It’s not all about the money: innovative approaches to employee rewards and recognition


Symbolic awards, such as certificates and public recognition, can help nurture employee satisfaction, productivity and retention, research finds. Getting them right involves paying attention to four key considerations.

When it comes to recognising the achievements of employees, the personal touch can go a long way.

Take the former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, Douglas Contant, who is said to have crafted 30,000 hand-written letters to his employees across the space of 10 years (that’s about 10 each day). The company reported a boost to productivity as a result of this consistent and personalised action. Contant was personally paid back for these efforts too. After seriously injuring himself in a car accident in 2009, he was inundated with cards from well-wishers, many of whom were his employees.

With half of Australian workers expecting a pay rise in the next year, and almost two thirds prepared to request one in the near future, it’s clear that people are seeking recognition for the hard work they’ve put in throughout the pandemic years. 

However, not all employers are able to immediately fork out money for pay rises, so it’s worth looking into some alternatives. Even those who can offer pay raises can benefit from coupling pay with non-financial methods of rewarding and motivating their staff. That’s where symbolic awards, or interventions, come in handy.

Symbolic rewards and recognition ideas

How effective are symbolic rewards in motivating employees? This was a question a group of researchers in the UK set out to answer when studying the wellbeing of public sector employees.

The Happier, Healthier Professionals project – conducted by Ashley Whillans, Assistant Professor at Harvard Business school; and Michael T. Saunders, Associate Professor, and Shibeal O’Flatherty PhD candidate at King’s College London – gauged the impact of three different interventions on workers, chief among them being personalised letters of appreciation that contained messages of positive feedback and were sent to their home addresses. The letters were signed by the direct managers of employees participating in the study.

Researchers found that after one month, those who received a letter “reported feeling significantly more valued, more recognised for their work, and more supported by their organisation than those who didn’t receive a letter”.

Other flow-on effects included a small increase in wellbeing and belonging, and even a reduction in the number of employees taking sick leave.

Image: Rodnae Productions, Pexels

Symbolic recognition can prove a boon for individual performance and team morale, particularly for public sector employees who “tend to be more motivated to do work that has a positive impact on others [and are usually] be less motivated by salary than their private sector counterparts”, according to a Harvard Business Review article detailing the research findings.

Noting there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the researchers outlined five factors employers should consider when implementing symbolic awards.

Consider using these points as a guide the next time your company rethinks its reward and recognition program:

1. Consider the stakeholder

Words of recognition often mean more when they come from someone higher up in the organisation, so start by identifying the person who will provide recognition to employees.

“The line manager is best, but it depends on the competence of the manager and the quality of their relationship with the employee,” says Carol Gill FCPHR, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Melbourne Business School.

To ensure the recognition has the intended effect – and doesn’t simply get lost in the spiral of intra-team communication – she recommends instilling a culture of recognition at multiple levels, including from senior leaders.

“There is always an opportunity to recognise the whole organisation’s efforts, and that could come via the CEO,” says Gill. “A [personalised] note from the CEO can be immensely powerful to an individual who has stood out in some way.”

2. Do it at the right time

Recognition should be used by managers as closely as possible to the behaviour or action being recognised, says Gill.

“Managers need to get in the rhythm of acknowledging when somebody does something great, saying: ‘I noticed that you handled that customer really well. That was fantastic. Thank you.’ Make it part of the way you do business every day.”

By the same token, positive reinforcement, day in day out, could become repetitive and water down the intended effect of the feedback. Use praise strategically to ensure it feels authentic to the receiver.

And be careful to ensure positive feedback is distributed fairly and equally – disabled, queer and gender diverse workers, and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds, for instance, cannot be left by the wayside, says Gill.

“We know that Caucasian males often get noticed more,” she says.

3. Don’t do it behind closed doors

“Public recognition makes everyone aware of what the organisation values,” says Gill. “So do it in private and in public, but if doing it in public, get it right.”

How does HR get it right? By committing to something called procedural justice.

“There are two types of justice. One is distributed: ‘This is what everybody gets.’ The other is procedural, which is about whether the processes that led to that recognition and reward were fair.”

And there’s a catch: when publicly congratulating an employee, try to avoid disappointing those who don’t get recognised, which could leave them feeling unfairly treated and can demotivate them, says Gill.

In some instances, it could lead to even bigger issues. In the HBR article, the researchers cited another study where public recognition triggered an uptick in negative social comparison among non-awardees.

4. Add a personal touch 

Consider a message written by hand on quality card stock that you receive with a small, personalised gift. Contrast that with an email signed with the CEO’s name at the bottom, which was clearly written by someone else. Which would you prefer to receive?

“If possible, personalise,” says Gill. “Human beings are one of the few species that imbue objects with meaning. The idea means more than the object does.”

An engraved pen to mark a significant work anniversary, for instance, could mean even more to an employee than a $20 gift card, says Gill.

It’s the thought that counts

One of the clearest wins of symbolic rewards for employers – beyond the obvious boost to confidence, team morale and culture – is that they can be extremely cost-effective.

Praising a worker for hitting a major milestone on a particular project during the company’s weekly meeting takes just minutes and costs the business nothing. 

At the end of the day, the form of recognition itself isn’t strictly important.

“It’s the fact that someone gets noticed that helps them be rewarded for the behaviour they’ve displayed and continued to display,” says Gill.

Such interventions are not a substitute for fair and equal pay, but they can be a step towards prioritising the satisfaction of employees and signalling that your company is one where people are truly valued.


What are some other novel approaches to rewards and recognition you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments below, or AHRI members can join the AHRI Members Lounge on LinkedIn to share their perspectives with HR peers.


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It’s not all about the money: innovative approaches to employee rewards and recognition


Symbolic awards, such as certificates and public recognition, can help nurture employee satisfaction, productivity and retention, research finds. Getting them right involves paying attention to four key considerations.

When it comes to recognising the achievements of employees, the personal touch can go a long way.

Take the former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, Douglas Contant, who is said to have crafted 30,000 hand-written letters to his employees across the space of 10 years (that’s about 10 each day). The company reported a boost to productivity as a result of this consistent and personalised action. Contant was personally paid back for these efforts too. After seriously injuring himself in a car accident in 2009, he was inundated with cards from well-wishers, many of whom were his employees.

With half of Australian workers expecting a pay rise in the next year, and almost two thirds prepared to request one in the near future, it’s clear that people are seeking recognition for the hard work they’ve put in throughout the pandemic years. 

However, not all employers are able to immediately fork out money for pay rises, so it’s worth looking into some alternatives. Even those who can offer pay raises can benefit from coupling pay with non-financial methods of rewarding and motivating their staff. That’s where symbolic awards, or interventions, come in handy.

Symbolic rewards and recognition ideas

How effective are symbolic rewards in motivating employees? This was a question a group of researchers in the UK set out to answer when studying the wellbeing of public sector employees.

The Happier, Healthier Professionals project – conducted by Ashley Whillans, Assistant Professor at Harvard Business school; and Michael T. Saunders, Associate Professor, and Shibeal O’Flatherty PhD candidate at King’s College London – gauged the impact of three different interventions on workers, chief among them being personalised letters of appreciation that contained messages of positive feedback and were sent to their home addresses. The letters were signed by the direct managers of employees participating in the study.

Researchers found that after one month, those who received a letter “reported feeling significantly more valued, more recognised for their work, and more supported by their organisation than those who didn’t receive a letter”.

Other flow-on effects included a small increase in wellbeing and belonging, and even a reduction in the number of employees taking sick leave.

Image: Rodnae Productions, Pexels

Symbolic recognition can prove a boon for individual performance and team morale, particularly for public sector employees who “tend to be more motivated to do work that has a positive impact on others [and are usually] be less motivated by salary than their private sector counterparts”, according to a Harvard Business Review article detailing the research findings.

Noting there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the researchers outlined five factors employers should consider when implementing symbolic awards.

Consider using these points as a guide the next time your company rethinks its reward and recognition program:

1. Consider the stakeholder

Words of recognition often mean more when they come from someone higher up in the organisation, so start by identifying the person who will provide recognition to employees.

“The line manager is best, but it depends on the competence of the manager and the quality of their relationship with the employee,” says Carol Gill FCPHR, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Melbourne Business School.

To ensure the recognition has the intended effect – and doesn’t simply get lost in the spiral of intra-team communication – she recommends instilling a culture of recognition at multiple levels, including from senior leaders.

“There is always an opportunity to recognise the whole organisation’s efforts, and that could come via the CEO,” says Gill. “A [personalised] note from the CEO can be immensely powerful to an individual who has stood out in some way.”

2. Do it at the right time

Recognition should be used by managers as closely as possible to the behaviour or action being recognised, says Gill.

“Managers need to get in the rhythm of acknowledging when somebody does something great, saying: ‘I noticed that you handled that customer really well. That was fantastic. Thank you.’ Make it part of the way you do business every day.”

By the same token, positive reinforcement, day in day out, could become repetitive and water down the intended effect of the feedback. Use praise strategically to ensure it feels authentic to the receiver.

And be careful to ensure positive feedback is distributed fairly and equally – disabled, queer and gender diverse workers, and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds, for instance, cannot be left by the wayside, says Gill.

“We know that Caucasian males often get noticed more,” she says.

3. Don’t do it behind closed doors

“Public recognition makes everyone aware of what the organisation values,” says Gill. “So do it in private and in public, but if doing it in public, get it right.”

How does HR get it right? By committing to something called procedural justice.

“There are two types of justice. One is distributed: ‘This is what everybody gets.’ The other is procedural, which is about whether the processes that led to that recognition and reward were fair.”

And there’s a catch: when publicly congratulating an employee, try to avoid disappointing those who don’t get recognised, which could leave them feeling unfairly treated and can demotivate them, says Gill.

In some instances, it could lead to even bigger issues. In the HBR article, the researchers cited another study where public recognition triggered an uptick in negative social comparison among non-awardees.

4. Add a personal touch 

Consider a message written by hand on quality card stock that you receive with a small, personalised gift. Contrast that with an email signed with the CEO’s name at the bottom, which was clearly written by someone else. Which would you prefer to receive?

“If possible, personalise,” says Gill. “Human beings are one of the few species that imbue objects with meaning. The idea means more than the object does.”

An engraved pen to mark a significant work anniversary, for instance, could mean even more to an employee than a $20 gift card, says Gill.

It’s the thought that counts

One of the clearest wins of symbolic rewards for employers – beyond the obvious boost to confidence, team morale and culture – is that they can be extremely cost-effective.

Praising a worker for hitting a major milestone on a particular project during the company’s weekly meeting takes just minutes and costs the business nothing. 

At the end of the day, the form of recognition itself isn’t strictly important.

“It’s the fact that someone gets noticed that helps them be rewarded for the behaviour they’ve displayed and continued to display,” says Gill.

Such interventions are not a substitute for fair and equal pay, but they can be a step towards prioritising the satisfaction of employees and signalling that your company is one where people are truly valued.


What are some other novel approaches to rewards and recognition you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments below, or AHRI members can join the AHRI Members Lounge on LinkedIn to share their perspectives with HR peers.


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