10 ways to recognize employees at work

Create a culture of appreciation
Jun 21, 2023

How do you acknowledge your federal colleagues in ways they prefer? While some people love being the center of attention, others may threaten to call in sick at the prospect of going onstage to accept an award. Appreciation is not one-size-fits-all.

Positive professional relationships are cultivated by listening to, learning from, and caring for our colleagues. Through open communication, we can discover how our colleagues like to be recognized and what is most meaningful to them. If you’ve never had that conversation, it is not too late to ask.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Ask what has been meaningful in past jobs and why. Then replicate. And if you are starting from scratch, consider a multi-faceted approach. Events that feature several modes of appreciation make your efforts more likely to resonate with a diverse workforce. 

Here are 10 ideas (plus 5 bonus ideas for supervisors) to get started.

An illustration depictng employee recognition shows two people in busness casual attire, each with an extended arm and hand above their head. The left hand holds a prize ribbon, and the right hand has a thank you sign in the shape of a heart.

Muhamad Chabib alwi/iStock via Getty Images

10 ideas for everyone

1. Create a tradition of celebrating Public Service Recognition Week

Since 1985, Public Service Recognition Week has been celebrated the first full week of May.

Each year, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) organizes a special federal campaign called #GovPossible, and the Partnership for Public Service leads a recognition campaign for all levels of government. Both have toolkits of suggested activities and templates to help you recognize public servants in several ways. These provide great pathways to get you started.

Find the toolkits here: 

2. Look for opportunities every day to praise others

Sending an email or speaking up in a meeting only takes a moment. I use the situation, behavior, impact framework to summarize what the person did and why it mattered. For example: 

“When we fell behind last week [situation], I appreciated how you offered to train our new colleague and check his work [behavior]. This allowed him to help with the backlog and gave me confidence that we could get caught up without making mistakes [impact]. I really appreciate how you are willing to share your expertise with others and help us get our work done without errors [action and impact].”

3. Send a praise email to a colleague’s supervisor and copy them

Similar to above, this is one of my favorite recognition methods. It feels great for both the person receiving the praise and their supervisor. Copying their supervisor could lead to other positive effects too, like consideration for special awards that only supervisors have access to implement.

4. Gather your team together and identify a few people outside your group who are “MVPs”

This activity is a teambuilding exercise in gratitude the whole team can enjoy. As a team, discuss and reach consensus on 2 to 3 superstars outside of your team that you rely on and appreciate. Have people on the team write ‘testimonials’ summarizing what makes that person so great to work with. In offices I’ve worked in, we collected the stories into one email and sent it to the person’s supervisor around the time of end-of-year performance review for maximum impact.

5. Notice when a colleague could use help and offer assistance

In my first job, I was tasked with a marketing project that required manually stuffing hundreds of envelopes. My boss noticed the conference table piled high and took 20 minutes from her schedule to work side by side tackling the towering envelope pile. She also used the time to ask how I was doing with our mass-mailing marketing project and paid total attention to my response. While this didn’t drastically diminish the pile, that she was interested in me and willing to assist with this menial task is something that I’ve thought of often in the decades since.

6. Look for small ways to make others’ job easier or less stressful

For example, holding the door for someone whose hands are full, offering to put a colleague’s lunch in the refrigerator if you are headed to the kitchen, or volunteering to lead a task force to rethink a cumbersome and frustrating office process that is bothering everyone.

7. Create varied opportunities for one-on-one quality time

Invite coworkers to join you on a quick walk or to grab coffee, do a small task together like setting up the chairs in the conference room, or schedule an online “coffee chat” with a non-work theme. During the pandemic, USPTO held a “Mugs and Pugs” video conference where we showed off our favorite coffee or tea mugs and gave our home-bound pets on-camera cameos.

8. Schedule an off-site activity to thank the team

This could be directly work-related (an outside training or visit to another agency) or something more focused on team-building. When I worked in education, each year the managers would send the administrative staff off for a day-long field trip. The admins boarded a bus and spent the day with colleagues somewhere fun like the zoo, a state park, or museum. Over a lunch that the office arranged for us, the leaders gave speeches thanking us for our efforts. Managers who remained back at the office also always made sure to tell us how much we were appreciated when we got back (covering our jobs for a day definitely reaffirmed their appreciation for us!).

9. Give out commendations or other awards

Look into what awards and recognition programs your agency has and take full advantage. No program? No problem – you can create your own “certificate of appreciation” or other awards. However, let people know in advance that they are to be recognized, to check their comfort level with being the center of attention. If they are comfortable, read out the praise when the award is given, allow a moment for colleagues to cheer or applaud to congratulate the recipient, or even mention the commendation on the physical award. Many people enjoy displaying attractive recognition awards in their workspace as conversation starters.

10. Don’t forget time off awards

Who doesn’t want a day off to themselves? Look into whether your agency has “time-off awards” to recognize exceptional performance with a day off. Employees with young children have told me this recognition method was especially valued since it gave them a rare 8-hour period to spend time reconnecting with their favorite activities. 

5 bonus ideas for supervisors

Supervisors often have more say over the time and tasks of their teams, so here are five bonus ideas specifically for managers.

An illustration of a hand in the sky, holding up four employees.

Muhamad Chabib alwi/iStock via Getty Images

1. Hold meaningful one-on-one meetings

Be fully attentive - don’t multitask or allow these to be regularly postponed or interrupted.

2. Create time for employees to connect with others

Help employees to connect with others, such as approving time away from tasks to participate in an agency mentoring program or arranging a “skip level” meeting so they can give input to higher-level supervisors or agency leaders.

3. Pay attention to everyone’s workload and adjust as needed

Try to rebalance things so no one ends up with too much to do or all of the less-than-fulfilling tasks. Proactively addressing things shows you pay close attention and look out for your team.

4. Capture in detail what the employee does well as part of the yearly performance review

Take the time to do this properly, and don’t fall into the trap of complaining about the extra work inherent in performance reviews to your employees! These documents summarize 52 weeks of their efforts, so don’t undo your appreciation efforts with a rushed job and complaints.

5. Use onboarding to learn your employees’ preferences

This is a great time to get to know your new employee, including the type of appreciation they prefer, and ways to tailor future appreciation events to their interests. Ask them questions about their preferences during one-on-ones, or create a questionnaire with open-ended questions like: 

  • What did someone do to make you feel recognized at work in the past? 
  • How do you like to be praised? 
  • What are your favorite hobbies or snacks?

Keep it going

Whatever ways you choose to support and recognize the public servants in your life, don’t let opportunities for appreciation and recognition pass by unmarked this year. Hopefully these ideas will get you on your way to creating and maintaining a culture of appreciation and recognition at work.