How to Recognize Outstanding Employee Performance

How to Recognize Outstanding Employee Performance

It seems so simple.

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“Recognizing employees for their efforts and accomplishments is important in increasing engagement and loyalty and causes employees to do more great work,” says Christina Chau, Manager of Global Research and Assessment at O.C. Tanner, a human resource consulting and services company that designs and helps implement employee recognition programs for clients in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Fun Fact: Three out of 4 companies have recognition programs, but only 58% of employees know about them.

“Obviously communication is lacking; companies are failing to educate employees and managers on how to engage with those programs to make them most effective,” says Taro Fukuyama, CEO and co-founder of AnyPerk a San Francisco-based company that provides employee perks and discounts to companies of all sizes.

In another study, 80% of employees say they feel motivated to work harder when they feel appreciated for their work. Seventy-one percent of highly engaged employees work in organizations in which their peers are recognized at least monthly. Then there’s the sad fact that 79% of all employees feel undervalued at work because of a lack of recognition and appreciation. Clearly, there’s a lot of room for improvement here.

Last fun fact: Tenure milestone recognition does little to increase an employee’s happiness or motivation. In fact, 51% of employees said milestone awards have no impact on their view of their job. So again, try to distribute rewards when they are unexpected.

With that in mind, here are 5 ways to recognize outstanding performance in the workplace from Fukuyama:

  1. Invest in their professional development. Offer to fund entry to an event or professional development course for the employee. This shows the employee that the employer/employee relationship is reciprocal; that the company supports them and cares enough to help boost their professional value and potentially their standard of living.
  2. Make a corporate donation to his or her preferred non-profit. More and more studies are showing that employees that are given the opportunity to act prosocially at work are more likely to feel satisfied and tied to their company. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant (among other researchers) prosocial behavior makes us happy! Plain and simple. So giving the employee the means to give back is very effective.
  3. Encourage their peers to congratulate them. Offer tools for peer-to-peer recognition. Feeling that your team, not only your manager, values you is truly powerful; it boosts teamwork, creativity, and trust. Offer employees an easy way to offer praise to their peers – whether it’s done online, at all hands meetings, or written notes. Let them nominate peers for performance and encourage them to make the praise written and specific.
  4. Ask the employee what drains his/her energy the most, then offer to fix it. Driving? Sitting all day? Not having alone time? Dog walking? Let the employee choose the best way the company can help, whether it’s picking up commuter costs, gifting a massage, or babysitting or dog walking services. It’s less about the dollars saved than the personal gesture that will make the employee smile. By helping make their lives easier, remember you’re also making them more productive at work.
  5. Have quarterly core value awards. Tie rewards back to the corporate vision; celebrate people who embody one of the company’s core values. Explain how the employee is a key driver for the company achieving its vision and find a way to convey that sentiment to the rest of the team to encourage similar behavior.

Fukuyama says the most meaningful rewards tend to be unexpected, specific and demonstrate that the company cares about the employee as people, beyond their working life. Chau also points out that the best ways to recognize employees depend a lot on the type of achievement. Research shows these results, says Chau:

  1. For every day thanks, like when a team member helps you out, handwritten notes or fun ecards or ebuttons are a great tool to make people feel appreciated that are low cost, easy to use, and casual.
  2. When a team member goes above what is expected and you want to recognize extra effort, ecards with points or gift cards are a great way to show appreciation and deepen work relationships.
  3. If you are celebrating little victories along the way to an end goal (learning new skills that helps the team), on the spot awards, merchandise awards, and gift cards show the employee they are making a difference and boosts morale.
  4. To celebrate big wins and reward noticeable results (like finishing a project), merchandise awards coupled with a symbolic award drives innovation, productivity, and performance.
  5. For high achievements (like landing a big account or a President’s award), a cash or merchandise award helps them feel proud and inspires greatness, but must be coupled with a symbolic award that aligns their work to the company goals.

What’s more, recognizing employees for outstanding performance in the workplace doesn’t have to be expensive. Verbal thanks, emailed thanks, and handwritten notes are always easy, cheap and quick ways to say thanks for everyday effort or when a team member helps you out, says Chau. For more formal recognition, companies find success presenting a certificate of achievement or communicating recognition in an employee newsletter, on the company intranet, on company TV screens or billboards, or in company-wide emails.

“However, this method of communication should come as secondary recognition to a more personal experience, where the employee is thanked more personally by the manager or peer,” says Chau.

Here are some inexpensive and fun ways to recognize outstanding performance, from Fukuyama:

  1. Team gong: Ring this whenever an employee reaches a significant milestone or achieves something great for the company. Make it a team win by letting everyone in on the victory.
  2. A day off: Give the employee time to spend and celebrate with loved ones or just relax.
  3. Lunch with a senior employee (of their choice): for professional development and pitching ideas.
  4. Hand-written notes: The smallest and most personal gestures can truly be the most effective. Penning a personal note to an employee specifying what they did to deserve the praise is a huge morale booster and shows the employee that the company – and their immediate colleagues – appreciate them.

There are other times when an employee may earn – and the company may able to reward/provide – something that does go above and beyond in both reward and expense. Some of these ways, according to Fukuyama, include:

  1. Paid vacation: Encourage the employee to take time off by paying for their trip (for ambitious companies, try paying for their loved one’s vacation as well). This is a clear way to communicate that the employer values the employee as a person, not just as a money-making machine.
  2. Subsidized education: Few things say, “We care about you and want to help make your future with us (or not) brighter” than offering to fund an employee’s higher education. Think Starbucks offering to pay 100% of their employees’ college tuitions for BAs, regardless of what they study.
  3. Subsidized home services: Offer to make the employee’s life easier, whether that’s by picking up the tab for dog walking or babysitting services, house cleaning, laundry services, and more.
  4. A significant donation made on behalf of the employee: Give to the charity of their choice, help them feel they’re making a positive difference, and strengthen the employee’s faith in their company. (Doesn’t make the company look too bad either!)

There is a difference between saying thanks for a job well done and recognizing great work. As Chau mentioned, research shows that depending on the level of achievement, there are different awards that are appropriate and each type of award has a different impact on employees.

“The best recognition strategy that an organization can have includes a variety of ways and options to say thanks, and helps managers understand the best way to recognize their specific employees,” says Chau.

Bonus Employee Recognition Tips:

Robert Hosking, the executive director of OfficeTeam, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of highly skilled office and administrative professionals into front office and administrative assistant jobs, offers five tips for managers when recognizing staff:

  1. Say thanks.Regularly acknowledge employees’ great work verbally. Point out how their efforts will help the company or assist clients and customers.
  1. Put it in writing.Prepare a handwritten thank-you note or copy senior executives on an email about a worker’s accomplishment.
  1. Publicize achievements.Feature standout employees in the company newsletter or recognize them at a staff meeting.
  1. Support continuing education.Provide tuition assistance for courses that will help workers in their jobs and subsidize the cost of exams required to attain professional certifications.
  1. Give a little.Offer gift cards, movie passes or sporting event tickets to employees who go above and beyond on a project.

Additional Resource
20 Ways to Rock At Employee Recognition

Written by

Matt Krumrie is a career columnist and professional resume writer who has been providing helpful information and resources for job seekers and employers for 15+ years. Learn more about Krumrie via, connect with him on LinkedIn ( and follow him on Twitter via @MattKrumrie.

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