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Over the past decade, there has been a steady rise in the number of companies with employee recognition programs included as an element of the overall employee experience. Today, an estimated 89% of organizations have some version of an employee recognition program in place.

These initiatives can be incredibly effective and have been touted for their success in raising engagement, reducing turnover, and building stronger connections between peers. Yet it’s important to remember, not all employee recognition programs are created equal. As an HR leader or anyone who is responsible for delivering recognition to colleagues it can be helpful to understand exactly why employee recognition programs work in order to make yours maximally effective.


Employee recognition programs capitalize on a simple psychological truth: behavior which is rewarded will be repeated.

Ivan Pavlov made the idea famous and today it’s expanded into a full-fledged school of psychological thought, known as Behaviorism. This school of thought seeks to explore and explain human behavior as a direct outcome of conditioning. Conditioning, in this case, refers to all of the rewards and consequences elicited in response to a given behavior.

Here’s an example to clarify: imagine an employee spends gives a presentation with remarkably clear data and an engaging design. That person’s manager appreciates their outstanding work and commends it in front of the team. The employee is applauded and they feel fantastic.

In this example, the manager’s praise and team’s applause is the conditioning (or reward) elicited by the behavior.

In a more controlled laboratory setting, the subject might be a rat, the behavior pressing a lever, and the reward a small piece of food. In either case, the logic works the same: because the behavior elicits a desirable reward, the recipient of said reward is likely to repeat the same behavior again in the future presumably, so they can earn another reward.

It turns out, praise is a powerful human motivator. When leaders praise the right behaviors, those behaviors become increasingly prevalent in the workplace. This is how, over time, employee recognition programs build stronger workforces.


So, how does all of this translate into picking the right recognition occasions? In short, the thing to keep in mind is that in order for your program to be maximally effective, you should praise behaviors that have the potential to be repeated.

Here’s what that looks like:

Do praise core values

Core values are the high-level ideals that define everything about your company culture. They’re supposed to guide the way employees behave, but too often they fall by the wayside because they’re not effectively incorporated into the workplace. Recognizing employees who live up to company core values is a fantastic way to combat that, and also encourage more of that behavior in the future.

 Don’t praise over work

Everyone loves an employee who will go the extra mile when there’s an extra mile to go. That said, overworking is one of the fastest ways to lead an employee towards burnout and if you’re trying to build the most effective team you can, that’s the last thing you want. It may seem like a good idea to send an employee recognition after they spent a week of late nights at the office, but try to praise an element of their work other than the overexertion. In the long-term, that’s not a behavior that should be consistently repeated.

 Do praise project management strategies

 While specific projects will be over and done in a matter of weeks, the strategies your employees use to make those projects successful can often be replicated and applied to future endeavors. If you’re recognizing an employee for a job well-done on one specific project, try to call out something they did a great job on that can be replicated again in the future. That might be an effective use of timelines, thorough research, attention to detail, or something else.

Don’t praise non-work related behavior

With some rare exceptions (depending on company culture), it’s not a great idea to use your employee recognition program to praise behaviors that have nothing to do with work. It’s great if one employee watched another colleague’s cat over the long weekend, but your company-sponsored recognition program is not the right tool to express gratitude for that. At the end of the day, it’s irrelevant.

 Do praise progress towards long-term company goals

Major company goals are realized only through the collective progress of many individuals with aligned behavior working in the same clear direction. Recognizing employees who make significant progress towards major company goals is a great way to help your whole team keep those objectives top of mind.

These five ideas are a great starting point. Now that you understand the reasoning behind them (praise the things you want to be repeated, focus less on the things that can’t be) it’s easy to extrapolate and create additional recognition occasions that work for you and your unique company culture.


Picking the right recognition occasions is not the one-and-only key to unlocking an effective recognition program, but it can certainly help. Other important factors to consider are ease of use, rewards selection, and whether the vendor’s pricing model is cost-effective. These things are the logistical elements of your program. They all lay the groundwork for success. That, paired with team members repeatedly recognizing one another for the right kind of behaviors, is an excellent way to make sure that your recognition program delivers results.


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