Applauz Blog

A Complete Guide to Plan an Employee Recognition and Rewards Strategy

Published: November 30, 2021

Last Updated: November 3, 2022

  8 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux


Planning an employee recognition and rewards strategy is a critical step to growing appreciation at work. Here is a step-by-step guide to start your plan!

Imagine the following scenario.

You have two groups of people who have not been physically active in a long time. Each group is given the same challenge -- get in better shape for the next 90-days.

Both groups are given full access to a sporting facility. They have all the equipment and tools they need to attain the goal of “getting fit.”

But here’s the catch...

Group 1 is given a complete program. They receive clear directions on how often to exercise, for how long, which exercises to do, and how to properly use the equipment. In short, they are given a clear roadmap. 

Group 2 is not so lucky. They are not given any directions. All they are told is the end goal -- how they proceed is entirely up to them.

Which group do you believe will achieve greater success at "getting fit" after 90 days?

Most people would unanimously agree that group 1 -- the people given a clear program -- will be more likely to succeed. We all know this intuitively; direction is crucial, especially when faced with an unfamiliar task. 

Struggling to grow recognition

Likewise, if you work in Human Resources, you know this reality all too well. 

You know that asking managers to “give more recognition” or to “improve their communication” won’t likely produce the results you want. 

These requests are far too ambiguous. There are no clear deliverables. And simply asking someone to do something is definitely not a strategy.

Managers will still have many questions on their minds, such as:

In short, managers might have all the tools to give recognition -- like a pen, paper, email, chat. Still, without clear directions, you are unlikely to see results.

Bottom line: having the right tools is important, but it’s only part of the picture. To accomplish a big goal, a plan with clear steps can be highly beneficial.

Your roadmap to growing a culture of appreciation

That said, many businesses try to launch recognition programs. But when choosing a program type, many forget to question if this is the right type of program for their company. In short, does it align with what their employees actually want or which HR issues they are trying to solve?

Rewards and recognition are a critical part of an employee engagement strategy. So if your company is exploring recognition and rewards, asking yourself these questions and building a plan around them is vital.

A plan is your roadmap. It transforms the daunting goal of “growing appreciation” into clear, concrete actions that anyone can carry out. Yes -- even the most unresponsive managers can do it! As a result, your organization is more likely to see positive outcomes like greater morale, productivity, and retention.

A Guide to Starting an Employee Recognition Program Download PDF Now


Step 1: Understand the Different Types of Recognition & Reward Programs

Think about only getting words of appreciation from your significant other on your birthday. Of course, you would appreciate it, but you would also feel neglected the other 364 days of the year. 

This brief story illustrates an important point: Different types of recognition fulfill different needs. Of course, we want a big blowout party on a special day like a birthday. But we also need smaller, more continuous forms of appreciation in our everyday lives.

Bringing this idea back to work, there are two main types of employee recognition. Generally speaking, all recognition program initiatives fall into one of two categories: 

  • Structured
  • Unstructured 

Common characteristics of structured recognition:

  • Formal + Expected: Structured recognition is expected and usually more formal. It gives employees a sense of security and something to look forward to. 
  • Organizationally driven: Usually given on behalf of the organization, so it's less personalized. Employees are praised for high-level achievements. 
  • Tangible compensation: Usually given with tangible gifts, awards, raises, or promotions.
  • Drives long-term motivation: Structured recognition is an excellent tool for making employees feel valued on a long-term basis.

Common characteristics of unstructured recognition:

  • Flexible + Spontaneous: This type of praise is timely and more casual. Employees don't have to wait for a formal event to get praise. 
  • From manager: Usually given by a manager, so recognition is more personalized. Employees are praised for their specific accomplishments and soft skills. 
  • Verbal praise: Recognition is given with verbal praise but can also be accompanied by small gifts or rewards like a paid social event.
  • Drives short-term motivation: Consistent gratitude helps boost daily morale and keep short-term motivation on track. 

We like to think of "structured" and "unstructured" recognition as two points on a spectrum rather than two fixed categories. Here are examples of programs that fall under each category.


When employees claim they don't feel valued or appreciated, it can mean many things. Perhaps they want to be recognized by their organization with a bonus, higher salary, or a new title. However, their dissatisfaction may also reflect a desire to receive more verbal recognition for their manager, to be recognized for specific achievements.

So after seeing this framework, it's easy to understand why just having one type of recognition program may not be enough to fulfill all of the employees' needs.

Not to mention that research shows a strong correlation between employee satisfaction and frequency of recognition. In short, to maximize engagement, recognition should be offered at least once per month.

To that end, to grow greater appreciation at work, a mix of both structured and unstructured recognition needs to be present to fulfill different organizational goals.

I know what you're thinking...this sounds like a lot of work. Of course, these programs don't all need to be launched at once! 

Starting with one program is a step in the right direction. Small, consistent efforts will compound and lead to you reaching your greater objectives of growing appreciation in the workplace.

Now, let's go on to the next step, auditing any current programs or initiatives you currently have in place. 

Step 2: Audit Your Current Recognition & Reward strategies

This step can be fast and simple if you are a small business just getting started with recognition. Either way, it will be made much simpler by using the framework from above.

For each section, think of any programs or initiatives (even if they are informal) that support recognition and appreciation. 

You may want to create a different framework for each department, as certain types of recognition like "performance awards" or "bonuses" may apply to some departments and not others.

Speak to managers

All of these initiatives are meant to benefit your employees. The goal is to help employees feel more fulfilled and valued. As such, managers can be valuable resources to help understand where your company is falling short. For example, when speaking with managers, you might discover that employees aren't happy with a current nomination program. Maybe they would prefer a different type of recognition program, one that is more inclusive. This leads us to the next question.

Speak to employees

Before launching any new initiative or program, we recommend speaking directly to your employees or testing out a program on a small group. Recognition and reward programs are intended to bring value to employees, so it's essential to know if they will benefit from a new program before implementing one. 

And as mentioned before, when employees claim to "want more recognition," it can mean many things. So when you are attempting to improve the recognition and rewards aspect of your business, we suggest fielding feedback from your employees. 

This can be achieved by:

  • Anonymous surveys
  • Focus groups
  • 1:1 interviews

A few simple questions can reveal a lot about what employees need to feel valued by your company.

For example:

  • Do you feel recognized and appreciated for the work you do? If no, why not?
  • How can we better show recognition for your work?
  • What type of recognition do you prefer to receive? (i.e. gifts, public praise, paid social events, more 1:1 time, etc.)
  • How frequently would you like to receive recognition?

Step 3: Identify Your Goals & Fill The Gaps

After the auditing exercise is done, you should have a good idea of where your company is falling short in terms of recognition.

In extension, your most urgent goals should become clear. 

Even if you have no recognition programs in place, speaking to managers and employees can be a helpful exercise to understand what employees’ needs are. 

At this point, you should have enough fuel to start putting some ideas down on paper.

What are your HR goals?

When planning, you must think about your top HR goals. Because each initiative you decide to invest in should be aligned with that goal. 

As an example, if your number one goal is to “motivate and reward high-performance,” investing in a Service Awards program shouldn’t be your priority.

Service Awards are essential, but the drawback is that they are sparse. Employees only get an award every few years. Imagine waiting two years to hear "good job on that outstanding assignment...from 2 years ago." 

Instead, you would want to explore a recognition method that permits for timely, personalized recognition. That would be more impactful in this case and fulfill your most urgent HR priority.

In short -- zoom out. Consider what you are hoping to achieve with these programs? Of course, you want to keep employees happy and turnover low, but what are the specific goals.

Here are a few examples:

  • Recognize years of service 
  • Create a positive work environment
  • Create a culture of recognition 
  • Celebrate employee life events
  • Motivate high performance
  • Reinforce desired behaviours 
  • Support organizational mission/values 
  • Increase morale

We recommend picking 2-4 goals. Anything more than that would be overwhelming. Start small, and build from there. And number those goals in order of priority. 

List out ideas linked to each goal

If you did the exercise above, your list might look something like this:

  • Goal 1: Motivate high performance
  • Goal 2: Support organizational mission/values 
  • Goal 3: Recognize years of service 

When your goals are clear, it becomes much easier to brainstorm worthwhile ideas. And each new idea will be tied to your most important HR objective. Don't worry, this is not set in stone! You will be refining your list in the next step and overtime as well.

Step 4: Build Your Recognition & Rewards Plan

In this step, the goal is to create an institutionalized process for recognition. This plan outlines the structure for rewarding and recognizing employees in your organization.

Once your plan is completed, the following should be established:

  1. Recurring recognition events.
  2. Who recognition will come from. 
  3. Who the recipients will be.
  4. The frequency of each event.
  5. A goal for each recognition event.
  6. A budget for each recognition event.
  7. Any third-party providers involved.

In short, a plan helps you zoom out. And it helps provide everyone with transparency. 

  • Your finance team can clearly see the business implications of each program.
  • Managers are accountable for fulfilling specific recognition events. 
  • The frequency of recognition is clearly visible; gaps are easy to identify. (i.e. are employees waiting too long for recognition between events)

Here is an example of what a recognition plan might look like:

Recognition Framework@2x-8

Remember: this plan is not set in stone. It's a general roadmap. You can always adapt and revise the plan as your organization's goals change (they will definitely change!) or as you get feedback from your employees. 

After a plan has been established, HR teams are able to see clearly what needs to be done. Not only for HR but for all parties involved in promoting and upholding each initiative and program.

Step 5: Execute Your Ideas

The final step is to zoom in and execute your ideas. Of course, launching multiple programs cannot happen all at once. This is a long-term plan. But the idea is to start working on the program that is linked to your most urgent organizational needs. 

If we take the example from above, your goal of "motivating high performance" was given the highest priority. As such, the "celebration of quarterly wins" is an initiative you will be prioritizing.

The next step is to zoom in. You want to set some parameters for this "celebration of quarterly wins" program.

Some factors to consider:

  • What is the benchmark for earning a quarterly reward?
    • For example, employees that exceed their quarterly objectives by 10% receive a reward.
  • How will employees be rewarded? Will it be an informal awards ceremony for each team with public recognition? Or will you offer a small gift, a gift card, from the manager to an employee in private? Or maybe both? As you can see, there are options to consider.

  • Finding a vendor that can provide gifts or rewards for this recognition event (if needed.)

Here, the goal is to create a practical process. Management doesn't have to wonder when to give recognition, who should receive it, or how often to do it. The guidelines are clearly explained to them. As a result, the vague goal of "giving more recognition" turns into clear, concrete actions that can be followed with minimal effort. 

Final Thoughts

Asking resistant managers to "give more recognition" is like asking someone to simply "exercise more" and hoping they'll magically do it. Spoiler: they probably won't. 

"Creating a culture of recognition" is a broad goal. It must be broken down.

When people are held accountable for concrete actions, results and progress are much more likely to occur. As such, your company needs to establish ideas and expectations that are tied to your most urgent goals. This article proposes a solution for HR teams: A framework to support their planning efforts. 

With a recognition roadmap, HR teams can stay focused on the big picture, and as a result, come up with worthwhile ideas. Most importantly, everyone knows what is expected of them. And just like the people who received a workout program, with a clear plan in place, your company will be set up to succeed from the very start.

A Happier Workplace


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