Making Creative Use of Employee Recognition Programs

By Don Jacobson

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Every employee has a need for praise and recognition, and the more often they get it the better.  Supervisors are in the best position to give recognition, but few do it often enough--or creatively enough. 

Government agency award programs seem to do little to drive the performance of public sector employees.  In OPM's 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 40 percent of all respondents agreed with the statement that "In my work unit, differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way."  (Thirty-eight percent actually disagreed with the statement.)  Only 37 percent felt that "Creativity and innovation are rewarded."

Why are public sector employees dissatisfied with their agencies' awards programs?  And what can managers do to improve the effectiveness of these programs?  These are two of the issues we shall attempt to address here.

One key problem with traditional agency awards is that many public managers rely on them as their primary--if not their only--mechanism for recognizing superior performance.  This approach has two key shortcomings.  First, employees need recognition more than once a year.  So relying entirely on agency awards--which are typically given at big annual or semi-annual awards ceremonies--is simply inadequate.  The other problem is the large number of people who are nominated for these awards.  While managers may prepare their numerous award nominations out of a sincere--and admirable--desire to reward as many of their good employees as possible, this results in a significant number of employees receiving the same kind of recognition at the same big awards ceremony.  The awards, thus, become less meaningful for the top performers, while those employees not receiving awards end up feeling slighted.

The fact that agency awards tend to be given at big annual or semi-annual awards ceremonies poses yet another problem.  Since so much time elapses between awards cycles, the awards are typically granted for work that was accomplished many months in the past.  This makes for a very weak linkage between accomplishments and rewards, and a general perception that the award is merely for "doing a good job."  

In order to make employee recognition programs more effective, it is crucial that managers: 1) think more strategically about how to tie awards directly to results; 2) reward employees for great work in a much more timely manner; and 3) use a wider menu of options for employee recognition.

Forms of Recognition

There are many kinds of recognition to choose from besides regular agency awards.  One of the easiest, most effective--and underutilized--forms of recognition is praise.  Many supervisors seem to believe that lavishing praise on their employees regularly will somehow diminish the praise's value.  This is misguided.  It is extremely difficult to provide too much positive feedback to deserving employees. 

Other options for employee recognition include non-cash awards (such as logo items), gift certificates, suggestion awards, time-off awards, and even home-grown unit-specific awards (more on those later).  All of these kinds of awards generally have streamlined approval procedures to facilitate their use.  By using a mix of all these strategies, managers can keep their employee recognition programs fresh. 

What Should We Reward?

In an effort to use awards to generate higher levels of performance, some managers have tied awards to the achievement of specific results.  In some cases, this has involved introducing an element of competition in the awards programs.  Competitive awards (such as awards for the highest productivity or the lowest error rate) can have a positive effect on the performance of  many employees.

The effects of competitive awards are not all positive, however.  For example, competitive awards can distort employee behavior in undesirable ways.  For example, an employee who is focused on winning an award for having the highest productivity rate might cut corners on customer service, make too many mistakes, or neglect areas of their work that do not help their statistics.  While it is generally possible to counteract these kinds of behaviors, doing so requires a level of vigilance by the manager that is difficult to sustain. 

Professor Bob Behn of the Kennedy School of Government argues that competitive awards can actually be counterproductive because only a few people can win them.  Some of the employees who do not win despite a stellar performance may actually end up demoralized.  Rather than grant awards based on competition, Behn argues, managers should provide recognition to all employees who achieve a specific performance target.  If the performance target is challenging enough, then there should be no question that all those who reach the target deserve to receive some kind of recognition.

Tying awards to performance targets can be especially powerful in the context of a team environment.  Recognizing teams for achieving specific targets or goals can do a great deal to energize employees and promote collaboration within the work unit.  For example, if a work unit can win a quality award for lowering its overall error rate to 1 percent over a given period of time, then employees will be likely to help each other find ways to get their collective error rate down to that level.  They may even identify some creative, systemic ways to do so.  This would work the same for any kind of measurable performance target.  The award can serve as a focus for celebrating the achievement of a common goal.

Creating Your Own Awards

To give public sector supervisors more options for recognizing employee performance, has developed several award certificate templates that you can use to enhance your in-house employee recognition program.  These award templates are PDF forms that can be filled out online and then printed.  You establish your own criteria for the awards, and the only cost is the paper and toner used for printing the certificates.

A key advantage of creating your own awards is that you can structure the award criteria in a way that will help your employees establish short-term performance goals that are tied to your agency's mission.  Goals tend to be motivating, so awards that are tied to specific goals can actually drive performance. 

Below you will find's free award certificate templates.  For instructions on how to use these PDF forms, please click here.  Or email us if you have questions or comments about this article or the award templates.

Free Award Certificate Templates

Great Idea AwardGreat Idea Award

Download (176K)
This award can encourage employees to make suggestions for ways to improve your work unit's processes or services.  If your office does not already have a culture of continuous improvement, do not hesitate to grant this award for fairly modest suggestions at the beginning.  The main objective here is to send your staff a clear message that you value--and will recognize--their ideas.  (Note: For suggestions that result in big savings, make sure to try and get the innovator(s) a cash award via your agency's employee suggestion program.  

Customer Service Award

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This award is best used to reward specific examples of great customer service.  Using it as a regular monthly award tends to be less effective, as identifying the person who provided the best customer service over a given period of time is inherently subjective.  Instead, use it to reward great examples of the kinds of customer service behaviors you would like to see.

Quality Award

Download (252K)
This award certificate template can be used to produce a quality award for individuals or work groups that have reached a previously established performance target related to quality, such as a getting their error rate down to specific percentage. 

High Performance Unit Award

Download (174K)
This award can be used to recognize teams that have met established--and challenging--performance targets.  A wide range of criteria can be used, but they should be measurable, objective, and tied directly to the team's core mission. 


  1. Download an award certificate template you want by clicking on the appropriate thumbnail or on the "Download" link to the right of the award description.  Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader (click here to download the Adobe Reader free.)  Please note that each of the templates is over 100K.
  2. Once download is complete, hit the TAB key (or click your mouse in the "Name of Recipient" field) to activate the first form field.
  3. Fill in the form fields.  It is easiest to navigate by using the TAB key.
  4. Save the award template by clicking on the floppy disc icon in Adobe Reader.
  5. Print the certificate using the printer icon in Adobe Reader.  For best results, we recommend selecting "Best" quality in your Printer Preferences and using premium inkjet paper.

Questions?  Comments?

Does your office or agency have any innovative and/or particularly effective methods for using employee recognition programs to drive performance?  If you would like to suggest any additional award certificate templates, please email us

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