Problems with Employee Recognition Programs

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With decades of experience in employee recognition programs and incentive programs, we have seen our fair share of problems with employee recognition programs that are not running like a well-oiled machine. Every plan has the potential to have its own set of issues from the start or problems that can infiltrate the program as the years go by. With some planning and careful considerations towards what is the recognition program’s purpose, objectives, and outcomes, many of the problems that may come up can be handled easily and will get your program back on track.

The first step is to recognize that you have a problem. Through communication and feedback loops designed into the overall program that incorporate both management and participants, issues can easily find their way right to your desk. Document the problems and take corrective action by yourself or your team. Here are a few common recognition program problems.

Poor Leadership Involvement

We have heard it a thousand times, but the truth remains the same. If you do not have evident executive sponsorship to drive your employee recognition program from the top, you are going to have problems. Successful recognition programs are designed to drive desired behaviors that are in alignment with corporate values and goals. CORPORATE VALUES AND GOALS – not Human Resource goals. Without buy-in from corporate leadership, stick to a basic program like an employee service award program, but keep in mind that those too can have their own set of problems, so continue reading.

Not Personalized

The whole point of employee recognition is to make said recognition personal. It is about a specific employee and making them feel special. Taking service awards as an example, this is the corporate birthday of your employee – the day they came into your organization. This is their day! It should be unique, personalized, and known to everyone. Too often, managers will recognize an employee in the same manner that they would want to be recognized. Unfortunately, we are all wired in different ways, so the one size fits all approach of recognizing is going to fall flat.

You must learn what makes each of your employees tick and incorporate that into the way that you appreciate them. Not everyone wants you to shout out from the treetops that it is their 10th work anniversary, while others expect a full-blown party. Get to know your people. An employee spends over 2,000 hours a year engaged (hopefully) with your company, so making their anniversary day special is appropriate and necessary. This is what leads to your employees feeling genuinely valued.

Employee Recognition and Poor Communications

Having worked with many clients that have great recognition programs (on paper), yet feel that their program is not getting the participation they think it deserves, I have frequently found the culprit to be lack of communication about the program.

There was one company that had a peer-to-peer recognition program in place. I happened to be working with their marketing department and asked my client about what they thought of the peer-to-peer program. My marketing client looked at me like I had three eyes and said what program. She had never heard of it! Just imagine what could have been possible if the HR Department got together with the Marketing Department and did a little branding of the program. Just some basic marketing promotion tactics are sufficient to get the word out. Posters in gathering areas and elevators, newsletters, email communications, tabletop tents, launch videos, and useful promotional merchandise are great ways to increase awareness at launch and other times during the life of the program.

Inconsistent Recognition

Nothing kills employee recognition programs faster than inconsistent recognition since the desired behaviors and outcomes have not been clearly defined to all of the program stakeholders, including your employees. If there is not alignment on what your employees are being recognized for, it is all too common for sporadic recognition to take place that can leave employees wondering if the entire program is unfair and shows favoritism. Document and publish the goals and desired behaviors of the program and make sure this is visible to all participants and that leadership and management are all playing by the same rules.

Inadequate Budget

This is the most straightforward problem to fix, as there are only two options.

1. If you don’t have an adequate budget, then kill the program immediately or don’t start it in the first place. An underfunded program will do far more harm than good as employees will translate an underwhelming recognition experience into how you really value them.

2. Start to look at employee recognition as an investment and not as a cost and invest at least 1% of your overall payroll to the programs. 1% is the minimum magic number for a recognition program investment, according to a SHRM Survey. Recognition programs should not be viewed with a “check the box” mentality but as an opportunity to engage employees and invest in your greatest asset.

Poor gift selection

Too many times, we have run across companies that have implemented recognition programs, and over time the program has become an afterthought and is in a set-it-and-forget-it mode. Even if employee participation in the program is excellent, outdated gifts that don’t reflect consumer trends or the demographics of your organization results in a stale, lackluster program. Keep your program fresh, and if your employee recognition vendor is not pushing you to do this, consider making a change to receive the value that your program should be providing your organization and especially your employees.


An award is not meaningful if your employee never selects it. Non-responders, or participants that have never chosen a gift, need to be addressed. Communication is the best way to reach these employees. People need to understand the purpose of the program and its benefits and why it is so vital for them to participate. Did they even know the program exists? Are their managers at fault by not driving the program in their departments? Or are they suspect that the program has ulterior motives? Whatever the case may be, participation is critical to creating a swell and change behaviors.

Inadequate Manager Training

Without a commitment from your managers to learn how to properly recognize their employees, getting behaviors to change within their business units will be a challenge.

Before the launch of your recognition program, managers need to understand why a program is being implemented in the first place. They must understand what leadership is looking to accomplish and how their participation is critical to the success of the program because it is. Continually communicate to managers that this is the direction that the company is moving, and these programs are part of the overall strategy to align employees to help meet the corporate strategic objectives and results.

Also, this is the time to educate managers on what is in this for them. Provide them with studies that prove when managers learn the appropriate and proven way to recognize their direct reports, the results are higher performing employees that produce better results. This, in turn, will ultimately reflect directly on them.


Accountability needs to exist at every level of an organization. HR professionals need to emphasize the importance to leaders and managers of holding each other accountable for driving and achieving success with their employee recognition programs.  Leadership needs to do more than talk about recognition, but instead, show ongoing acknowledgment of the efforts that their employees put forth. From manager training to the deployment of the recognition skills that a manager has learned, your recognition program will be doomed if managers are not held accountable. Leaders need to have regular meetings with their managers, where they can ask how they have applied their new employee recognition strategies while providing the opportunity to provide feedback.

Invite some of the manager’s direct reports to provide feedback via an anonymous survey on how they feel they are being recognized. Have any changes been noticed? Has moral changed within the business unit or department? Do they feel more appreciated?

Hopefully, you haven’t concluded that you have all of the problems listed. But I guess that you have a few. Start your road to recovery by tackling one problem at a time to get on a path of fine-tuning your program and delivering a much more meaningful experience for your employees.