Does your staff know how much you appreciate them? The wrong answer could impact your bottom line.

Feeling appreciated is a key indicator of workplace happiness, Robert Half research has found. And that can directly lead to better retention, productivity and engagement among employees. Organizations that fail to recognize employees who exceed expectations risk impacting the quantity and quality of work, and higher turnover.

The good news is, employee rewards programs, when planned intelligently and implemented with care, are endlessly customizable to fit your company's culture. The better news is, employee appreciation awards and incentives don't have to cost a lot. The idea and the spirit behind employee recognition programs — the fact that the company is rewarding team members who are doing a great job — can be as motivational as the material rewards themselves.

Let our guide to recognizing employees shape your employee rewards programs. 

Employee rewards program ideas

Here are some ways to recognize your team members:

  • On major work anniversaries — After an employee's first anniversary, you should make note of anniversaries divisible by five. Often these benchmarks will come with company benefits, such as more paid time off or scheduled salary increases, but it's nice for a manager to remember it, too. 
  • On birthdays — A group card is always appropriate, and including a gift card to a local restaurant is a nice idea. Remembering birthdays is a little thing, but it shows that you and the company care about your people. Make a master calendar for your team to keep track of anniversaries and birthdays.
  • When they've gone above and beyond on a project — After you've wrapped up a stressful work period, take a moment to reflect if any of your employees went the extra mile. Recognizing that hard work lets people know you appreciate them — and is an incentive for them to continue their top performance. 
  • When they've been nominated by a colleague — Recognition doesn't have to come from the top. You could set up an employee rewards program for your company where staff members nominate a colleague who's been especially helpful each month and recognize one of them.
  • In an annual review — Keep track of great performance all year round so during the annual review you can offer specific examples of when the employee excelled. 

Competitive compensation packages are key to effective employee rewards programs. Use our Salary Calculator to check employee salaries:


Employee rewards program gift ideas

The award should fit the recipient and the achievement. Here's a list of some low-cost popular employee recognition program gifts that organizations can consider:

  • Extra time off — whether extra personal days, longer lunches or early departures
  • A note or letter of appreciation from their manager, the division or company president, or from a customer who shared praise
  • Dinner for two at a local restaurant, or a group lunch for an outstanding department
  • A gift card for their favorite coffee shop
  • A designated employee-of-the-month prime parking spot
  • Select a gift from a catalog or from a prize box
  • An all-staff email to recognize the top performer
  • A photo and brief article in the company newsletter or social media
  • A press release to the local newspaper
  • Plaques or paperweights
  • A rotating trophy that is passed around the office to high-performing individuals
  • Surprise treats for the team
  • Company-branded gear (T-shirts, tote bags, travel mugs, etc.)
  • Tickets for a movie or sports event
  • Paying for professional membership dues or conference attendance

Employee rewards program pitfalls

You get the picture now: It doesn’t take a big budget to recognize high-performing employees. But you do have to do it right. Don't make these mistakes when rewarding stellar staff members:

  • Being vague — Just telling someone that they did a good job is too generic. Properly give thanks by tying the acknowledgment back to specific actions so people learn exactly what they did right and how it helps the company.
  • Waiting too long — Award great work while it's still fresh in everyone's memory — that way you can provide details in your praise.
  • Recognizing the wrong person — Nothing’s more embarrassing than addressing a card to the wrong person or thanking them for something they didn’t even do. Although some workers naturally gravitate toward the limelight, don’t forget to also celebrate unsung heroes who help behind the scenes.
  • Offering token gestures — The reward should match the achievement. Don't give an employer a $5 gift card for 20 years of service, and don't give an employee an iPad just for turning in a report on time.
  • Embarrassing a shy employee — Announcing his or her great work in front of the entire company won't feel like praise, it will feel like torture! Some employees might be embarrassed by having to stand up in front of a group and would prefer to be thanked one-on-one; others wouldn't mind receiving praise in public. Rely on the direct manager's judgment and his or her relationship with the top performer. 
  • Excluding some employees — Don't design a rewards program that leaves anyone out. If teams have different goals and benchmarks for excellence, create separate incentive programs for them. 

An employee rewards program that recognizes team members for their hard work and dedication in a meaningful way will serve as motivation for everyone on the team to do their best work. And that's the greatest reward a manager can ask for.