Employee Engagement Employee Retention Employee Recognition

Recognition recipes: 29 fun employee recognition program ideas

Do your company’s recognition efforts need a boost?

Maybe you’re launching a new program and want to get your staff excited about it. Or you’ve had a program for a while and it’s never really gotten much traction. Or you’ve just noticed participation start to dip a little.

In any of these situations, it’s your job as the program administrator to get things on track, and do what you can to encourage adoption. And one of the best ways to do this is with creative program ideas.

As great as having real-time recognition is, relying on your employees keeping the habit of recognizing each other can cause usage to ebb and flow a bit. When that happens, running challenges and games, offering recognition on specific dates or times of year, or tying it to other people and culture initiatives could give your program just the lift it needs.

For this post, we’ve put our heads together and compiled a wide variety of employee recognition program ideas. 

Some of them are initiatives we’ve seen our clients have great success with, while others are programs we’ve implemented ourselves at Guusto. Whatever company you’re in, and whatever stage you are at in your recognition journey, you’ll find something here that works for your team!  

Employee recognition events & challenges

One of the best ways to make your recognition program more visible across your organization is to use it in tandem with other people and culture initiatives. 

Offering rewards alongside social events, challenges, and other team-building activities is a great way to boost participation in these programs, while also showing the power of recognition to your employees and leadership.

Here’s just a few events, challenges, and other initiatives you might consider using your recognition program for.

1. Social events

Sometimes, the simplest employee recognition ideas are the best, and one of the easiest ways to help your program gain traction and improve adoption is to use it in your social events.

Whether you’re running trivia contests, games, or anything else, you can offer recognition as prizes, or just to participants. If you provide rewards people actually want and value, they’ll see how good your program is, and be more likely to use it regularly. Over time, you might see a snowball effect on your participation levels.

2. Wellness employee recognition programs

Workplace wellness challenges can be a fantastic way to build camaraderie among your employees, while also encouraging them to do something positive for their health and wellbeing. 

While a wellness challenge typically focuses on exercise and physical activity, it can also include activities that help build mental wellness, like practicing mindfulness, or even just good work-life balance. 

Recognition can be an easy way to boost your numbers for these challenges. You can offer rewards to those who log the best results, but it’s often better to recognize everyone who participates in some way, too. 

Some employees will naturally be more inclined to do one of these challenges than others, and it’s arguably more important to get the people in your team who may not be doing a lot for their physical and mental health on board.

We’ve put a couple of wellness employee recognition program ideas into action at Guusto over the years. Our first program was Guusto Go!, where our employees worked to walk, run, bike, or swim 10km over the course of a month. We offered a small gift card to everyone who participated, as well as larger rewards to those who logged the most miles.

Our most recent wellness program was Guusto Thrive, a challenge with a twist! Instead of focusing on specific activities or targets, we simply asked our employees to choose an activity that makes them thrive, that they could do every day, and which was small, sizable, and attainable. Employees were given rewards for obtaining 7-day, 14-day, and month-long streaks.  

Check out this blog for a deeper look at how employee recognition can be used to promote wellness at your company.

3. Employee book club

Another challenge you might implement with the help of recognition is an employee book club. A book club is a great way to encourage employees to take time to read, and can also be a fun social event. 

Your club can either all read the same book, or have each employee choose what they want to read. If your employees are willing, you could even specify that the books they choose relate to their professional development (though they can just read for fun, too!). 

Again, recognition can be very effective in incentivizing participation for this kind of program. You can offer any employee who signs up a small reward, or you can offer rewards for finishing books to motivate people to stick with it. It’s a simple but very worthwhile creative idea for employee recognition. 

The other great thing about running this kind of program as a people and culture initiative is that you can keep it going all year round, choosing new books every month or quarter and starting over.

4. Mentorship programs

Mentorship programs can supercharge learning and development at your company, helping to diversify employee skill sets across your organization.

Being paired with a personal mentor to learn specific skills can give your employees the tools they need to advance their career, diversify into new areas, or just gain an edge in their current role. 

Even more senior employees can benefit from being mentees by learning new approaches and technological skills through intergenerational programs. For example, a retailer could use a mentorship program to allow younger employees to teach older staff to use online scheduling apps and other digital tools.

As our Co-founder Joe Facciolo wrote in this guest article for mentorship platform Together, employee recognition can be used to enhance a mentorship program at almost every stage, giving you a tool to reward both mentors and mentees, prevent attrition, and even recognize employees who hit specific milestones.

Seasonal employee recognition ideas

Whether it’s summer fun, holiday festivities, or new year celebrations, you can build innovative recognition initiatives around key dates throughout the year, and put a seasonal spin on your employee appreciation to make it more impactful. 

Here’s a few employee recognition program ideas that centre around specific times of year.

5. Employee recognition calendar ideas

If you want an easy way to generate a steady stream of creative and fun employee recognition ideas, your HR calendar is your best friend! Over the course of the year, keep an eye on when various professional appreciation dates, DEI and awareness dates, and holidays and festivals occur, and pinpoint dates when it might be impactful to recognize your team.

For a more unique spin on this concept, you can also celebrate quirky ‘unofficial holidays’ like National Pizza Day, National Ice Cream Day, or even something really out there like National Dance Like a Chicken Day. You can offer rewards or create challenges specifically tied to these events. Check out this blog for 12 dates that should be in your diary.

6. Memory Lane

This employee recognition program idea is ideal for the end of the year or the start of a new year, but can also work at the end of quarters, midway through the year, or even on the anniversary of the founding of your company.

Basically, call an all-team meeting and use the Draw feature on Guusto (or a similar feature if you’re using another platform) to randomly select Shoutouts from throughout the previous year, or even 2,3, or 5 years ago. 

See if the employees who made or received the Shoutout remember it, and encourage them to share experiences and tell stories. It’s a fun way to jog employees' memories, celebrate past successes, and reflect on how far you’ve come.

7. Spring Cleaning

Do you and your team have perpetually cluttered workspaces? Filing systems that are a mess? Project management software filled with long-forgotten tasks? Warehouse spaces no-one really knows the content of?

Whatever environment you work in, things can get messy and disorganized pretty fast. Busy employees often simply don’t have time to make sure everything is neat and tidy, and this can escalate over time until it's unmanageable.

One way to tackle this is to do ‘Spring Cleaning’ sessions every year where you encourage employees to work together to put things in order, and use your recognition program to reward them for doing it. It’s a great way to make sure you’re staying on top of this side of your work, and will also help make your workplace more efficient and organized for your team.

8. Office Beach Party

As the weather gets warmer, being stuck inside at work all day can begin to take a toll on your employees’ morale. An office beach party could be just the ticket to lift their spirits and get them in a sunnier mood.

Your employees can come to work in their beachwear and enjoy a few summer-themed games. You can use your recognition program to give them gift cards for ice cream or another treat to cool off during the event. 

9. Summer Happy Hour

This is similar to the previous employee appreciation event idea but on a smaller scale, which might make it easier to pull off. 

Basically, everyone at work gets a gift card to enjoy a cold beverage and some social time for the last hour of the day. It’s a perfect way to improve morale and encourage team bonding on a Friday afternoon. And if it’s successful, you might even keep it going all year round.

10. Ice Cream Fridays

Another simple summer employee recognition idea, but one which former Blackberry Director of Global Rewards Kwesi Thomas – a regular guest on our Culture Clinic series – has often mentioned as being an employee favourite. 

Ice Cream Fridays are exactly what they sound like – everyone in the office gets to enjoy an ice cream on the company every Friday as a small act of appreciation for their efforts. When it’s hot outside, a cold treat can really hit the spot for your team. 

11. Cool Summer

Did a coworker do something recently that made you think ‘wow, that’s really cool!’? Maybe it was a really great idea, a new skill they learned, or even something they did outside of work. Your employees can make this a ‘cool’ summer by sending a Shoutout celebrating everything that’s cool about the people they work with.

This is a simple employee recognition program idea that you can run all summer long, and can help inspire your team to recognize each other more.

12. Summer Breeze Challenge

A particularly good employee recognition idea for virtual teams, a Summer Breeze Challenge involves creating a Slack or Teams channel where employees post photos of themselves enjoying the good weather and the outdoors.

You can get your team to vote on the best photos for additional rewards, or make random draws for spot prizes.

13. Summer Splash Challenge

A unique employee recognition program idea for companies who use Guusto. As you might know, we donate 1 day of clean water through the One Drop Foundation for every gift sent through our platform.

During the summer, you can challenge your team members to double (or even triple!) the number of gifts sent in your program in order to contribute more clean water to those who need it. 

If you want to take it to the next level, you could even offer to match Guusto’s contribution yourself by donating directly to One Drop. It’s a relatively low-cost donation that can make a huge impact.

14. Halloween costume contest

A lot of companies encourage employees to dress up for Halloween, and it always helps to create a fun atmosphere in your workplace. So why not recognize people for doing it?

You could offer a small reward to everyone who dresses up, and then vote on the best costumes, with larger prizes for the winners.

15. Thanksgiving

For many people who celebrate Thanksgiving, a big part of the festivities is everybody going around the table at dinner and saying what they are thankful for. Given how well this theme aligns with your program, why not use it as a creative idea for employee recognition at work, too?

On the nearest day to either American or Canadian Thanksgiving, encourage every employee to take a moment to think about what they are thankful for at work, and then recognize the coworkers who help make it happen. 

The concept is universal enough that it can even work in companies that don’t celebrate the holiday, as employees will still enjoy the opportunity to show each other a little gratitude.

16. Holiday Cheer-to-Peer

A lot of companies give their employees gifts around the holidays to show their appreciation. But what if you used some of that budget to help them show their appreciation for each other?

As part of your holiday gifting program, announce to your employees that they will all be given a temporary budget for 1-2 months to recognize each other during the holiday season. They can then send gifts to colleagues that have really made a difference for them at work throughout the year.

The beauty of this idea is that not only do you get to spread a little additional holiday cheer, but you can also use it as an opportunity to test-drive peer-to-peer recognition and see what kind of impact it has for your company without having to commit to a long-term program. 

17. Employee recognition awards show

Another creative idea for employee recognition at the year’s end is to host an employee awards show. You can use the show to honour high achievers, celebrate team players, or even poke a little lighthearted fun at colleagues by creating funny awards categories.

For best results, we’d recommend centering your awards around actions that contribute to creating positive culture, so that you're recognizing people who really make your company a great place to work, rather than just those who get the best results. You can find a list of culture-first employee recognition awards here.

Peer-to-peer recognition ideas

Because you have a larger pool of employees involved, driving participation in peer-to-peer recognition programs can be a bit more challenging than top-down programs for managers and leaders.

The good news is that because you can get everyone involved, you can also use peer-to-peer programs as a starting point to create lots of different challenges and games. Here’s a few peer-to-peer recognition ideas that can serve as fun events for your employees, while also showing them the value of your program.

18. Shoutouts Marathon

This is one of our favourite non-monetary recognition ideas. Simply bring your teammates together in a meeting (either virtually or in-person) and set them a challenge to send Shoutouts to as many people as possible! You can even set a target number to hit before the meeting is over (e.g. 100 in an hour).

Pro tip: Make sure to tell your employees that the Shoutouts should be meaningful, and represent real recognition for actions, rather than just one-word messages or posts saying ‘Thanks for being awesome.’ This will make the event more impactful, even if it makes it harder to hit your target.

Because non-monetary recognition doesn’t come with a tangible reward, a lot of employees can be skeptical about its value. A Shoutouts marathon can help to change their minds by showing them the impact of appreciation from their peers in real time. Once employees see all the heartfelt and thoughtful messages from their colleagues, watch your participation numbers skyrocket.

19. What I Like About You…

A peer-to-peer recognition idea with a Secret Santa-style format, but one that’s suitable for all seasons. 

It works like this: Everyone in your program is assigned a random teammate (we’d recommend keeping who’s got who anonymous at first to make it more fun). Then, they simply need to send a Shoutout to that person where they share what they enjoy about working with them.

Sometimes, employees don’t use non-monetary recognition a lot because they are unsure who they should recognize and why. Giving them a simple prompt like this can make it easier, and help encourage them to think more about what they appreciate in their colleagues.

20. Shoutouts Spotlight

Looking for a creative way to celebrate birthdays or work anniversaries? Use your peer-to-peer program. 

On the day itself (or in the week leading up to it), encourage your team to send Shoutouts to the employee celebrating the milestone, with kind words showing their appreciation for everything they do at your company.

Another twist on this non-monetary employee recognition idea is to combine it with the ‘Memory Lane’ concept we mentioned earlier in this blog. Whenever an employee has a work anniversary, use a team meeting to go through some Shoutouts they’ve received in the past year and highlight everything they’ve accomplished. It’s an amazing way to show employees just how much their contributions matter, and what appreciative coworkers they have to boot.

21. Pay it Forward Challenge

Some recognition programs allow you to put a ‘pay-it-forward’ feature on rewards, so that the recipient can send them on to another colleague. 

You can make this into a challenge to create a ‘chain of recognition’, where one person is recognized but then encouraged to pay it forward to someone else. The next person then does the same, and it keeps going for as long as you see fit. 

At the end of the challenge, it will be really interesting for you and your team to see just how many people in your company the recognition reached.

Frontline employee recognition ideas

Companies in sectors like healthcare and manufacturing, where a lot of employees are frontline or deskless workers, often have specific challenges that make it harder to drive participation, promote inclusion, and make their programs successful. Here’s a few creative ideas for employee recognition in frontline companies that might help.

22. Guusto Miles

This employee recognition program idea comes courtesy of one of our clients in the logistics sector. The company had a lot of drivers who were on the road a lot, and wanted to show them some extra appreciation for the time they spent away from their families.

The solution? Guusto Miles. The company logged the amount of miles each driver was clocking up, and sent them rewards when they reached specific milestones. The program was a very thoughtful way of acknowledging some of the downsides of these drivers’ jobs, and letting them know they were seen and valued.

23. Night Owl Program

Like employees who have to travel, employees who work nights, weekends, holidays, and generally unsociable hours also make a lot of sacrifices. While they may work the same amount of time as others, they can miss out on precious moments with their family and friends.

One creative way to use employee recognition to make this a little easier is a ‘Night Owl’ program, where staff are given a little extra reward whenever they work a shift outside of regular business hours. 

The reward doesn’t have to be too extravagant – it could be as simple as giving them a gift card to get a coffee before a very early morning shift. It’s just something to let them know that you understand that working these kinds of hours isn’t always easy, and appreciate them doing it.

24. Daily Shoutouts huddles

One issue many companies with large numbers of deskless employees have is that staff just don’t spend enough time on their devices to log into their program and recognize people regularly.

If you’re having this problem, why not integrate your program in a way that fits better with their daily work? 

A lot of frontline teams will have brief ‘huddles’ or meetings where they go over their plans and needs for the day, which might be the ideal time to solicit Shoutouts from team members. They can either use the space to log on and recognize people themselves, or simply give verbal Shoutouts which a team leader or manager can record on the system later.

25. Alignment Award 

One problem we’ve seen with a lot of frontline companies is a lack of alignment between different departments. A large retailer, for example, might have a range of different employees in very different roles in stores, head office, warehouses, or even manufacturing facilities. 

One way to create more alignment is to encourage managers to devote a small amount of their budget each month for an ‘alignment award’, where they recognize one person outside of their own department who makes a difference for their employees. 

For example, a shop floor manager might recognize a particularly helpful warehouse worker, or a delivery manager might recognize someone in head office who assisted them with a challenge they were facing. It’s a small but impactful way to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Manager recognition ideas

Finally, while most of these employee recognition program ideas can work whatever the makeup of your program, you might want a few that specifically help drive participation for your managers.

Manager adoption is crucial to making employee recognition impactful, and making sure every leader you have is using the program regularly can make a huge difference. Here’s a few ways to do that.

26. We See You Week

This is a simple, week-long manager recognition idea where you encourage managers to use your program to spread ‘be well vibes’ to their team members. Their recognition should focus on encouraging good employee wellness and positive work habits. 

Themed ‘recognition weeks’ like this are very effective in driving manager participation, as it gives your managers a little push to recognize their team, and a prompt on what to recognize. This particular theme is ideal for Mental Health Awareness Month (May), but can work at any time of year.

27. Thank You Thursdays

One of the reasons some managers won’t use recognition enough is that they can’t get into the habit. Managers and leaders are busy people, and remembering to send recognition when you have a million other things to do is easier said than done.

That’s why some of our leaders here at Guusto block time off in their calendars specifically for recognition. It serves as a forcing function to get them to use the system, and helps ensure that they recognize everyone who deserves it regularly. Once they know that every Thursday is ‘Thank You Thursday’, you’ll be more likely to see participation improve.

28. Level-Down Challenge

While recognition from a direct supervisor is crucial, getting recognition from their manager’s manager can feel really special for employees. If you have multiple layers of management at your company, a level-down challenge can help you make this happen.

For a week, encourage every leader to send recognition to employees who are at least a level removed from them. This means executives sending recognition to frontline staff, department heads sending recognition to individual contributors, and even CEOs sending recognition to employees in entry-level positions.

29. Quarterly Results Recognition Challenge

Our final manager recognition idea is fairly straightforward. Most leadership and management teams will review their results on an annual, quarterly, or even monthly basis, so what better time to recognize those who helped contribute to them?

After any review of company performance, encourage your managers to reflect on any good outcomes they’ve seen over the period, and send recognition to those who they feel really helped make them happen. 

Build an impactful employee recognition program

While all these standalone employee recognition program ideas can help you recognize your people, a real-time recognition program that your team uses on a daily basis is what you really need to make your people feel appreciated.

In the Ultimate Employee Recognition Playbook, we go through six simple steps you can take to make this a reality at your organization. You’ll learn how to:

  1. Make the case for employee recognition
  2. Build your team of champions
  3. Find the right solution for your needs
  4. Set your goals
  5. Launch your program
  6. Measure your results

Click here to download your copy today:

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Conor Moloney

Written by Conor Moloney

Conor is a Content Marketing Specialist at Guusto. He loves creating articles and other resources to help HR leaders build better cultures within their companies.

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