22 July 2021
By: Éric Donahue

The Different Approaches to Recognition at Work

What is employee recognition?

It is a constructive response and a timely judgment of an employee’s contribution, not only for his or her efforts or results related to organizational values and goals, but also for his or her dedication and commitment (Brun & Dugas, 2008). Some researchers suggest that recognition should be tangible, but not monetary (Long & Shields, 2010; Paré & Tremblay, 2007) and that it should reinforce the behaviours desired by an employee after the behaviours have occurred (Haines & St-Onge, 2012; Long & Shields, 2010).

Statistics from the last few decades prove it again and again: the more recognition an organization gives, the better it performs. There are many ways to recognize an employee, from the person giving the recognition, to the format of the recognition, to the context in which it is given. However, one thing is certain: no matter how the recognition is given, it must demonstrate to employees that they are appreciated and valued. Is it really that simple?

A study conducted by Gallup (2016) found that recognition was most effective when it was honest, authentic, and personalized according to how each employee wants to be recognized. Therefore, the key to successful employee recognition is knowing what makes the recognition meaningful and memorable to the employee and who is doing the recognizing. Gallup also asked employees to recall who gave them the most meaningful and memorable recognition. The results showed that in most cases, the recognition came from the employee’s immediate manager (28%), followed by a member of senior management (24%), the immediate manager’s manager (12%), a client (10%) and peers (9%). Since each employee has a preference on how to be recognized, here is a non-exhaustive list of the most frequently used ways to recognize an employee.

Types of recognition

1. Written or verbal public recognition

This is the best recognition when compared to private recognition because it not only gives the recipient(s) the recognition they deserve, but it also reinforces work ethic and initiative for your entire team. In fact, research shows that when success is spread throughout the organization, there is an increase in the sense that the organization is successful, and employees want to be a part of that success (Long & Shields, 2010).

You do not need a complex recognition program to acknowledge the work that has been done. Verbal or written recognition is the easiest way and is something you can start right away. Integrate verbal or written recognition into your culture to show genuine and regular appreciation for small victories. After all, sometimes the best way to show your gratitude is a simple “thank you,” but be specific. A “thank you” will put a smile on someone’s face, but they’ll be smiling for days if you add, “without your help, we would never have been able to find a suitable solution to meet the client’s need. Your creativity and customer support always impresses me. Thank you for your help!”

It is easy to use your company’s website or social media to regularly highlight employees’ accomplishments and successes at work, even those in their personal lives (birthdays, years of service, maternity, graduation, sporting events, etc.,) or even incorporate recognition into staff meetings.

Highlighting employees’ accomplishments has multiple benefits, since it turns the moment of recognition into a sincere experience of gratitude. It helps leaders and other employees in the organization become more aware of the great work they do not see every day. It then gives others an opportunity to offer their own praise for the accomplishment and to congratulate that person’s contribution.

2. Peer-to-peer recognition

Peer recognition occurs when employees recognize each other for their accomplishments. Although only 9% received significant recognition from their peers, this type of recognition is essential since it allows individuals to feel connected to their “second family”. Peer recognition often fills the void left by managers and leaders who do not have the opportunity to see all of the work that is done on a daily basis.

When an organization encourages peer-to-peer recognition, everyone’s eyes are opened to the accomplishments around them and recognition begins to flow more frequently through the team, department, management, and organization. This has the effect of improving the work climate as well as collaboration, which then consequently improves productivity. When productivity increases, people are recognized for their work and the wheel of recognition continues to turn.

Peer recognition does not come naturally to everyone. Some may need coaching on how to give recognition and what it looks like, while for others, sharing their appreciation is easy. It is possible to set up a simple and effective way for everyone to recognize the work of others. For example, a comment box, either through an email or an actual box, dedicated to comments from colleagues about the work of their peers. The comments could be read at each team meeting to highlight good work.

3. Recognition by Award

For this category of recognition, all it takes is creativity. “Awards” can be given out monthly at team meetings, through newsletters or on a wall of fame to acknowledge everyone’s efforts. While the employee of the month award is nice, you can make them fantastic. Create unique recognition titles for each employee to let them see what they offer that no one else can. The key is to show how much employees are appreciated for the unique way they contribute to the organization, whether it is the Leadership Award, the Queen of Customers Award or the Einstein Award. Do not be afraid to have fun!

4. Group Recognition

Today’s work accomplishments are often made in collaboration. It may not be appropriate to recognize one person when many have contributed. Recognizing a group as well as an individual is sometimes the best way to go. In addition, this type of recognition will emphasize the solidification of the team climate. However, it is important to reward the team that has truly come together to achieve a goal, complete a bold project, or consistently deliver excellent service.

5. Monetary recognition

Although money or monetary rewards should never be the highlight of recognition, this category should not be eliminated completely. Annual performance bonuses are important methods of recognition, especially if the reward contributes to employees’ present and future financial security, such as pension fund or insurance plans.

If gift cards fit better within your budget limit, make the extra effort to learn where your employees like to shop and give each employee their own card. Also consider asking your employees for a wish list where you can purchase the items yourself; a gift always seems more personal than money.


There is no limit to recognizing the work of others if the recognition is specific to a success, honest and authentic, and if it is done as quickly as possible. In addition, the impact of your recognition will be even stronger if it is personalized to each individual’s interests. Therefore, it is essential to explore and learn about your employees’ personal interests in order to provide them with recognition that is focused on them. Finally, do not approach recognition as a chore that you have to check off your To-Do list. True gratitude allows you to speak sincerely about each person’s contribution, and by personalizing your recognition, your relationship with the employee will be even stronger.

Eric Donahue
Éric Donahue, M.Ps., Ph.D.

Organizational Psychologist, Expert in Talent Management


Brun, J. P., & Dugas, N. (2008). An analysis of employee recognition: Perspectives on human resources practices. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 19 (4), 716-730.

Ghosh, P., Rai, A., Chauhan, R., Baranwal, G., & Srivastava, D. (2016). Rewards and recognition to engage private bank employees: Exploring the “obligation dimension”. Management Research Review, 39 (12), 1738-1751.

Haines III, V. Y., & St-Onge, S. (2012). Performance management effectiveness: practices or context?. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23 (6), 1158.

Long, R. J., & Shields, J. L. (2010). From pay to praise? Non cash employee recognition in Canadian and Australian firms. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21 (8), 1145-1172.

Mann, A., & Dvorak, N. (2016). Employee recognition: Low Cost, High Impact. Gallup study.

Paré, G., & Tremblay, M. (2007). The influence of high involvement human resources practices, procedural justice, organizational commitment, and citizenship behaviours on information technology professionals’ turnover intentions. Group & Organization Management, 32 (3), 326-357.