By RedBalloon for Business

The best employee recognition award ideas

We reveal which kinds of staff incentives and employee recognition rewards resonate the most with employees.

Employee recognition and staff incentives are now a $46 billion global market, according to research by Bersin & Associates. Companies generally spend between 1-2% of payroll on employee rewards.

And for good reason. Companies with employees who feel appreciated perform better and have a 31% lower voluntary turnover rate.

This means that choosing the right employee recognition awards is now a vital strategic business decision. Spending money on the wrong incentives and rewards can backfire with real impact on your bottom line.

So which staff rewards work the best? Well to find out, first we need to look at how employees are motivated and what they need to keep performing at their best.

What employees need

For an employee, recognition is not a “want”, it’s a “need”.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The top psychological need a human has is to “belong and feel appreciated”.

Employee recognition, rewards and appreciation do just that – especially when the appreciation is given by peers or in a group setting.

Even the most motivated and engaged employees need regular recognition and rewards to fuel their own intrinsic motivation.

Appreciation vs recognition

While many HR leaders use the terms “recognition” “appreciation”,”rewards”, “awards” and “incentives” interchangeably, there is a difference.

Recognition is generally about public acknowledgement: it’s praising someone for something in front of their peers or another meaningful group of people.

Appreciation tends to be more personal and private. It could be a sincere “thanks”, or thank you note to show gratitude. Our RedBalloon for Business employee recognition and reward strategies and platforms are a great place where to start if you definitely want to start applying best practice recognition at work.

What are the elements of a good employee recognition reward?

  • Direct and fast: don’t wait too long before the reward is given or points are redeemed.
  • Based on specific, repeatable actions or behaviours: make it crystal clear why the reward is given, so others can emulate.
  • Contained to a specified time period: while recognition programs should be long term, the rewards need to be confined to behaviours during a particular time, eg “Q1” or “March”.
  • Aligned with a bigger “why”: make sure employees understand why these achievements or behaviour are being rewarded. How do they help us achieve our big exciting goals? Why are these values important?

Cash vs tangible rewards

So why not just keep everyone happy, and give cash incentives? That way people can buy whatever they want, right?


While cash incentives give a clear monetary value, they fail on two counts. First, they don’t provide any “trophy status” – there’s less bragging rights, less excitement from peers and family over a piece of paper or some extra dollars in the bank balance. For most people, money simply gets swallowed up by the mortgage, rent or cost of living.

Compare this to the reward of a paid trip away, which employees will talk about with their colleagues and families for days before and after they take the trip.

Secondly, cash is less enticing because it’s not visually exciting. Our brains tend to store tangible ideas (such as a massage, a dinner out, a trophy) in the right side of our brain. Money is more abstract yet logical, and goes in our left brain. Research shows that we access our right brain more frequently and in more detail than our left brain, so those tangible rewards are recalled more often.

So what’s the best employee reward to give?

The one that people want.

It’s impossible to give a definitive list of rewards which always work better than others. It depends on your employees’ demographics, and the culture of your organisation.

The best way to find out what rewards will inspire your employees is to ask them.

Make sure you ask a truly diverse group of employees, not just senior leaders. Include a wide range of ages, locations, levels and job types.

Manage employee expectations

Of course, people don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s best to give them a guide of suggested rewards and incentives. That way, you manage their expectations and they avoid embarrassment. You can show that a “Weekend trip away” is basically a one night stay at a 3 star hotel, for example, and not an all-expenses-paid trip to Club Med.

Here’s a list of great employee reward ideas to get you started:

  • Gift cards (easy and popular, in fact the most redemmed reward)
  • A hotel stay (name the hotel)
  • Free parking in the boss’s car spot
  • Dinner with partner/ family
  • Team lunch
  • A must-have gadget (eg Fitbit, fancy iPad case)
  • Massage (onsite or voucher for local place)
  • Café/ restaurant breakfast (and permission to come in late that day
  • Subscription to Netflix etc
  • Tickets to an event (sports game, concert)

Opinion is often deeply divided over the best employee recognition rewards and staff incentives. What have you found works best in your organisation?

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To find out more about how the RedBalloon for Business team can help you reward and recognise your people, contact us today.