The research is clear—motivating employees takes so much more than money. New research from Harvard University found more than 80% of American employees say they do not feel recognized or rewarded, despite the fact that U.S. companies spend nearly one-fourth of their budgets on wages.

“Cash matters in people’s lives, but it’s not all that matters,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ashley Whillans, a coauthor of the study. “What really matters in the workplace is helping employees feel appreciated.”

In fact, failing to provide sufficient praise and appreciation can have ugly consequences for companies. A recent Gallup study found that employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.

That’s a problem, especially given today’s tight job market, where the unemployment rate is hovering around 4% for all workers and 2% for those who are college-educated.

It’s clear that companies must do more to attract and retain talent. But what? In honor of Valentine’s Day, we offer these seven ways to show employees the love.

1. Handwritten appreciation: A box of thank-you cards and the time to write them—would you be surprised to find out that’s all it takes to deliver the most effective form of employee recognition? In a previous blog post, XMI’s SVP of Operations Lane Fenner explained how he uses handwritten thank-you notes at our company—usually when someone does something extraordinary, like flawlessly execute a new project or take time out of their busy schedule to mentor a new coworker.

“I don’t hand these out all that often, and that’s part of what makes it such an effective tool,” he says. “They know it’s special and receiving one can be a real source of pride. It’s not unusual to find them on display at employees’ workstations.”

2. Public recognition: Don’t occasionally recognize star employees at your staff meeting. Studies show that public recognition is most effective when it’s part of a formalized program. Whether it’s a trophy that gets passed around or a plaque emblazoned with your employee of the month, employees who responded to the Gallup survey said a public show of recognizing standout employees is the most memorable type of recognition.

Formalizing your public recognition program ensures it’s done regularly and fairly. It’s also a good idea to create an established set of criteria, such as peer surveys, a nominating committee, or some combination of the two.

3. Publicize your stars: Recognizing employees in front of their peers is important, but you can take things up a notch by spotlighting them on your company’s various media assets, as well. Social media accounts, company blogs and email newsletters are all great places to feature star employees, highlighting who they are, what they do and why they’re great.

Not only does this check an employee recognition box, it’s also built-in marketing for your company.

4. Rethink the employee anniversary: Honoring career milestones is one of the most common recognition programs and it’s also very effective. According to O.C. Tanner, employees stay at organizations longer when their company has an effective years of service program. But the commemorative tchotchke doesn’t cut it anymore. Workplace anniversaries—whether it’s one year, three years, 10 years or 20 years—need to be celebrated in ways that are meaningful and memorable to the recipient and inspiring to their fellow employees. For ideas, check out this Modern-Day Guide to Years of Service Awards.

5. Give them opportunities for professional development: Are there industry conferences someone from your company usually attends? Is there a professional development opportunity that would be perfect for one of your star employees? Giving employees the opportunity (i.e. paying for and allowing the time off to attend) to develop their skills outside of the office shows your commitment to them as a member of your team.

6. Personalize employee rewards: To be effective, employee recognition needs to be meaningful. But meaningful to one person might be insignificant to the next. An easy way to ensure that your efforts are meaningful is to provide a buffet of options so that everyone feels like a winner.

“Get a clearer picture of the primary language of appreciation (in a work setting) of every individual,” explains Claire Hastwell on the Great Place to Work blog. “Then, recognize them accordingly.”

7. Think beyond cash rewards: When it comes to rewarding employees, cash is easy and depending on the recipient it can be rewarding. But when an employee uses cash to buy groceries or pay rent, that’s hardly memorable. Also consider the fact that American work culture norms dictate that employees don’t talk about money. But what if that reward were something of equal value, like a dinner for two at the city’s hottest restaurant, theater tickets or a weekend getaway?

And therein lies a side benefit to non-cash prizes—workplace buzz. “People feel awkward talking about money, so they won’t talk about the $2,000 bonus they received,” says Harvard study coauthor Whillans. “But if you reward someone with a nice dinner or trip, they will talk about it with their co-workers, and that can motivate everyone. Plus, that trip or dinner is more memorable and emotionally satisfying to them than just receiving cash, so it can act as a stronger motivator.”

Need help implementing an employee recognition program in your company? Lean on the experts at XMI to help you create a program that reflects your company culture and meets the needs of your employees. Get in touch at 615-248-9255 or email

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