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Types Of Employee Recognition: It's Not as Difficult as You Think

published: September 4, 2020

Imagine only getting words of appreciation from your friends and family on your birthday.

How would such sparse gratitude make you feel?

First off, you would certainly look forward to your birthday. You would also feel neglected the other 364 days of the year. 

The desire to feel acknowledged is a basic human need. As such, most people relish getting frequent positive words of appreciation from their friends and loved ones.

Appreciation at work

The power of gratitude applies in our personal lives, but also our work life.

As a case in point, many companies have in place some variant of a recognition program. Frequently, taking the form of a Years of Service Program

But, many leaders put these programs in place and wonder why they don’t solve their most crucial HR problems.

Formal recognition programs are a good starting point. Still, a singular recognition method cannot be applied as a universal remedy for all management issues.

A Guide to Starting an Employee Recognition Program - Download PDF

Recognition is not one-size-fits-all

Human motivation is complex. A blend of short-term and long-term needs inspires people into action.
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That said, appreciation and praise is a fundamental part of the employee motivation puzzle. But, recognition comes in all shapes and sizes. These gestures are not equal—some gestures of recognition boost short-term motivation. In contrast, others are better at promoting long-term commitment. In other words, recognition is not one-size-fits-all.

Ultimately, one singular recognition program cannot solve all your people management issues. A more nuanced approach is needed.

We'll start simple--breaking down recognition methods into two main types. You will see why one sort of recognition is a good start, but not enough for capturing the full benefits of appreciation.


2 Main Types of Employee Recognition 

If you analyze the most common employee recognition strategies offered by top businesses, it becomes clear that all these methods fall neatly into two categories.

  • Structured 
  • Unstructured

We will go over these two categories to understand why each is fundamental to driving long-term and short-term employee motivation.


Structured methods are more traditional. These programs often take a top-down approach. Meaning, managers or senior leaders offer gratitude to employees. 

We label these programs “structured” as they are official and ceremonial. They are Asset 89app-store-iconexpected and happen at predictable times. 

Some examples of these programs are:

Structured methods are the foundation of a culture of recognition. These predictable, ritual celebrations create a feeling of belonging.

Predictable recognition celebrations enrich company culture. As a case in point, a 2017 World at Work study showed that 85% of companies offered a length of service program.

Structured methods are excellent at addressing long-term employee needs. These recognition initiatives incentivize and sustain deeper employee motivation. 

For example, celebrating work anniversaries is an important way to communicate that your business values employee dedication. In short, predictable recognition is an excellent way to provide employees direction, meaning, and purpose.

Benefits of structured recognition

  • Expected: Predictable recognition is essential because it gives employees a sense of security and something to look forward to. For managers, the predictable nature means they can anticipate the event and plan a celebration. 
  • Formal: The formal nature of these programs gives praise more weight. As a result, employees feel proud and valued to receive recognition.
  • Inclusive: Every employee is included in the program and gets recognized.
  • Drives long-term dedication: A traditional recognition program is an excellent tool for making employees feel valued on a long-term basis.

Drawbacks of structured recognition 

  • Infrequent: Employees have to wait long stretches of time for praise and recognition.
  • Generic: Structured programs are inclusive--everyone is included. But, this is a double-edged sword. As when everyone receives the same gift or trophy, the recognition risks being perceived as generic and inauthentic. In short, it doesn’t feel unique.
  • Top-Down: Receiving recognition from a senior leader who has no daily interaction with the employee can feel impersonal.
  • Budget needed: Structured recognition programs often involve plaques, trophies, or gifts, which requires a budget.



Unstructured recognition is a relatively new concept. But it’s quickly becoming a popular employee recognition method. Companies understand the importance of regular praise for employees to feel valued at work.

In these modern recognition practices, leaders intentionally create space for spontaneous gestures of appreciation.

Coworkers are encouraged to offer each other recognition. Praise is not something only managers give to employees. 

Unstructured methods can take many forms; they can be inexpensive to administer or need a small budget. An example is an email recognizing the top performers of the week, a recognition channel on a chat tool, or a budget distributed to reward employees for accomplishing necessary tasks.Asset 22

Some examples of these recognition programs are:

  • Peer-to-peer recognition
  • Gamified and reward-driven recognition
  • Performance incentive programs
  • The celebration of important life milestones

That said, technology has stepped up to help companies with this method of appreciation. In essence, digital tools help make impromptu recognition more official.

For example, software like Applauz Recognition provides a platform where employees can post messages of recognition for their peers on a company Newsfeed. 

The goal is to weave appreciation into daily life. As a result, employees feel valued all year round.

Benefits of unstructured recognition 

  • Flexible & Frequent: Employees or managers don’t have to wait for a formal meeting to give praise. Spontaneous praise ultimately feels more genuine and special. 
  • Personalized: Unstructured recognition is more precise--employees are praised for specific skills and accomplishments--so workers feel special.  
  • Peers are involved: Informal programs allow employees to receive praise from coworkers.
  • Drives short-term performance: Consistent gratitude helps boost daily morale and keep short-term motivation on track. 
  • Affordable: Unstructured programs can be inexpensive to deliver, if not completely free.

Drawbacks of unstructured recognition 

  • Exclusive: If not correctly managed to ensure everyone receives recognition, unstructured programs can risk making people feel left out.
  • Enforced: Some businesses enforce peer-to-peer recognition. Although peer-to-peer recognition is essential, involvement should never be commanded. To build a strong recognition program, gratitude should always come from a place of sincerity. 
  • Learning curve: Recognition programs that involve all employees are relatively new and often supported by software. It may take time for workers to adopt a new tool and embrace peer-to-peer recognition.

Are your HR goals being attained?

A 2017 World at Work study asked organizational leaders, "What are the objectives/goals of your organization's recognition programs?"

A few of the most common responses: 

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

Think about the current recognition methods being used in your company. Are they fulfilling your HR goals? If not, it might be time to include other recognition methods into your strategy.

Bottom line: A company cannot achieve these goals with a single type of recognition method. A mix of unstructured and structured recognition is required to meet different employee needs and achieve long-term HR goals.