Employee Recognition

The Top 3 Mistakes Companies Make With Recognition Programs

In previous blog posts, I dug into the details of specific types of recognition programs - from the benefits of manager-driven programs to the risks of points-based systems.

I want to take a step back now and share the most common mistakes HR leaders make when it comes to recognition programs. My hope is that this post will help you preemptively look out for and be better prepared to handle these pitfalls.

After speaking with thousands of HR leaders - across a variety of company sizes and industries - here are the three most common mistakes I’ve observed:

Mistake #1: Lacking awareness

Most HR teams introduce well-intentioned recognition programs. However, they frequently die on the vine - usually because the program is not top of mind for managers and employees. This isn’t just anecdotal. Deloitte’s “State of Employee Recognition” report found that 73% of companies have recognition programs in place, but only 58% of employees are aware of them. Here are my tips to avoid this mistake:

  • Make recognition social. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful it is to generate internal buzz around your employee recognition programs - whether it’s by calling out and recognizing employees publicly during team gatherings or sharing the experiences of those who have been recognized in the past. These tactics will build awareness for the program, encourage employees to share and celebrate with each other, and amplify the great work of your people.
  • Communicate constantly. Many HR leaders view recognition programs as something you set and forget. This is a flawed mindset. Just as with any other initiative at your company, you have to continuously invest in your recognition program to see success. That’s why it’s important to have a steady drumbeat of communications around the program through channels like email, company newsletters, new manager trainings, and Slack. Managers and employees are busy, and they need gentle reminders of the program to nudge their use.

Mistake #2: Making recognition transactional

Dan Ariely’s NYT bestselling book, “Predictably Irrational” describes how we live in two different worlds: one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms dictate how we act.

Social normsare warm and fuzzy, they are rooted in connection with others, and they guide things like our relationships. Whereas market normsare dictated often by supply and demand and are transactional in nature - think of asking for a favor from a friend versus paying a contractor to do a job for you. When kept separate, there’s harmony. When they collide, problems emerge.

To share a quick example from the book: let’s say you’re invited to Thanksgiving dinner at your significant other’s house. The family welcomes you with open arms, spends hours cooking your favorite dishes, and you all share a warm meal together. While everyone is sitting around full and happy, you stand up and - wanting to express your gratitude - pull out your wallet and offer your significant other’s family money in return for their hospitality. Super awkward, right? That’s because this is a situation that should have been guided by social norms (in this case a verbal expression of gratitude), not market norms (payment).

Knowing this, where does employee recognition fall? It’s absolutely a social norm. You’re thanking your employee for their hard work and demonstrating how much you value their contributions. Yet somany companies decide to express their gratitude with something as impersonal as cash or gift cards, which is a market norm. Not only does this strip away the sincerity of the recognition moment, but it also diminishes the impact of it.

At Blueboard, we believe employee recognition can be a double-edged sword: you can either use it to create an amazing moment that strengthens the company-employee relationship OR a negative one that turns the relationship transactional. Here’s how to avoid the trap of transactional market-norm recognition.

  • Get away from cash (or anything that conveys the amount of money you spent). When you recognize an employee with something of monetary value, you’re mixing market norms (monetary value) with something dictated by social norms (recognition). Give your employee a day off for his/her hard work, make a thank you card and have the rest of the team add a note to the individual, or give them an experience you know they’ll appreciate - anything besides cash or a gift card.
  • Match the contribution level. Make sure the recognition and corresponding reward is commensurate with the employee’s level of contribution. Imagine if you were celebrating your 20th anniversary at your company or if you worked on a mission-critical project for months and delivered an incredible outcome. Think about how much of a letdown it would be if you received a taxed cash bonus on your next paycheck or if you were handed a gift card to Amazon. Rule of thumb for recognition: if it doesn’t feel good to give, it doesn’t feel good to receive.

Mistake #3: Disappearing value

CEB and Gartner found that only about 1 in 10 organizations are measuring the impact of their total rewards programs. I noticed this trend in my conversations with organizations as well. Of the companies who socialize their recognition programs, most only tell the first halfof the recognition story, which is sharing the employee’s contribution and recognition interaction.

But they don’t talk about or often even consider the second half of recognition, which is tracking how these collective recognition moments add up and impact the company culture, feelings of appreciation amongst employees, and key metrics like engagement, productivity, and retention. Without this tracking, you’ll have no insight into where your investment is providing value and no identified areas for focused improvement. HR teams need to carve out the time, at a minimum, to evaluate the metrics that matter and how investing in recognition will help qualitatively influence performance or quantitatively move the needle. Some easier steps to get a pulse on the value you’re creating:

  • Track meaningful metrics. Determine which engagement metrics are a priority at your company and map the realistic metrics back to your recognition program. This can range from easy-to-track utilization of the program to changes in scores from specific questions on your engagement survey. I suggest starting with simple program engagement, then graduating to impact on employee engagement. If you’re ambitious, run an analysis on the correlation between employees being recognized and your employees’ performance ratings to get insight on how recognition is tied to performance.
  • Ask your partner provider for support. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what to track, and how, ask your recognition partner for help! For instance, we offer our customers post-engagement experience surveys to gauge how their employees feel about their recognition moment and provide metrics to use in evaluating program impact.  If you’re a Culture Amp customer, you can import Blueboard data into your account to view how recognition sentiment changes for employees who have received or completed their Blueboard rewards through Culture Amp’s demographics feature.

Let’s continue the conversation around your recognition program and goals. Are there any mistakes you think I missed? Reach out to me any time on LinkedIn, or shoot me an email at

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