5 Criteria on How to Measure Employee Recognition Programs

June 22, 2022 Mike Lovett

how to measure employee recognitionEmployee recognition is capable of transforming an organization. A new study from Gallup and Workhuman®, “Unleashing the Human Element at Work: Transforming Workplaces Through Recognition,” shows recognition improves multiple facets of the employee experience. With an effective employee recognition program, employees are:

woman clapping

  • 73% less likely to “always” or “very often” feel burned out
  • 56% less likely to be looking for a new job
  • 5x as likely to feel connected to their culture
  • 4x as likely to be engaged
  • 5x as likely to see a path to grow at their organization
  • 4x as likely to recommend their organization to friends and family
  • 44% more likely to be thriving in their life overall

Referrals, engagement, well-being, connection, growth, turnover, and work-life harmony – employee recognition dramatically boosts the employee experience in and out of the office. And not just a short-term bump; these are areas that can sustain themselves for years.

The caveat is that these results are contingent on a well-functioning employee recognition, and there’s no guarantee of a successful recognition program right out of the proverbial box. It will likely require tinkering and evolution, processes that are only possible when you know how to measure success of the program.


Why should you measure your recognition program?


Measuring success – and continued success at that – becomes even more important when time, energy, and money are on the line.

You recently instituted an employee recognition program at your organization. Are employees happier, more engaged, more connected, and no longer bolting for the exits?

Everyone – leaders, managers, and employees – benefits when a recognition program is clicking. But it’s only when you understand how and why it’s clicking that’ll you’ll be able to sustain that success.


How do you create criteria for employee rewards?

Create criteria for employee rewards that align with the goals of the program. Are employees meeting and collaborating more? Are pulse surveys getting more responses? Are moments of recognition increasing? Are safety incidents on the decline? Are there more work anniversaries or exit interviews?

Employee morale, engagement, and connection can appear intangible. But with a recognition program that allows employees to express and easily communicate gratitude for all to see, you’ll quickly find tangible measures of growth.

5 criteria for employee recognition

Length of service

woman smiling

If you want people to want to stay at your company, celebrating work anniversaries is an easy place to start. This reward strengthens the sense of connection and community. You should consider increasingly larger rewards for each year of tenure.

Personal & team accomplishments

Engagement, productivity, and collaboration are pillars of a thriving workplace. Acknowledge the hard work and successes of those responsible. And don’t feel you need to wait until the end of the project to celebrate. Clearing hurdles and powering through difficult stretches are worthy of recognition, too.

Demonstrations of leadership

Setting a good example, stepping up when needed, or helping out wherever is required are traits and behaviors you want to be contagious. If they’re recognized, they’re more likely to be duplicated. This is an area where recognition can be deployed as a coaching technique to encourage more of what you want to see.

Work safetyconstruction workers

Employee engagement takes on a whole new meaning when injuries are a risk in the workplace. A good recognition program can keep people motivated and, more importantly, attentive which can have a big impact on safety incidents.

Innovative thinking

In a psychologically safe workplace, employees are emboldened to propose big, new ideas and, in some cases, bring them to life. Reward that innovation and determination. These are the efforts that elevate the entire company.

4 measurable criteria for employee recognition program successKPIs

Now that you know what you can measure, let’s look at how you can measure. A recognition program should provide you with a host of engagement analytics – from recognition frequency to the reach of recognition. These will help you set benchmarks, allocate budget for continued investment, and determine success or shortcomings.

These don’t need to be measured daily, but a regular cadence (read: more than once per year) will allow you to keep a pulse on employees and address issues in a more timely manner.

Here are some KPIs to consider when measuring the ROI of your recognition program.

Program adoption: For an employee recognition program to be successful, employees need to, you know, use it. Chances are, they will all use it a little differently. Measure the frequency and reach of recognition to get a sense of how the program is used and if there are gaps or discrepancies in reward distribution.

Award threshold: Helping someone with a project for an hour and securing a huge client are both good. But award levels will vary based on the scale of the task. If only certain tiers are being used, it might be time to revisit them or encourage new avenues for employees to recognize.

Equitable rewards: A successful employee rewards program is an equitable one. Rewards should be distributed fairly and unbiased across every measure: age, race, gender, and seniority. This is one of the most important areas to measure as it requires immediate course correction.

Average length of service: At the end of the day, you hope that everyone in the organization wants to come in the next day. Retention is vital to any company, and you’ll be able to see whether employee recognition is working if employees are staying with the company longer.


How to help your program succeed

You can help your program in a lot of easy ways. Make sure people know how to use it, encourage participation, get leadership buy-in, and make it easy.

In our research with Gallup, we found that all recognition is good, but we identified five pillars that are critical to its success. Recognition should be fulfilling, authentic, equitable, embedded in the culture, and personalized.

Fulfilling recognition

There’s no “magic number” for how many times to recognize someone. Most employees want to be recognized a few times per month, but organizations should view that as a bare minimum. There’s no such thing as too much recognition so long as it’s “genuine and appropriately given.” Fulfilling recognition validates effort and appreciates the value added.Gallup chart

Authentic Recognition

Even if you give the right amount of recognition, if it’s accompanied by empty words, it can undermine the experience. Recognizing employees becomes more meaningful when there is a clear reason for it. Tying recognition to specific achievements and goals can help as can spontaneous, in-the-moment feedback.

When employees feel recognition is authentic they’re more than 5x likely to see a path to grow in the organization, 6x more likely to agree their organization cares about their well-being, and 5x as likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work.

Authentic recognition is especially meaningful for Black and Hispanic employees. When they strongly agree the recognition they get is authentic, they are 79% and 69% more likely to be thriving, respectively. Sentiment matters.

gallup stat

Equitable Recognitionman on phone

When employees see recognition that is out of balance – particularly if they feel shorted – it sets off an alarm to the need for fairness and ends up damaging their experience.

Right now, the alarms are blaring. Only about 26% of employees strongly agree they receive equitable recognition. For Hispanic employees that drops to 21% and for Black employees it drops again to 19%.

Recognition can reflect the state of inclusivity and equity at an organization or it can reveal underlying attitudes and biases that have longtail repercussions. A general lack of perceived equity in recognition signals that credit isn’t being given where it’s due and that’s a serious failure.

Recognition Embedded in the Culture

Simply having a recognition program isn’t enough to reap the benefits and see the change it’s capable of. For that, recognition needs to be part of the culture. One where gratitude, praise, and appreciation are freely given, frequently received, and far-reaching to every corner of the organization.

Thirty-six percent of employees report having recognition programs in place at their company, but only 19% of them strongly agree recognition is embedded at the organization.

A culture of recognition affects the totality of an employee’s experience. At full-strength, it will embolden everyone to participate in showing appreciation and commending achievements. One way to help it take root is to make recognition public. Widely-viewed recognition is a culture booster and encourages more participation.

Personalized RecognitionGallup stat

Just like the right amount of recognition varies depending on the employee, so too do preferences for how and where recognition is received. Twenty-nine percent of employees prefer recognition in private, 7% prefer it in public, and 64% prefer a mix.

It can seem like getting recognition “right” is a moving target, but here’s how to ensure a bullseye: ask them. Understanding how an employee responds best to recognition helps you tailor an authentic experience for them.

Technology affords various channels to communicate recognition to balance public recognition with something more private for those who prefer it. Mentioning good work in an email chain, expressing appreciation on an online recognition platform, and forwarding kind and positive comments to superiors (or even from superiors) are all forms of public recognition that will land differently for every employee.

Integrating Recognition

This is a bonus pillar. Integrating recognition technology with the tools and services employees use every day – programs like Slack, Outlook, Workday, Teams, and Yammer – keeps it consistently within reach.

These programs are some of the most effective ways for employees to connect with one another, especially in hybrid and remote work. By integrating with each of these solutions, you can inject the human connection into common, ongoing workflows. Making it as easy to use and navigate to as possible is a surefire strategy for improving adoption.

Investing in Recognitionman with calculator

Consider this the foundation that all the pillars (even the bonus pillar) rest on. Investing time and funding are critical to the success of an employee recognition program.

Despite existing research showing that recognition can improve business outcomes, 81% of leaders say recognition is not a major strategic priority at the organization, 64% say there is no budget allocated specifically to recognition, and 73% say their organization does not provide any best-practice training for employee recognition.

When leaders and managers aren’t given the necessary resources and knowledge for recognizing people; when they’re not provided with the outlets, programs, and systems for conferring recognition; and when they’re not even recognized themselves, the program is doomed to fail.

Investment requires financial and human capital. It needs funding, yes, for it to truly make an impact. But it requires effort on behalf of everyone, especially the most senior leaders who have the power to provide guidance and set the tone for everyone else. When organizations invest in recognition, it sends a clear message to employees about what they prioritize and value.

The success of employee recognition doesn’t hinge on any one person. Ideally, visualizing the collective moments of recognition – peer-to-peer, cross-team, and company-wide – it should look like an interconnected web spanning in dozens of directions. That shape is a connected company culture.


About the Author

Mike Lovett

Mike is a senior content marketing specialist at Workhuman where he writes about the next era of the workplace. Outside the workplace, he’s an avid gardener, a frequent biker, a steadily improving chef, and a fantasy sports fanatic.