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Employee Appreciation and Employee Recognition: What’s the Difference?

Jennifer Siegel, Vice President of Professional Services June 7, 2022

In January, we celebrated National Fun at Work Day by recognizing employees and their successes. In early March, we showed our gratitude in honor of Employee Appreciation Day.

Although we often use the terms employee appreciation and employee recognition interchangeably when acknowledging employees’ achievements, their meanings are actually quite distinct.

In today’s blog, we explore employee appreciation and recognition…what they are, how they differ, and how implementing a program that prioritizes both can ignite engagement and transform your company culture.

What is employee appreciation and employee recognition?

Employee appreciation is demonstrating, by words or actions, that your organization recognizes and respects your workers as people and as employees. When you show employees appreciation, you express your gratitude for their efforts and reinforce that you understand their value and contributions in the workplace.

On the other hand, employee recognition is when an employer, employee, or others take special notice or give attention to an employee for their service, effort or because they’ve heard or seen something positive.

What is the difference between employee appreciation and employee recognition?

Employee appreciation is about acknowledging who employees are every day and not just when they accomplish an assignment, reach a goal, or solve a problem. This may simply be a private acknowledgment between manager and employee. In contrast, employee recognition focuses on what people do and calls broader attention to the quality of their work or a specific accomplishment.

While employee appreciation should be a continuous effort, recognition is timely and limited.

Employee appreciation has more to do with expressing feelings and is often used to help better connect with and support team members, whereas employee recognition focuses on rewarding strong performance and desired outcomes.

Traditionally, appreciation was more of a horizontal approach, and recognition was more a top-down leadership approach, but that has shifted to a flatter structure in today’s workplace.

What are some examples of employee appreciation?

Any time is the ideal time to reward, thank, and motivate team members by showing them appreciation. So, when should you show your gratitude for employees, and what are best practices?

  • Be a Good Team Player: You have multiple team members and during a particular week one member has several deadlines. Without being asked, another team member steps up to help their colleague, even assisting with tasks that aren’t in their job description. Be sure to tell them thank you for their hard work and send over a note that they can use for their annual review.
  • Inspiring Leaders: Effective role models do more than work hard and treat customers with exceptional service. Their values, attitude, and behavior set the standards for others. They are respected, are not afraid to accept accountability, and are calm in a challenging situation. If you have an employee that exemplifies these characteristics every day, write them a personalized thank you note letting them know their work and attitude is fantastic and reminding them they are an invaluable member of the team.
  • Mastering Something Different: Learning new skills helps employees adapt to changes in the workplace. If you provided an employee managerial and leadership training and they are now handling complex negotiations and coaching other team members, distribute an email to the employee copying in senior leaders. Let them know you are impressed with their work and encourage them to keep up the great job.

What are some examples of employee recognition?

Recognizing employees provides a sense of accomplishment and makes employees feel valued. However, employee recognition demands a more substantial show of praise.

  • Day-to-Day: Also known as micro recognition, employers give day-to-day credit frequently, quickly, and continuously reward employees for accomplishing specific tasks. Examples include giving gift cards or company swag. Employees may provide each other point-value awards. Once a certain number of awards are collected, employees redeem the points for various products, gift certificates, or extra time off.
  • Informal: Informal recognition acknowledges the contributions of individuals, teams, and workgroups such as an employee committee. Informal recognition is usually less spontaneous and mainly focused on performance achievements, goal accomplishments, and other monthly or quarterly milestones. Examples may include awarding a “Team or Employee of the Month,” treating a team to a special lunch, or throwing an ice cream party to celebrate a new business win. Informal recognition also includes project competitions or celebrating employee work anniversaries.
  • Formal Recognition: Formal recognition is a structured program with clearly defined objectives, processes, and criteria. Formal recognition links rewards to recognizing individuals, teams, or departments on a company-wide level to achieve specific business goals, exemplify specific organizational values, or perform actions that exceed workplace expectations. Formal recognition often involves a nomination, selection process, and an awards ceremony where employees receive public recognition and earn awards in a formal setting. Examples include outstanding attendance, achieving career milestones or service awards, or a salesperson reaching quota. Formal recognition is beneficial in a remote or hybrid setting because it standardizes how to acknowledge employees.

How can you use employee appreciation and employee recognition to help transform your company culture?

A successful employee motivational and rewards program includes a mix of employee appreciation and employee recognition strategies to maximize opportunities, positively reinforce behavior, and improve company culture. As a result, employees feel appreciated, valued, and engaged, helping to reduce stress and absenteeism.

There’s lots of advice, so how do you make the most out of your program?

  • Drive Differentiation with Personalization: Sure, receiving a plaque or engraved award is nice, but giving employees a generic award or acknowledgment that serves multiple purposes can seem cold and impersonal. Be intentional, and reward employees with something unique and personalized to their needs.
  • Engage Employees: Provide opportunities for all employees to be recognized. Whether it’s reducing customer wait times at a drive-thru restaurant or hold times in a call center, make the extra effort to be creative in how you recognize employees, incentivize staff, and compliment team members.
  • Maintain a Positive Attitude. If you want favorable results, keep the appreciation and recognition positive and ensure it happens promptly – soon after the effort or behavior. Most of all, make sure you are honest and heartfelt. Employees can see when you’re insincere, hurting employee morale.
  • Recognize Teamwork. One of the most positive forms of employee appreciation and recognition is when employees recognize their colleagues’ achievements, successes, and milestones. Relationships improve, and so does employee collaboration, work performance, and motivation. Set up different programs for employees to recognize and support their peers.

While planning, managing, and monitoring a winning appreciation and reward program may sound a little overwhelming, a personalized communications platform can automate your program, reducing the administrative burden on HR and managers. Automate the delivery of reward opportunities, recognition on special occasions, and use the platform to distribute a survey to determine the best ways to structure a recognition program and identify how employees want to be recognized.

Automation tools also can serve up coaching for the workplace on the different ways to show appreciation and recognition for team members. Technology-enabled platforms can personalize messaging rewards and even deliver them to the right employee at the right time to optimize their impact. Data can provide analytics to help HR ensure the program is working, successful, and helping to achieve its intended goals.

Now is the time. Are you ready to create a recognition-rich company culture where employees feel appreciated, rewarded, and want to stay?