What is the Difference Between Rewards and Recognition?


Oftentimes, I will hear about “rewards and recognition” programs. This would be perfectly okay if it weren’t for the fact that often when I dig into these programs, it’s often almost entirely rewards, perks and incentives based. 

This may seem like semantics, but trust me it’s not, and I’m not the only one who is worried about this. Here’s the challenge of using these terms interchangeably: we aren’t doing well enough to retain our top people in our current talent shortage because we’re not clear, strategic or intentional enough about either.

Don’t just take my word for it. Research backs this up:

  • Year over year, data shows we put more emphasis on rewards than recognition (and the ways we’re rewarding is not what employees say they want or need the most)
  • We often assume people are motivated by money when in fact research shows the association is very weak
  • We often assume rewards are something for “others” to give out (external provider, HR, the CEO)
  • If people do not feel valued and appreciated, you cannot throw money, swag or a new corporate program to fix the human connection issue

Here is another consideration. When economic times are tough – whether it’s the commodity you sell falls in value, you lose your biggest client, you cannot deliver on time because you cannot get enough talent in the door or you’re a not-for-profit without the luxury of a big perks budget – one of the first things to go is the rewards and compensation perks programs (in the cast of government-funded programs it’s sometimes legislatively cut). Believe me, I’ve done enough recognition program rebuilds to know the fallout of once valued programs that are now viewed bitterly (e.g., “we used to get 10% of all cost savings for a good idea and last year they pulled that so why bother?”) Not only that, a recession is inevitable; if people feel valued, heard and appreciated, they are more likely to ride the wave of uncertainty with you and understand if perks have to be cut back, but they won’t if perks are the only way they are shown they matter.

Now, this is not all doom and gloom! You know that’s not my style! What can you do about it? Here are a few evidence-based ideas:

1. Recognition First and Reward Second

Unless you have someone in the minority who says they want to be rewarded over being specifically and personally acknowledged (which you can learn by having people complete a Recognition Assessment), it’s best to recognize the person and their specific contribution in a personalized, timely and meaningful way first and foremost. When I deliver a recognition keynote and ask my audience members how they most want to be appreciated, 9 times out of 10 the first thing they say is “a thank-you”. As the old saying goes, the best things in life are free.

2. Make it Personal

Even if you are giving a reward, don’t make it about the reward, make it about the person and what earned the acknowledgement. Tell them why they are receiving the reward. Ideally, provide it in a timely fashion. And, make sure they care about the reward! For example, if you are giving a gift certificate, make sure they would use it. I had a boss only give out Starbucks gift cards, but half the staff worked in a town with no Starbucks (at the time…there’s probably one on every corner by now). They have a wallet full of gift cards they couldn’t use. A colleague of mine loved Kelsey’s but hadn’t been since her kids were born, so the team bought a card, called up her mom to arrange a sitter, booked the reservation, and announced Friday before she left for work, “Go get cleaned up your hubby is waiting to take you out and it’s on us.” She cried. Ugly beautiful prolific tears. It wasn’t about the gift card; it was about her peers knowing what she liked, knew she needed a night out, and making it easy for her to go (versus her saying she was too busy or tired and it sitting in a drawer until the kids left for college). 

3. Consider Your Audience

In addition to knowing your staff and colleagues’ preferences, if you give rewards, match it to the situation. Research shows in Canada that as long as you’re making $50,000 or more, a small reward like a Tim Horton’s gift card matters less as it doesn’t have as big an impact (someone making six figures doesn’t have to think twice about ordering that coffee but take off one zero and it’s very likely they may not be able to afford it.) Similarly, I did a recognition program rebuild for a global commodities organization and the folks in very isolated parts of the world loved their points program where they could order hard to acquire company swag, whereas someone working downtown Toronto could get a new water bottle in a few hours of ordering it from Amazon. 

When you think about some of these things in this article, how does your organization fair? Do you lean more toward the rewards and perks side or more toward to meaningful, authentic recognition side? What is working and what could be improved to boost engagement, retention and willingness to contribute improvements, ideas and discretionary effort? 

Want to talk this through a little further? Here is a link to jump into my calendar for a quick 15-minute strategy session. Always happy to help motivated passionate people-first leaders like you.

Want to check out more resources about how you can recognize other’s greatness? Check out these articles:

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

Deb Rakonjac

Organizational Development, Purolator Inc.

"Sarah nailed it!  She worked with the planning group to learn about the organization, the audience, the desired key messages and integrated it seamlessly into her keynote. Her energy was contagious! We received rave reviews of this portion of our event and Sarah was able to speak to all members of our organization in a way that motivated them to recognize others everyday. Our executives were extraordinarily pleased and integrated FROGging into their recent board meeting. Purolator is grateful to Sarah for dropping the pebble and we continue to see the ripples from this session across the organization. Working with Tami was phenomenal and the supports were easy to integrate to ensure the session went well. Thanks to you both!!"
Douglas D Swift

President & CEO, Swiftco Inc.

"I have had the Sarah experience in numerous settings: As a keynote, around a table with several other business owners, one on one over coffee, chatting with others at a conference reception, dining with a small group of colleagues. No matter the setting you always get the same Sarah: engaging, attentive, interested, inspiring, motivational, genuine. And always with an infectious smile. Do yourself, your company, your association a favour. Get the Greatness Magnified (Sarah) experience. The payback is priceless."
Judy Kucharuk

Director, Marketing and Special Events, Encana Events Centre

"Funny, full of energy and incredibly motivating – all words to use when describing Sarah and her passionate stage presence. We were fortunate to have Sarah join us as a speaker for Spark Women’s Leadership Conferences and her presentations about leveraging greatness hit the core of our objective at SPARK: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. I would not hesitate to recommend Sarah to other organizations that are searching for a well-prepared, well-organized, thoughtful and passionate storyteller."
Shelley VanVeen

Learning & Development Manager, Libro Credit Union

"Sarah brought so much energy and enthusiasm to our International Women’s Day event at Libro! Her message was uplifting, thought-provoking and truly appreciated by our team. Dealing with Sarah was wonderful – she was open, professional and willing to work with us to customize her message to incorporate our culture and connect to our topic and participants. During the session, she was a pro with a powerful message and a fantastic delivery. We had wonderful feedback from all that attended and can’t wait to have Sarah back for another session in the future!"
Sylvia D’Intino

Executive Director, Community Living Hamilton

"THANK YOU so very much for leading the engagement activities today! You’re a constant professional, with an amazing attitude and always seeing the great in everyone. I am grateful for how you have helped us this year to transform our in-person staff recognition events into virtual and on-location events. Our staff feel more inspired, appreciated and motivated after they hear you speak, and I know our amazing in-house team here looks forward to designing engaging appreciation events with your support."
Melissa Chaulk

Manager of Professional Development

Canadian Dental Hygienists Association

"We work hard at CDHA to give our members a wonderful conference experience, so we were thrilled to have received resoundingly positive feedback on Sarah's opening plenary keynote. It was the highest attended of the entire conference for both dates!"
Jamie Campbell

Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

"Smart, challenging, innovative, committed, dependable, and reliable, I highly recommend her for all your recognition needs. I have brought Sarah into my last two organizations to help build a culture of recognition and celebration. The focus on appreciation is more important now than ever."

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