Types of Employee Recognition (With Examples of Each)

Recognition & Rewards
July 1, 2024

Recognition at work can mean many things – from casual “good jobs” to more formal appreciation involving an actual budget and tangible gifts and rewards. Each type of employee recognition fulfills a different employee need. 

For example, some types of employee recognition are better short-term motivators than others, while some are better at stimulating long-term motivation. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Ultimately, one singular recognition program or type can’t address all employee needs. A more comprehensive approach is needed. 

To that end, it might seem difficult to know where to start if you're looking to grow appreciation in your workplace. You might be asking yourself what type of employee recognition or rewards programs we should focus on? Which will have the most impact on our workforce? Before answering this question, we'll classify recognition types into two main groups. You will see why one sort of recognition is a good start but not enough to fully reap the benefits of appreciation.

Types of Employee Recognition (With Examples of Each)

Employee recognition is a broad term encompassing different actions and measures leaders and organizations can take to express employees' appreciation. 

For example:

  • Offering verbal praise for a job well done.
  • Planning a paid lunch to thank employees upon completing a big project.
  • Offering employees a yearly monetary bonus for exceeding their performance objectives. 

As you can see, organizations can recognize their employees in many ways. But this begs the question: If you know your business is lacking in the recognition department and employees aren’t feeling appreciated, how do you know where to start? What types of recognition programs should you implement?

First, it helps to understand that all recognition initiatives can be divided into two main types: formal and informal programs.

Both recognition types serve an important purpose in stimulating employee motivation and happiness. Let’s review each one in a little more depth and go over the pros and cons of each so you can see why each type is critical to building a well-rounded culture of appreciation in your workplace. 

Formal Recognition

Formal methods are more traditional ways of offering recognition. These programs or initiatives often take a top-down approach, meaning that leaders or even executives offer gratitude to employees on behalf of the company. 

HR teams are often responsible for planning and structuring these programs and initiatives. We label these types of recognition as “formal” as they are structured and ceremonial in nature; they are often expected and happen at predictable times.

Here are a few examples of formal recognition:

  • Years of service awards 
  • Promotions or title changes
  • Milestone programs
  • Performance bonuses/awards
  • Merit increases
  • Birthday celebrations
  • Employee of the month
  • Nomination programs

Think of formal recognition as the foundation of your culture of appreciation. These events give employees something to look forward to. Formal methods are excellent at addressing long-term employee needs. These recognition initiatives incentivize and sustain deeper employee motivation. 

However, this type of recognition method is not without drawbacks. Let’s look at the pros and cons of formal recognition in a little more detail.

Benefits of formal recognition:

  • Predictable and consistent: Formal recognition gives managers a clear picture of when to give recognition, and employees also have a scheduled recognition event to look forward to.
  • Impactful: Recognition is usually given on the organization's or executives' behalf, and its formal nature gives it more impact and weight.
  • Fair and inclusive: For most formal programs, every employee is included (or at least has an opportunity to be) and, therefore, can get recognized.

Drawbacks of formal recognition:

  • Infrequent: Employees often have to wait long periods to receive formal recognition.
  • Resource and time-intensive: Formal programs are structured and involve a budget; they must be carefully planned, approved, and rolled out. 
  • Can be generic: Recognition is usually offered globally for the accumulation of achievements, so it’s not usually tied to specific achievements or skills. If everyone receives the same gift or trophy, recognition risks feeling impersonal.

Informal Recognition

Informal recognition is flexible and unstructured in nature. It is often offered by an employee's direct manager or even peers. Little planning and preparation are involved in these types of recognition initiatives; they are often offered on an “as-needed” basis and given in the form of verbal recognition, but they can also be accompanied by tangible gifts or rewards.

More “informal” programs usually involve initiatives like:

  • Shoutouts in meetings
  • Peer-to-peer recognition
  • Recognition boards
  • Organizing paid outings or events
  • Thank you letters
  • Offering small gifts for a job well done

These types of employee recognition practices are critical in the workplace. A Deloitte survey on recognition strategy in the workplace found that 85% of workers want to hear “thank you” in day-to-day interactions.

Recognition has a strong impact, but it is also short-lived. Recognition must be offered in small, consistent ways to have the most impact. When leaders focus on cultivating a culture where informal recognition is regularly offered to employees and between peers, a team will benefit from the continuous morale boost that appreciation and recognition can bring.

Again, this type of recognition method is critical but not without drawbacks. Let’s look at the pros and cons of informal recognition in a little more detail.

Benefits of informal recognition:

  • Flexible and frequent: Employees don’t have to wait for a formal event to receive appreciation or praise.
  • Easy to administer and inexpensive: Informal programs or methods of appreciation are easy to set up, roll out and can often be completely free.
  • From manager or peers: Praise comes directly from a manager or peer rather than the organization, so it feels more personal.
  • Specific accomplishment: With informal methods, employees are usually praised for specific skills and accomplishments.

Drawbacks of informal recognition 

  • Lack of impact: Informal recognition is casual and given spontaneously. As a result, it can sometimes come across as vague and lack the impact and weight of more formal methods. 
  • Consistency: Creating a culture of regular recognition takes practice. The frequency and consistency at which recognition is offered to employees may fluctuate.
  • Perceived favoritism: Managers may inadvertently recognize a few employees, causing feelings of favoritism. However, this is easy to avoid when managers try to recognize different types of actions and people.

What is the most effective type of employee recognition?

At Qarrot, our specialty is employee recognition. We’ve helped many companies grow appreciation in their workplaces through official recognition programs, and we’ve seen firsthand the impact that consistent recognition can bring to a company. 

First, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for recognition. As you can see from above, both formal and informal recognition methods should be used to have the maximum impact on your workforce. 

Think about this: How would you feel if you only received words of appreciation from your loved ones on your birthday and total silence for the remaining 364 days of the year? Of course, you’d be happy to have a big celebration one day a year, but appreciation also needs to be given in small but consistent ways to have the most impact on the quality of our relationship.

The same idea applies at work. Honoring formal recognition events, like work anniversaries, promotions, or performance awards, is critical to employee happiness and motivation. But these events happen too sparingly to have a consistent impact. This is where informal methods come in to fill the gaps. 

And, of course, recognition can involve monetary rewards, but it doesn’t always have to. Interestingly, a wealth of research shows how important simple but consistent verbal appreciation can be on employee happiness and morale.

For example, Dr. Paul White is a psychologist, organizational consultant, and expert on workplace appreciation. He and his team have been studying it for over a decade and have surveyed over 400,000 people on how they prefer to be appreciated at work

Their research has found that “words of affirmation” continue to be the most desired form of appreciation at work. This comes ahead of quality time, acts of service, and tangible gifts. In other words, giving impactful recognition can involve something as simple as leaders sharing their verbal appreciation regularly. Nothing more.

So, if you’re an HR professional or business leader looking to invest in recognition and rewards, here are a few suggestions to help you get started in the right direction. 

Ask for feedback

If you’re unsure how employees want to be appreciated and recognized – simply ask them! Depending on the size of your company, this can be achieved with a simple survey or gathering feedback from your managers.

You can ask:

  • Do you feel appreciated and recognized for your work?
  • How would you prefer we show you appreciation (i.e., verbal recognition, team lunch, etc.)
  • Can you give me an example of a time you felt appreciated for your accomplishments?

Once you have a better idea of how employees want to be appreciated, you can take the right steps and implement the initiatives and programs to meet their needs.‍

Build a business case for appreciation

If you work in HR, you know that getting even a tiny slice of the budget for extra initiatives can be difficult. Executives are often wary of investing in programs with ambiguous ROI. Of course, HR teams will have difficulty launching recognition or reward programs if they don't have buy-in from senior leadership. 

We suggest you approach this conversation more logically to make the hurdle of getting financial buy-in easier. In short, you want to build a business case for employee recognition. To achieve this, you must first prove to leadership that a problem in the business needs to be addressed.

For example: 

  • High turnover 
  • Low morale 
  • Low satisfaction 
  • Low average tenure 

Pro tip: You'll build an even stronger case if you can put a hard price tag on how much money the business loses due to these challenges. Hopefully, with more strategic conversations, you can free up a budget to help fuel your recognition and rewards initiatives.

Embed recognition in your culture 

‍Consider making “recognition” or “appreciation” a part of your core cultural values. Have your executive and senior leaders stand behind this effort. Ensure these new cultural values are promoted and visible at various touch points with which employees interact. For example, the company website, social media, and office walls are emphasized at company meet-ups and meetings. When employees see that this program isn’t just a surface-level initiative but a deeper reflection of the company's values, they’ll be more likely to practice this habit continuously.

Make sure leaders stand behind your programs

Rewards and recognition programs are more successful when employees see the company's senior leadership support them. This encourages employees to get involved and participate. Ensuring leaders are involved is as simple as having them contribute to creating the buzz around the program and proactively participating in recognition giving, for example.

Final Thoughts

Recognition is not one-size-fits-all. There are countless ways to show employees your appreciation as a leader and even on behalf of your entire organization. Each type of employee recognition serves a distinct function and objective in terms of employee happiness and motivation.

In this article, we’ve covered two main types: formal and informal programs and methods of recognition. After examining the benefits and drawbacks of each, it’s easy to see why both types are critical to building a culture of appreciation in the workplace.

With predictable and systematic recognition events, formal recognition provides a necessary foundation for a strong culture of appreciation. While informal methods fill in the gaps with casual and spontaneous recognition, employees crave on a week-to-week or even day-to-day basis. By investing in both formal and informal methods of recognition, your business will be in a better position to foster a positive work environment, increase employee engagement, and ultimately boost overall performance.