5 tips for designing an employee recognition program that works

To remain engaged on the job and sustain peak performance, your employees need to know their efforts are appreciated and their contributions valued. Employee recognition is an essential form of feedback that can mean the difference between a satisfied, cohesive team and a collection of disenchanted individuals.
Recognition shouldn't happen only when you feel like it or have the time. While spontaneous gestures of acknowledgement and gratitude are good, a formal recognition program will reinforce and reward employees for behaviors and achievements that align with your company's objectives.
A formal recognition program is also equitable, because it ensures all employees will get the same awards for similar types of accomplishments. In other words, formal programs correct the natural tendency to focus only on star performers.
Whether you're developing a recognition program from the ground up or fine-tuning an existing program, the following tips may help make your program more powerful.

Define performance targets and qualifying criteria. Let's say you want to acknowledge employees for going above and beyond. First, how will you define that? Suppose you decide it means working late into the night or on weekends. Will you reward such effort for all projects or only high-priority ones? How much extra time will earn a reward? If it was a collaborative effort, does the group get a single prize, or will you give something to each member?
It's also important know why you are recognizing and supporting a certain behavior. Using the example above, is working overtime a practice you wish to reinforce? You don't want to inadvertently reward work habits that may arise from inefficiency or send the message that employees must work additional hours to receive acknowledgement.
Make the rewards meaningful. Awards do not have to be monetary. An elegant plaque that a staff member can display deskside -- in full view of co-workers and clients -- might be far more meaningful and motivational than a gift card to a fancy restaurant, for example.
Also keep in mind that while immediate rewards are important, longer-term prizes, such as advancement along one's career path, often carry more weight. Promotions can be the best reward of all.
Share the praise and the prizes. Formal recognition should be all-inclusive. For example, if you launch a program for the accounting staff at your company, give some thought to designing a comparable one for administrative personnel.
Every employee has the potential to contribute to better client service and improved revenues and, therefore, should be eligible for formal recognition. Design your program so everyone has a shot at recognition, even if a particular individual is not a high-profile member of the team.
Keep it real. As you identify behaviors and achievements to recognize, beware of the "high-five syndrome:" applauding virtually every task employees complete. This dilutes the impact of the recognition program.
Employees may stop putting forth their best effort, because they see that mediocrity and excellence are equally rewarded. Reward only exemplary, not basic, performance. You're setting a standard for all employees to aspire to, so show them that rewards are earned, not given away.
Get employees involved. If you solicit input from your employees about the program, it will be more effective. Ask whether they consider the rewards you've selected meaningful and valuable.
You may want to involve your most senior employees in decisions about guidelines and performance criteria. They'll have useful insights into exactly what it takes to deliver top performance. The more your team feels connected to the program, the more likely they will want to work toward rewards.
If you create a program that prompts team members to use their knowledge and abilities to make a real difference in their clients' lives, not only will you motivate staff, but your company's balance sheet also will reflect enhanced productivity and client service.

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