Here’s What It Takes To Increase Recognition Program Participation Rates

If there is one thing anyone managing recognition programs wants the most, it is to have everyone using the online recognition programs they have in place. And yet, it seems most organizations think that as soon as you flip the switch on for recognition programs, they will automatically get used.

Unfortunately, that is never the case. 

Look at the following factors and see if there is one or two that might need a tuneup. Once you have these in place, I guarantee you will have stronger and more consistent recognition program participation levels.

Understanding the Type of Recognition Program

As you already know, there are different categories or types of recognition programs. Depending on which recognition category your specific programs fall under will determine some important expectations.

For example, looking at Everyday Recognition, you’ll find these programs — like social recognition programs with the opportunity for posts, e-cards, and social badges, — typically happen on a daily or weekly frequency and can affect between 80% to 100% of your employees. 

Everyday Recognition also includes the interpersonal recognition practices and behaviors that people do to express appreciation and recognition to others. 

When you look at Informal Recognition, these programs are most likely to occur on a monthly or quarterly frequency and can impact between 30% to 50% of your employees. Programs that fall under this category include achieving departmental or team goals, rewards and incentives for pre-determined goals or accomplishments, as well as social celebrations of various life events along with using ecards and social recognition posts. 

Finally, you have at the top of the recognition pyramid Formal Recognition programs. You will find these programs happen on an annual frequency of occurrence and likely impact 1% and 10% of your employees. When you look at the best-of-the-best awards, which are nominated recognition awards like Excellence Awards, they usually affect only about 1% of the employee base. You may get closer to 10% when you consider recipients of your career milestone or service awards.

You already have the frequency expectations laid out for you by using any of your programs that fall under each of these three recognition categories.

Plan of Action

1. Set expectations for usage of each program according to the recognition category.

  • Set personalized expectation levels with each of your leaders and managers. Find out what resources and supports they need to accomplish their goal.
  • Perhaps after you have a baseline of usage, you might set a minimum standard of expectation levels for each program type. This will help you when you meet and review recognition reward usage.
  • You should definitely set a leader and manager standard for programs like service awards. I repeatedly hear how HR does a great job to ensure the milestone celebrant receives their service award gift they selected. However, individuals become very deflated when leaders and managers never acknowledge them on their special day. Make it so that leaders/managers represent the organization and hold them accountable for acknowledging their employees.

2. Request more accessible reports to draw from to give accountability and feedback on the usage of programs.

  • Start requesting access to data that shows the percentage of active users versus inactive users. Drill down to know who is not participating and see if there are any trends by department, teams, or profession.
  • Learn the number of employees recognized and the average number of recognition moments per employee. Also consider the number of employees unrecognized and calculate the potential risk of turnover and the associated costs to replace them.
  • Dig deeper on the numbers and the reasons for leader/manager behaviors in using, or not using, your programs. Bring this up in your regular one-on-one discussions, in your performance reviews with people, and for open discussion during leadership meetings.

Recognition Education and Training 

They promote many managers and supervisors to their role because they were very good as employees. Their peers have liked and respected them, but the new manager never had to lead or manage his team.

Now thrust into the realm of being people managers and they have to learn all about the importance of employee recognition.

That is why you make a focus on educating people on the reasons they should give people recognition, along with training on how to do it the right way.

Too few organizations provide sufficient education and training to their leaders and managers. Often, recognition is not even in the leadership development curriculum, or if something is there, they gloss it over. People must learn how to give meaningful recognition and learn the behavioral intricacies associated with effective and memorable recognition. If you want greater program participation, you must show them how to use your various recognition programs. Repeat or review this training annually.

Plan of Action

1. Move beyond reactionary evaluation and participation numbers.

  • Don’t just count the number of “excellent” ratings on a smiley-sheet evaluation. Also, don’t be pleased with yourself on the attendance numbers in learning sessions, whether in person or virtual.
  • Use an evaluation framework like Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation. Show actual changes in behaviors such as a baseline of number of program logins pre-training and how many post-training. And you can always look for whatever business impact or ROI following your education and training.
  • Ensure there is a transfer of learning exercise following your education and training. These personalized or team goals can help integrate new behaviors, identify self-reflective insights into what users learned, and share questions they have about recognition giving that remain for people. This allows for follow up education and training to answer those questions.

Reinforce Recognition Program Participation 

There is a crack-the-whip mentality when recognition program usage is down. People are just told to go online and use this or that program more often and better.

After you have set up clear expectations of how you want people to use your recognition programs, you need to give them positive feedback when they use the programs often.

Build into the feedback process personal acknowledgment and commendation for when leaders/managers, and staff are taking part in using the recognition programs. It is essential to give positive feedback and recognition to those leaders and managers who actively and authentically recognize staff. 

Plan of Action

1. Reinforce and improve recognition program usage.

  • At the right time, such as one-on-one discussions, seek these top users of recognition programs for suggestions on how to improve upon the recognition programs.
  • Recognition programs should always be growing. Who better to give advice than those doing their best to recognize their staff with your existing programs?
  • Request that your reporting options have a leaderboard to show the average number of recognition moments that leaders/managers communicate to staff. 

Establish Consequences for Low Participation 

Besides not acknowledging people for when they are using the recognition programs well the right way, there is a tendency to not deliver any consequences for leaders/managers who are not actively participating in recognition programs. We complain about the poor participation levels with our programs, even knowing who the culprits are, but no one ever says anything to those individuals.

Plan of Action 

1. Identifying problems when not using recognition programs.

  • Simply ask those leaders/managers why they are not using the online recognition programs. Find out from the high users why they are using the recognition programs, and what benefits they find from doing so.
  • Have options to give consequences such as education, training, and coaching to individuals who are not performing up to standard in using recognition programs. You need resources and alternatives at your fingertips to provide them with and to follow up on. 


If you need to increase leader and employee participation levels with your recognition programs, you will need to actively encourage it.

  • Understand the right frequency of usage expected from your different online recognition programs.
  • Create in-person and online education on the importance of recognition and how to effectively use your recognition programs.
  • Remember to recognize those individuals who are using your recognition programs in an exemplary manner.
  • And don’t forget to give out consequences to low participators to help coach them and remediate their usage to become better recognizers.

Recognition Reflection: How do you presently address low participation rates with your recognition programs?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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