Why Employee Recognition Programs Fail?

Carolina Gomez

Growth Hacker

Everyone wants to feel recognized and validated–especially your employees. Having an employee recognition program is a key part of letting your employees know that they’re appreciated. Moreover, employees that feel valued are more engaged and more productive.

A recent survey found that recognition was the most important thing for well over one-third of US employees. That same study found that teams that were more engaged saw significantly higher productivity and lower turnover rates.

Employee recognition is a $46 billion industry, but what’s troubling is that 65% of employees don’t feel they receive adequate recognition in the workplace. This then begs the question: Why are employee recognition programs failing?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the biggest problems and challenges employee recognition programs face and how to overcome them.

What is the problem with employee recognition?

What is employee recognition?

Employee recognition is an important part of letting those who work for you know that they are valued and respected. These programs can boost morale, increase productivity, cultivate a positive company culture, and ultimately reduce turnover.

When it comes to employee recognition programs, the sky is the limit for how and when they’re deployed. Whether it’s a big gesture or a small gesture, it’s important to find meaningful ways to show gratitude to your employees.

There are several ways to structure (or not structure) employee recognition programs. The problem with this is that too much freedom creates inconsistent reinforcement. Too little freedom prevents personalized and genuine demonstrations of gratitude.

Reasons Why Employee Recognition Programs Fail

Roughly 80% of employers have some form of employee recognition program, yet employees still feel undervalued and unappreciated. Nearly two-thirds of US workers report feeling unengaged. This begs the question: Where are employers failing?

Let's take a deeper dive into the reason employee recognition programs fail far too often.

Lack of understanding of the difference between recognition and appreciation

A huge part of why employee recognition programs fail is that company leaders don’t do it. A powerful recognition program is about appreciation more than recognition.

Recognition is giving positive feedback based on performance. Appreciation, on the other hand, is acknowledging an employee's value as a colleague and a human being.

Many leaders misunderstand sales commissions, bonuses, or even raises to be adequate demonstrations of their appreciation. According to a study done by the London School of Economics, financial incentives may reduce an employee's enjoyment and inclination to complete a task.

When recognition is not implemented alongside appreciation, it can lead an employee to feel as though they are only valued to an end rather than a human. Daily or weekly practices cost little and help create a positive and productive company culture.

Lack of manager buy-in

When managers or higher-ups don’t recognize their employees or offer impersonal recognition, it undermines company culture. From the program costing too much to simply feeling a lack of confidence in their ability to recognize their employees–there are lots of reasons managers might not buy in.

When managers don’t buy into a recognition program, for whatever reason, employees may view their sordid attempts as disingenuous at best.

It's used as a tool for changing employee behavior.

Employee recognition programs take a turn for the worst when they are weaponized by higher-ups to impact employee behavior.

Imagine this scenario. You’re on a team that has gotten a little “loose” in their day-to-day operation. You, however, have maintained timeliness and have not allowed yourself to get distracted. When your team leads or manager goes to address the issues within your team by calling you out as someone who’s “always on time” and tells the rest of the team to “be more like you.”

Ick. This is not employee recognition. It’s comparative manipulation at your expense. When employers do this, they create a culture of division and comparison rather than trust and respect.

It’s inconsistent.

Inconsistency in recognition can give employees the wrong message and be divisive. When praise and recognition are sporadic, employees may feel that a manager shows favoritism. Another pitfall may be that the company sends the wrong message and ends up encouraging the wrong behaviors or actions.

What are the challenges in rewards and recognition?

So, if you want to create a plan for employee recognition that will be effective, you will need to create a program that adapts to these challenges:

Don’t create a sense of individualism. Create unity.

One easy pitfall for reward and recognition programs is that they create a sense of individualism. They can easily be interpreted as a measure of performance rather than of success. This can then lead to employees prioritizing short-term success over real long-term growth.

One way to combat this is by training managers to notice and offer small, positive feedback. Rewards don’t have to be huge gestures. They can simply be personal comments such as, “Thanks for always getting your paperwork in on time.” Small gestures go a long way in boosting morale and making employees feel seen.

Non-specified and frequent rewards have led to entitlement.

Especially in large teams, employee recognition can create a sense of entitlement if it is not clear-cut. For example, if a manager buys their team lunch regularly, the team will begin to feel entitled to this rather than gratuitous. This can then turn into a distraction that no longer benefits the company.

You can prevent this from happening by keeping recognition and rewards specific. If you want to get lunch for your team, let them know what specifically is motivating this gesture of gratitude, and don’t make it regular.

Employees are relying on leaders rather than turning to each other.

An important part of employee recognition is that it is taken seriously by the employees themselves. This means that they offer peer-to-peer feedback and appreciation. If this is not already company culture, developing it may feel like a challenge.

One way to overcome this is by creating an intentional space for employees to talk about challenges and successes throughout their week. This gives everyone–managers and employees– a chance to learn more about each other and their skill sets.

Tips to Create an effective employee recognition program.

After going over all those pitfalls, you might be wondering: are employee recognition programs even a good idea? The answer is: Yes!

Employee recognition programs are incredibly effective at keeping employees satisfied and teams engaged. They can also be an important part of building company culture...that is if you do them right. Here are a few tips for creating an effective employee recognition program.

Tied to your core values and goals.

Your employee recognition program should be grounded in your core values and goals. This is an essential step that will determine the success of your employee recognition program.

This will help you develop a clear understanding of how to motivate the behaviors that are going to help you achieve those goals. Once you have determined your goals, align your recognition channels with your values. This will help guide for the channels of recognition that will be best utilized.

Include a mix of structured and unstructured practices.

Integrating both structured and unstructured employee recognition pathways help your company embody a culture of gratitude.

Structured recognition is probably what you think of when you imagine employee recognition. It generally includes traditional compensations like bonuses, an employee of the month, and so on.

Unstructured recognition models are becoming more commonplace and involve companies integrating recognition into their daily workflows. Some examples of unstructured employee recognition could be:

Furthermore, it makes appreciation more accessible to those who may feel intimidated. When you can integrate multiple channels for praise, it makes recognition simple and habitual. This can also help alleviate budget costs, support leadership buy-in, and give managers the ability to create niche cultures of gratitude to meet the needs of their teams.

Some examples of this are:



Employee of the Month

Handwritten thank you note


Employee wellness initiatives

Experiential reward

A focus on daily “thank you’s Regular team/company outings".

In-office meal

Professional Development

Anniversary celebration

You can be creative when you’re creating your company recognition program. You might even consider sending out a company or team survey to determine what is going to work best for you and your employees.

Leadership buy-in

As mentioned above, leadership buy-in is a huge factor in creating a successful employee recognition program. To do so, communication is key.

Frequently, the biggest cause of leadership apathy is a lack of understanding. Take time to communicate the benefits of employee recognition and your specific program. If your leaders don't know why or how they should be implementing an employee recognition program, it’s going to fall flat.

Additionally, make it clear that you’re open to questions. If your company leaders don’t feel like they can ask questions, the rate of failure will go up.


Personalization doesn’t mean employers need to be privy to the ins and outs of every employee's life. It does mean going the extra step of considering preferences and taking time to get to know employees as people and what work they’re doing.

Personalization can look like this:

  • Offering specific and timely positive feedback
  • Recognizing anniversaries and birthdays
  • Giving personalized swag
  • Supporting employees’ hobbies
  • Unique awards that speak to how the individual shows up in the office.

The more you get to know your employees, the more successful your recognition program will be.


Consistency is key. If you ever took a psychology class, you know the power of positive feedback. Praise and validation for a consistent set of behaviors is the key to creating productive patterns and building trust.

Employee recognition programs that maintain reliable rewards are more impactful in both the long and short term. They not only make employees feel appreciated and, therefore, more satisfied, but they also reinforce the positive behavior that contributes to company success.


If you’re not measuring the impacts of your employee recognition program, you could run the risk of throwing money down the drain. An easy way to measure your employee engagement is using a before-and-after analysis.

Beyond that, regular surveys and company-goal tracking are great ways to determine micro and macro impacts. This can also give you a good idea of what is and is not working.

Start Today

Think you might need a little more help creating a killer employee recognition program? Try out Evergreen app today to ensure the success of your employee recognition program!

Evergreen is an employee recognition software designed to cultivate employee engagement for better and more effective business. Plus, you will also be taking care of the environment as every recognition becomes a real planted tree.

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