on what it takes to be recognized ensures there is equity and transparency in your program. You may choose to recognize based on performance (tied to business outcomes), behaviors (tied to core values), and/or tenure (tied to anniversaries).


Who will be eligible to participate in the program? Will the program apply to all regions and departments? Is it strictly internal or would external parties (i.e. clients) be involved? What directional recognition will be offered – top-down, peer-to-peer, bottom-up or a combination?


Decide who will administer the program. Will you allocate an internal resource such as an HR Coordinator to manage it or hire externally? Who has governance and ensures protocol is followed? Who will be the main point of contact for employees?


Consider if public or private recognition style best suits your organization. Recognition preferences may vary across teams and individuals. Some team members may delight from seeing praise over a company-wide public platform like Enkourage, while others may prefer a private email to celebrate success. Successful recognition programs allow for flexibility and choice on behalf of the participants.

Types of recognition and rewards

As mentioned above, both formal and informal approaches should be evaluated, along with various types of rewards. You may choose to offer simple but effective praise, certificates, trophies, lunches, points, extra PTO or gifts.

What's the best employee reward?

Gifts, trophies, other perks…we’re here to help! Talk to one of our experts to discuss which option is best suited for your firm.

Contact us

Be mindful that financial rewards do not always make the most impact, so consider a blended scheme. Powerful and sincere words about a person’s value may be perceived as more meaningful in the long term than money.

3. Launch

The way you communicate and implement your new recognition program within your organization plays a big part in its adoption. Clarity, creativity, and visibility are key. The goal is for your team to understand the who, what, when, where, why and how for each part of your program, along with how to access supporting resources.

The launch is an opportunity to create an imprint on your people. Will this impression be an eye roll or inspiration? Executed well, the rollout builds enthusiasm and inspires participation among the team. Consider these guidelines:

Be transparent

The desired business outcomes you’ve identified in Step 1 will not only benefit the organization, but also the team members themselves. Be clear and open on why you’re introducing this new initiative and what the specific goals are. Employ the WIIFM idea to create buy-in, connecting strategy to individual benefits. Share the criteria you designed in Step 2: plainly outline what behaviors will be recognized and why.

Make it easy

Few people have the time or patience to read bulky instructions, especially if they raise more questions. Create clear, easy-to-understand materials on how the program works. Try testing driving these references with a small group to ensure it is intuitive and digestible for the larger group.

Make it visible

What people see over and over they will remember. When sharing materials, think about where or how your team members interact the most. What sites/shared documents do they access frequently? Consider how to embed the new initiative into your culture and daily life.

Brand it

Work with your marketing and/or internal communications teams to give the recognition program its own identity within your company. Whether it’s a clever name, memorable logo, or unique communication style, leverage your collective creativity. You may decide to throw a launch party, hold a poster design contest, or pick a theme song. Strive to create a positive and exciting association with this new brand.

Train. Sincerity, personalization, precision, and structure make the difference between resonance and dissonance when you offer appreciation or praise. Recognition is weakened quickly (along with trust) if not delivered in the right way, and the road to regaining that trust is long. Train you managers and team on proper recognition strategies, such as those offered in the Orange Program.

Build champions

Think about how managers and influencers can reinforce and build excitement around the program. Who are the leaders/team members at the heart of your culture? Who shows an immediate interest in and knowledge of the program? Do they have a history of positively influencing their peers when it comes to change management? Enlist these champions to promote the program. Celebrate and publicize those that are honored in your new program and organically develop a team of supporters.

4. Measure

Measuring program performance against the goals you established in Step 1 is key to determining your ROI and inspiring confidence in the program. Your objective in this final step is to identify how to gauge program success.

Examine traction and participation

The first indicator for gauging business outcomes is the degree to which people are involved in your program. Be sure you have a way to track both qualitative and quantitative recognition metrics. Here are 10 examples:

  1. # of recognizers over a period
  2. # of people recognized
  3. # of recognitions
  4. # of voters (award program)
  5. # of departments recognized
  6. # of points/awards/rewards given
  7. % of managers engaged (ex. # of managers who recognized last month/total managers)
  8. Quality of recognition (‘Good job’ versus noting the action + benefit)
  9. Reasons for recognition
  10. Program satisfaction rating (from employee feedback below)

Determine the right tool for your recognition program

Bookending the strategy from Step 1, pinpoint which metric most effectively measures your desired outcomes. For example, if your recognition goal is to improve customer service, you may use Net Promoter Score as one of your tools. Other metrics might be employee engagement scores, turnover or trends in employee performance reviews.

Evaluate, revisit and revise as needed

Metrics provide insight, as does the direct feedback of your people. Seize the opportunity to supplement the numbers with real-life conversations. Ask for employee feedback about your new platform. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups and have discussions about their impressions. What do they like and appreciate? What can be improved? Adapt accordingly.

Building a powerful recognition program doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of thoughtful decision-making with the right blueprint. By following the formula above, you have a guide on how to approach a winning design and a picture of how the elements of recognition fit together. Now, it’s time to build something great!

The Altrum method: How we implemented our peer recognition program

Get inspired by our chart to build your own!

How to structure a peer recognition program
Julie Lajoie, CRHA
Directrice principale chez Altrum reconnaissance, Julie est passionnée par la création et par la mise en place d’initiatives qui font une réelle différence en organisation. La considération et la motivation des employés sont au cœur de ses priorités. /// Director at Altrum Recognition, Julie is passionate about creating and implementing initiatives that make a real difference in organizations. The consideration and motivation of employees are at the heart of her priorities.
Recent Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search