Rewards and Recognition: 5 Tips for Employee Rewards Programs

Let’s face it, rewards program and recognition ideas are a dime a dozen. But not all of them create lasting impressions.  You’ll have a stronger, more successful program if you focus on those ideas that stand out in employees’ minds, now and in the future. So here’s a list of five ways to make memories as you reward and recognize employees. And, as an added bonus, we’ve included some specific rewards and recognition ideas to try in each category:

1. Experiences as Rewards

From a meal at a fancy restaurant to a luxury vacation to a shopping spree, experiences top the list of memorable rewards. This is because experiences can engage all of the senses and create an emotional reaction that you can’t get from, say, a cash bonus.

But more than that, experiences help to create stories. The human brain is wired to compose, remember, and share stories. And so a reward or recognition ceremony that lends itself to a story is more likely to be shared and remembered. The stories that a unique or indulgent experience can generate might even become a part of your organization’s lore, gaining a life far beyond the actual award itself.

Ideas: throw a killer party. Send them on a cruise. Take them to the movies. Or Opening Day. Drive them to the mall, give them a prepaid card, and let them go wild. Take the team to an amusement park at the end of a project.

2. Recognize With Trophies

Cognitive scientists have come around to the idea that our memories aren’t just kept in our heads, the way that a movie is recorded on a DVD. Much of our memory is aided, and even shaped, by our physical environment and the things in it. Rewards can be part of that environment; they serve as a constant reminder of the recognition the employee has received.

Not only that, but trophies are a signal to other employees as well. Trophies are meant to be displayed, and an employee who is proud of his or her achievements usually will display them. Those trophies then become a visible sign that management recognizes good work. Trophies can also encourage other employees to work hard and try to “measure up” to the higher achievers.

Whatever you choose, make sure that the trophy commemorates the employee’s specific achievement. And also make sure that it’s easy for passersby to read.

Ideas: recognize them with a certificate (framed, of course) or a plaque. Put together a photo collage or mural from the last project. It’s also nice to award them actual trophies to display, too.

3. Provide VIP Passes

Have you ever seen the excitement generated by a backstage pass? Besides just being an experience and a trophy, a pass is also a symbol of exclusivity. Our brains are very sensitive to social standing. Passes leverage this feature of brains to make people feel special and generate excitement. Having a pass can thus turn a rather humdrum experience into one that will be remembered for some time.

Ideas: let them use the company car for the weekend. Put them up at the hotel where you treat your best clients. Upgrade them to first class if they fly somewhere for your organization. Arrange for breakfast or lunch with the president or other high-status executive. Give them a gift card for a very exclusive restaurant or club.

4. Surprise and Delight Them

They say that a handwritten thank-you note or a letter makes the perfect low-cost recognition. But think: would those things really be meaningful if you got one every day, for every little thing you did? Of course not. What makes a letter or thank-you note special is that it’s often unexpected. An employee who doesn’t expect to hear from management, then suddenly receives attention and kudos, is just delighted to get something special and unannounced.

The element of surprise has a very powerful effect on memory. We quickly forget routine daily details, like what we had for breakfast or where we put our keys. But have you ever forgotten a surprise birthday party? Or an unexpected gift from a loved one? Rewards and recognition mean more, and are talked about more, when employees are not expecting them.

Ideas: surprise them with a catered lunch, a gift basket, or free valet parking. Send a prepaid card to their home address. Announce an impromptu company happy hour.

5. Give Them Personal Choice

People are highly motivated by guilt-free luxuries. But everyone’s idea of what counts as a “luxury” is different. So enable your employees to choose their own luxury items by giving them a customized corporate prepaid card. A card can let them choose what specific reward (or rewards) they want, and by awarding cards designed to deliver a particular type of spending experience, you can encourage employees to spend on something that would otherwise be a guilty indulgence.

Ideas: send them on a getaway, with a reward card good towards travel expenses like airfare and hotels. A card that can be spent at any restaurant can give them an indulgent dining experience. Add acceptance at movie theatres to that restaurant card, and the dining experience becomes a night on the town.

Despite its simplicity, your employees really will remember how they spent that prepaid card. Just make sure that it’s part of a well-crafted recognition program from the start. More important than the reward itself are the elements of experiences, trophies, passes and surprises. And, of course, choice.

Finding a list of 10, 25 or even 100 rewards and recognition ideas online is easy enough. But only certain ideas have the potential to stand out as truly memorable. Which means that only certain ideas are going to be worth your time and cost. Can you think of any other ideas for rewards or recognition that last? Are you using the most memorable rewards in your program?