Recognition matters. We hear it over and over again in leadership books and best practices articles. It makes sense to recognize employees early and often. But workforce appreciation isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing, and random acts of recognition usually fall flat.
So, what do successful organizations do? They focus on building a culture where appreciation is consistently expressed in meaningful and memorable ways. But what methods actually work? For real-world advice about how to recognize employees, we asked business and HR leaders these questions:
What is one innovative way your organization recognizes and rewards employees?
How is this making a positive difference?
We received feedback from across the business world — from HR Directors to CEOs. And if you just skim this list, I’m sure you’ll find at least a few suggestions worth implementing:
- Allocate “Dream Vacation” Time to Stellar Performers
- Provide a Monthly Recognition Allowance
- Make Recognition Special with “Spotlight” Experiences
- Foster Collaboration with a “Skills Swap” Initiative
- Lift Morale with a Peer Spotlight Program
- Support “Passion Projects” that Boost Job Happiness
- Incentivize Excellence with Employee of the Month Awards
- Promote Team Unity with a Specialized Listening Tool
- Show Genuine Appreciation with Personalize Gifts
- Encourage Career Growth Through Learning Autonomy
- Reinforce Team Spirit with Virtual Toasts
To learn more about how recognition is enhancing employee engagement, job satisfaction, and other key employee experience metrics at companies large and small, check the responses below…
11 Unique Ideas to Recognize Employees
1. Allocate “Dream Vacation” Time to Stellar Performers
We’ve implemented a special recognition program called “Flexible Dream Vacation.” Employees who surpass extraordinary performance goals receive an extra week of paid vacation time, which we call a “Dream Vacation.”
This additional week is not subject to typical vacation rule restrictions. It can be used whenever the employee wishes — even on short notice. This creative idea enables employees to take much-needed time away, so they can realize personal travel goals and come back to work revitalized.
The program has improved enthusiasm and morale among our team members, while boosting their productivity and sense of loyalty. In fact, since its adoption, we’ve seen a phenomenal 20% increase in employee engagement scores on our yearly surveys.
2. Provide a Monthly Recognition Allowance
We empower everyone in our organization to take charge of recognition. Every month, we distribute $5 to each staff member, so they can say “thank you” to others, $1 at a time.
It’s not about the money. The $1 is really just a nudge to remind everyone to pay attention and share appreciation with people around them.
At our company, team members are celebrated 4.7 times a month on average. This has a much bigger impact than a typical monthly MVP award ever could!
3. Make Recognition Special with “Spotlight” Experiences
One innovative way we recognize employees is through a unique “Spotlight Experience.” Every month, we grant one outstanding employee a “day-in-the-life” experience tailored to their personal passion or aspirations outside of work. For instance, we arranged for an employee who is deeply interested in culinary arts to spend a day with a renowned chef, cooking alongside them and learning advanced techniques.
Our “Spotlight Experience” program underscores our commitment to recognizing each employee as a whole individual, not just their professional contributions.
Because this unique approach goes beyond conventional bonuses and focuses on individual interests, it builds deeper connections with people and motivates them more deeply. For example, a recent internal survey revealed a 40% increase in job satisfaction scores and a 30% uptick in employee engagement.
4. Foster Collaboration with a “Skills Swap” Initiative
One way we recognize employees is through a “Skills Swap” program. In other words, employees teach their unique skills or hobbies to colleagues during dedicated instructional sessions. For example, one of our software engineers hosted a workshop on basic coding for non-technical team members.
This endeavor has significantly improved employee morale, motivation, and engagement. It creates opportunities for employees to showcase their expertise outside their job roles, fostering a sense of value and recognition. As a result, 85% of employees recently reported feeling more appreciated and motivated because of this initiative.
Moreover, these sessions have fostered a stronger sense of community and collaboration. Employees from different departments are interacting and learning from one another in new ways. This is breaking down silos and enhancing communication. In fact, we’ve seen a 30% increase in cross-departmental collaboration on projects.
5. Lift Morale with a Peer Spotlight Program
We have initiated a “Peer Spotlight Program,” where employees nominate colleagues for outstanding contributions that might otherwise fly under the managerial radar. Each month, we showcase selected employees company-wide and reward them with a unique experience, like funding to participate in a masterclass that focuses on a topic of their choice.
This peer-driven recognition effort has elevated team camaraderie, with our internal surveys indicating a 25% boost in overall team morale and collaboration.
6. Support “Passion Projects” that Boost Job Happiness
One innovative way our organization recognizes and rewards employees is through a “Passion Project” initiative. Each employee is invited to pursue a project outside their usual responsibilities that aligns their personal interests with our company’s goals.
For example, an employee with a passion for sustainability initiated a “green office” project. This led our organization to reduce waste and save energy. It even inspired involvement with our local community.
This approach not only enhances job satisfaction but also promotes creativity and ownership. As a result, our employee turnover rate has decreased by 15%, and overall job happiness has improved by 25%.
7. Incentivize Excellence with Employee of the Month Awards
To publicly recognize high-performing team members, we’ve implemented a unique Employee of the Month award program. Rather than simply hanging a plaque with names on it, we hang a custom-made life-sized poster of the top performer in our office entryway. Surprisingly, this program has become extremely popular with staff.
Not only is it a source of employee pride and connection, but it has also sparked friendly competition. Everyone strives to be the face that greets people as they walk into the office. And since we implemented this program, productivity has increased by more than 10%, which we believe is due largely to improved employee morale and engagement.
8. Promote Team Unity with a Specialized Listening Tool
Our organization has improved employee engagement by implementing an innovative listening tool that facilitates peer recognition. Through this platform, employees can recognize coworkers’ behaviors that exemplify our core values. We call these “Cheers for Peers.”
When someone goes above and beyond to demonstrate a value like “driving results” or “learning relentlessly,” a colleague can quickly log in and send positive feedback. This instant feedback loop makes it easy for employees to recognize value-driven actions in real time. And because people can see all the “Cheers for Peers” nods they’ve sent and received, it further boosts their participation.
Integrating values-driven recognition with daily interactions has been a game-changer for our company. The instant validation employees receive when peers celebrate them for living our values has strengthened staff unity and purpose. As a result, we’ve seen a noticeable improvement in morale and motivation.
9. Show Genuine Appreciation with Personalize Gifts
We’re a small startup with a social mission, and we really try to personalize the way we acknowledge team members who deserve recognition. Don’t get me wrong — we still all have the same new-hire swag with the same branded mug, notebooks, and pens. It’s not like we’re all crafting unique mugs from clay (although that could be fun!).
But here’s our approach: When someone in our organization goes above and beyond, we find a gift that is meaningful to them. For example, our first hire is proud that she’s employee number 1, so we sent her a branded sweater with a personal note about how she’s #1 to us. (She really is a #1 person in life!)
And when another member of our team attended a Beyoncé concert this summer, we arranged a hotel stay for the weekend, so she could really live it up!
There’s a time and a place for a standard gift card or a company t-shirt. But when employees work extra hours or go above and beyond to help a customer, we know it’s not for the money. It’s because they care. So we find little ways to show them how much we care, too!
10. Encourage Career Growth Through Learning Autonomy
We like to focus heavily on learning autonomy. In other words, we let our team members develop knowledge and skills the way they want to, rather than how they’re told to learn.
Although this isn’t technically a “reward,” it’s a way of approaching professional development that demonstrates a genuine commitment to everyone’s success. It also shows that we trust our staff and we want individuals to flourish in whatever ways are most effective for them.
11. Reinforce Team Spirit with Virtual Toasts
Something as simple as toasting the week’s top-performing employee can help bring people together for a common purpose. In our organization, this has become a weekly tradition. Every Friday, about an hour before closing time, we host a virtual happy hour. It isn’t a mandatory meeting, but everyone in the company usually joins with a beverage of their choice.
During this online huddle, our leaders take the floor to toast the agent of the week. This is an opportunity to detail the employee’s efforts and acknowledge their achievements.
Afterward, the team tends to linger, usually playing some group games or watching a movie together. It’s a fun way to connect, socialize, and start the weekend on a high note.