Cheap Recognition is Worse Than No Recognition

Recognition programs are used by employers to drive performance and achieve certain goals that are important to the overall success of the organization. Done correctly, a well-defined recognition program can drive extra effort from employees who love recognition, and see it as a way to track their personal performance. Set a high watermark and watch in amazement as your team’s competitive spirit reaches new levels – to win! It actually makes the day-to-day work much more enjoyable when there is a “pot of gold” at the end. Even a simple and inexpensive plan to publicly recognize employees for a job well done can make a huge difference in performance and morale. It creates and ignites that competitive spirit that pushes us hard to win. It’s a good thing.
We love to win!

Unfortunately, it works the opposite way as well. Recognition plans with no specific performance metrics yield, well, nothing. In fact, a lousy recognition plan or the absence of any plan just sends the wrong message to the troops. Poorly defined plans that are loosely tracked create distrust, loss of productivity and just sends the wrong message. Let me help translate the unspoken message:
That’s not the outcome any organization wants to experience. I’ve seen examples of both and know firsthand the importance of a well thought-out, easy-to-understand plan. Recognition plans need to be clearly written and easy to understand and track. I especially love plans that are specifically designed to accomplish a goal that promotes encouragement by management and by peers. And yes  – the actual award and the way it is given needs to mean something. To get the best return for the organization and the award recipient(s),  it needs to be a very big deal.
So the next time you think about giving some cheap low-value award to an employee who outperforms your expectations, wins and makes a difference in your organization, don’t be surprised the next time you try to implement a similar plan and get the same message:

About the author


Tim Tolan

Tim Tolan is the Senior Partner of the Healthcare IT and Services Practice of Sanford Rose Associates. He has conducted searches for CEOs, presidents, senior vice presidents, vice presidents of business development, product development and sales. Tim is also the co-author of "The CEO’s Guide to Talent Acquisition – Finding Talent Your Competitors Overlook," available on Amazon.


  • Tim,

    Your post has me pondering employee recognition, a topic I already find very important. I appreciate your post and thoughts very much; however what are the thresholds of cheap? What if a company or employer is on a budget (as many are these days)? Wouldn’t something be better than nothing? Not every firm is robust enough to have a President’s Club with Caribbean vacations as rewards.
    My favorite of your points is associating recognition with cogent goals, etc; however I question whether something cheap means nobody cares. hmmmmm


  • Cassie: Thanks for your comment. Cheap is not always defined by how much money an organization spends on recognition as much as how the person/people are recognized. You can have a huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and poor execution on how it is presented and it will be viewed negatively by the troops. Many employees prefer peer recognition more than money – it’s been proven over and over. And…most organizations (these days) don’t have a trip to the Caribbean for over-achievers – and they don’t need it as long as they have a well defined recognition plan that rewards those for doing a great job and they put time and energy into the way it is presented. It has to be genuine. .

    If it’s not genuine and not a well defined recognition program – nobody will care. Trust me…

  • Hi Tim – I am on board completely with genuine! It’s amazing what a little extra analog can do in a digital world. Thanks again for your post, Tim. I found it to be an enjoyable read.

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