An Overview of Employee Recognition

In some organizations, employee recognition means giving an award (perhaps monetary) to a few employees who are proclaimed to have done something exceptional. But is this approach to recognition too narrow and exclusive? Is it the most effective use of organizational resources?

Taking an inclusive, systems approach to recognition means more than developing a traditional awards program. Effective recognition systems include activities on three dimensions: day-to-day, informal and formal.

  • Praise is an example of day-to-day recognition. It costs nothing and can be given by anyone, to anyone, at any time.
  • Informal recognition can take a variety of forms, has few restrictions and often includes a low-cost, tangible gesture of appreciation or congratulations.
  • Formal recognition can include not only awards for achievements, service, etc., but also celebration events at which all contributing employees can participate and receive recognition. Formal recognition often has certain policy and legal requirements.

Successful organizations make recognition a priority. They realize that well designed recognition provides the organization and its employees with several positive results. An effective recognition program:

  • opens channels of communication
  • increases productivity
  • reinforces organizational values and culture
  • enhances recruitment of desired applicants
  • improves retention of key employees
  • acknowledges noteworthy achievements
  • builds mutual commitments and relationships
  • enhances self-worth and self-confidence

While there is more than one way to design an effective employee recognition program, many successful programs share common attributes. The most effective recognition programs typically:

  • use a systems approach to develop a "culture of recognition"
  • reflect the organization's values and business strategy
  • are clearly defined and well-publicized
  • involve employees in program design and implementation
  • are multi-layered (organization-wide and unit-specific)
  • have a mix of formal and informal programs
  • are creative and fun
  • change periodically to avoid stagnation
  • are timely and provide a specific reason for the reward
  • are supported with tools and education
  • match the reward to the person to make it personal and meaningful

The University of Arizona encourages employee recognition programs throughout our organization. Human Resources provides tools and information to support these endeavors.

Formal Awards at the UA


Beginning with the 2022 service awards and retirement awards, gifts and recognition will be managed by University of Arizona BookStores, Student Union Memorial Center.

More information will be provided to 2022 and 2023 awardees in the coming months.

A variety of campus-wide employee recognition awards are presented each year and are listed below.

Service and Retirement Awards

At the start of every spring semester, Award Coordinators are asked to verify all individuals in their department who are eligible for an award. Employee Records staff are able to assist with employment date calculations and eligibility, and are also responsible for distributing and collecting the Service Award reports.

More information about services awards and retiree recognition:

Achievement Awards


Informal Recognition Resources

One of the big ironies cited by recognition experts is that the recognition techniques that often have the greatest motivational impact are practiced the least, even though they are easier and less expensive to use. Day-to-day praise or other informal recognition gestures can be very inclusive, flexible and powerful. Here are a few resources with some ideas on how to broaden your approach to recognition.

'More Than Awards' - Ideas for Recognizing and Appreciating Your Colleagues

Whether you are a supervisor or not, here are a few ideas on how you can recognize your colleagues beyond giving them formal awards. Remember, almost anything can provide meaningful recognition if it is sincere, specific, timely and creative. And, the more you know about a colleague’s interests and preferences, the better you will be able to ensure that your recognition gesture will REALLY be appreciated. Keep this list handy to help you remember that recognizing and appreciating your colleagues should be a habit that you keep up throughout the year. Make it a priority to help create a culture of recognition!

  • Give a handwritten 'thank you' note or card. It adds a personal touch.
  • Include 'kudos' as an agenda item in staff meetings.
  • Leave a flower, balloon, or chocolate and a note of thanks on a desk or chair.
  • Send an e-mail congratulations on a job well done (copy to supervisor if from peer).
  • Use 'Award Wizard' software to create a fun/interesting certificate of appreciation.
  • Make or buy your colleague’s favorite food and bring it in to work.
  • Send an electronic thank you card—many have movement and sound to add fun.
  • Create a recognition board to display 'thank you' notes from clients and co-workers.
  • Offer to do your colleague’s most unpleasant task for a day to say 'thanks.'
  • Plan a surprise party to celebrate a special achievement.
  • Make a banner of appreciation to hang in the work area.
  • Greet your colleagues by name and take a few minutes to see how they are doing.
  • Write a newsletter/newspaper article describing a special achievement.
  • Take out an advertisement to thank colleagues, including names and/or pictures.
  • Give a memento (pen, cup) with a UA/department logo to commemorate an achievement.
  • Make personalized note pads with your colleague’s name on them.
  • Ask for a colleague’s opinion or ideas on a project or to help implement a new process.
  • Say a simple, sincere 'thank you.'
  • Set up a flip chart in a common use area to record 'thank you’s' — legit graffiti.
  • Create a picture poster of a colleague or group to celebrate an accomplishment.
  • Create a thank you 'traveling trophy' that can be passed from colleague to colleague.
  • Wash a colleague’s car in the parking lot at lunch.
  • Write several 'thank you’s' on post-its and hide them among the work on his or her desk.
  • Make a contribution to the colleague’s favorite charity in his or her name.
  • Create a display arrangement (streamers, stars, flowers, figurines) for a special occasion.
  • Give an inspirational poster to a deserving colleague who can put it up in his or her office.
  • Recognize and thank colleagues who set the example by regularly recognizing others.
  • Pass on positive remarks you hear about a colleague to that person as soon as possible.
  • Give a book by the colleague’s favorite (professional) author.

April 1999—Adapted by Human Resources, the University of Arizona from sources by Bob Nelson, the City of Seattle, and others.

Creative Low-Cost Recognition


  • department newsletter article/picture
  • list of department award recipients in Lo Que Pasa
  • wall of fame (pictures) in department
  • banner of appreciation hung in main walkway
  • walk of the stars – floor signs recognizing individuals (Hollywood Boulevard-like stars, pawprints, etc.)

Celebration (especially during Employee Recognition Week in April)

  • lunch/breakfast prepared and served by management
  • pizza party
  • potluck luncheon with 'employees are #1' cake
  • reception with family members invited


  • computerized certificates, e.g. cool under pressure award (with sharks circling), rude awakening award, painting yourself into a corner, etc.
  • 'purple ear' customer service award
  • play money recognition - highest amount at end of year gets award
  • 'A+ Award' note pads


  • employee appreciation buttons/balloons
  • department award certificates
  • letter/card of appreciation (from management and co-workers)
  • UA logo pencils/pens
  • plants/flowers for work area

Alternative Sources

  • professional development day that has been described in a development plan with outcomes and measures linked to current or future career goals; creative way to encourage professional development
  • furniture upgrade
  • equipment upgrade that recognizes exceptional performance and does not give unfair work advantage over co-workers; not for equipment that the employee needs to perform job properly
  • special training/conference opportunity that recognizes exceptional performance and does not give unfair work advantage over co-workers; not for training tied to fundamental position duties

Suggested Steps in Employee Recognition


Before spending any university funds on employee recognition activities or rewards, refer to the employee recognition expenditures policy. Determine the funding source, if any, for each type of recognition you plan to provide. Examples of authorized university funding sources include overhead, auxiliary or designated accounts. (Funding from state and/or sponsored accounts is not allowed.)

Determine whether each type of recognition is compensatory (taxable) by referring to the employee recognition expenditures policy. For further assistance, contact Tax Services at 520-621-1957 and taxservices@fso.arizona.edu.

Process any compensatory awards. Prior to presenting each university-funded compensatory award, submit a completed Recognition Award Compensation Form to FSO Operations. If you intend to provide a foundation-funded compensatory award, contact FSO for further information.

Preparation & Development

  1. Identify who will plan the recognition. For formal programs, it can be helpful for management to develop a diverse planning group.
  2. Determine the context for recognition.
    1. Why is a recognition program needed? (purpose, goals)
    2. What needs to be recognized? (achievement, service)
    3. What funds are available? (if needed)
  3. Get input from diverse potential recipients on their recognition preferences for meaningful recognition programs.
  4. Decide on recognition strategies.
    1. Who gives and receives the recognition?
    2. What criteria will be used?
    3. When or how often the recognition will occur?
    4. How will the recognition be accomplished? (formal awards, celebrations, informal praise)
  5. Develop a Recognition Program Summary Checklist

Recognition Program Summary Checklist

After referring to the Suggested Steps in Employee Recognition, it is a good practice to summarize your program for your employees, the college/division, the Financial Services Office and any foundation funding source. A comprehensive summary includes the following information:

  • Your organization's name and budget number
  • Your program's contact name and phone/email
  • The name and description of the activities/awards
  • Employee groups who are eligible to receive the recognition/award (classified staff, faculty, etc.)
  • The criteria used to decide who should receive the recognition/award and any applicable nomination/selection process
  • How many people are projected to receive the recognition/award
  • How often the recognition/award will be given
  • Any rewards (cash, merchandise, mementos, etc.) that will be given including:
    • the dollar amount or value
    • whether they are taxable
    • whether they will be purchased or donated, and from where (UA department, foundation, or business)
  • Information on any recognition/celebration event, including the cost per person and whether it will be held preceding, during, or immediately following normal business hours
  • The source of funding (local/overhead funds, etc.), if any, for the activity/award

Related Policies

Classified Staff Policy 417.0 - Employee Recognition

Financial Services Office Requisitions and Reimbursements Policy 9.10

Financial Services Office Employee Recognition Policy 9.11

Recognition Award Compensation Form