How to run an internal awards programme

Almost every modern business wants to recognise its stars. But that means more than just handing out shiny gongs

How to run an internal awards programme

Handing out the awards to your top-performing employees can be the highlight of the organisational calendar. But the rush for recognition often hides an inconvenient truth: for every grateful winner who bounds delighted to the stage, there are probably five times as many disgruntled losers drowning their sorrows and cursing senior management.

It’s essential, then, to make sure an awards programme has the desired effect, but before that you need to ask yourself what that effect actually is. Michael Rose, head of recognition specialist Rewards Consulting, believes the type of awards scheme you choose depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. “Every organisation will have to consider what it’s trying to achieve, what problem it’s attempting to solve and what’s going to be different if you do this,” he says.

Awards are not just about acknowledging achievements. They can be a way of reinforcing an organisation’s values and culture, generating innovative ideas, marking long service or recognising ongoing effort, as opposed to one particular success. What’s clear is that our appetite for them has mushroomed, and it consistently falls on HR to be the designer and instigator of such schemes. But HR should also be thinking strategically about what awards really aim to achieve.

Using company values as the basis for award categories and criteria can help encourage desired behaviours from your staff. For Gary Brewer, interim group HR director at distillery William Grant & Sons, this is a critical factor in its Stand Fast Awards scheme, which runs two or three times a year. “Our values shape the way we work together, and living the values is one way of helping us achieve our vision,” he says. “We all know that a simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way. However, our awards give us a great opportunity to formally recognise and reward employees who really bring our company values to life.”

Employees love recognition. Research from Sage People found that 66 per cent of people see being valued and recognised as the most important aspect of their day-to-day employment. Introducing an awards scheme can be a great way to ensure people experience that – and, in turn, increase engagement.

From a business viewpoint, the primary reason that 39 per cent of companies have a recognition programme is ‘encouragement and motivation’, according to an O.C. Tanner Institute report, closely followed by loyalty and retention (14 per cent) and recognising good work (8 per cent).

What’s more, an awards scheme can have advantages over more traditional incentives. The CIPD’s Behavioural science of reward report warns that financial incentives can crowd out motivators that may be at the core of engagement, making non-financial and intangible rewards – recognition, praise and awards – potentially more beneficial. “Aside from the significant advantage of being relatively cheap, they seem to avoid many of the pitfalls that behavioural science alerts us to in relation to more traditional rewards,” it finds.

But there are many options to choose from, ranging from company-wide annual awards extravaganzas to simple peer-to-peer recognition. Hosting a large ceremony is a big undertaking and can be an expensive option. You also risk disappointing those who don’t win, and not everyone enjoys public adulation. It can, however, work well as a spectacle. “The nice thing about something that is formal and public is that the person who’s receiving the award feels great. But the bigger benefit is that everyone else in the room is looking on, and anyone who hears about it through company communication gets to see a reinforced version of ‘this is what great looks like’,” says Robert Ordever, executive director at O.C. Tanner.

Simply having a large annual or bi-annual awards ceremony may not be enough to maintain a culture of recognition or to keep the momentum of driving good behaviours going, however. As Rose notes: “Recognition is a continuum.” For example, if someone has a particularly good customer interaction, that should be acknowledged in a timely fashion to help employees understand why that relates to the company’s values and purpose, and in common with the drive towards continuous feedback. This can also encourage repeat behaviour and get others to tweak their style to get closer to the behaviours that are recognised and appreciated.

Big annual awards schemes often need to be reinforced by everyday recognition, as they cannot deliver the instant feedback some achievements demand. Rose believes a lot of this must come from line managers. “It’s simply about giving people – managers in particular – some basic guidelines and infrastructure to thank, acknowledge and praise others,” he says. “Employees should be touched by recognition simply because that’s the way things are done in the organisation.”

Whatever the format, you need to think about how your awards are judged. The more peers involved, the better. “The act of judging whether something is good enough to be recognised helps people to understand what good looks like,” says Ordever.

At William Grant & Sons, an online submission and endorsement system is used to allow each global employee to nominate a colleague. This is supported by an internal communications process that publicises and showcases the winners. The awards culminate in a formal ceremony where winners are invited to an all-expenses-paid gala dinner. Each team or individual is also given £500 to donate to a charity of their choice, and on the evening the overall winners in each category receive a trophy.

If you decide large annual awards are not right for you, there are smaller, more frequent alternatives. Spencer Hamp, senior reward manager at law firm Ashurst, says it uses its quarterly awards programme to raise the profile of company values and to drive engagement.

“The Ashurst Values and Recognition programme is a global scheme supported by an online hub. It is open to anyone in the organisation to go in and recognise a colleague under one of the company values,” says Hamp. The hub allows employees to view nominations on a digital picture board, with a brief description of the reason for their nomination. At the end of the quarter, all entrants are evaluated by a committee and the awardees chosen.

Although the winners are announced on the online portal, it is down to the local area team to decide how to distribute the awards. They use a panel of peers to judge, and have recently started to get past winners involved, which has helped create champions for the awards scheme.

But whatever style of awards or recognition you decide on, there are several key elements you need to consider. “Make the criteria really simple and easy to understand, so people know exactly what they have to demonstrate to win an award,” says Rich Baker, CX communications and engagement manager at National Grid, and director of the Institute of Internal Communication. “Also, make sure you have a targeted, clear and engaging communications plan that is outcomes-focused and measurable.”

As for a suitable ‘prize’, as the CIPD report suggests, symbolic rewards of notional value have a different effect to monetary ones. “Symbolic rewards are congruent with people’s intrinsic motivation and signal that the organisation recognises this, but doesn’t seek to control it,” says the report.

This is recognised by William Grant & Sons and Ashurst, both of which use non-monetary ways to mark employees’ achievements. At Ashurst, winners choose an item from a list of gifts, all worth around £100, while also receiving recognition in front of their peers from the managing partner in their area.

“Recognition doesn’t always have to be about ‘stuff’ – the important thing isn’t necessarily what you’re spending on the gift,” says Ordever. “It is the way in which it is presented. It’s connecting leadership with what’s happening on the ground that’s really important.”

Manchester Airports Group (MAG) recognised an issue with the gifts it was awarding for long service. Vikki Gledhill, reward business partner, says: “Previously, we weren’t very good at recognising service anniversaries. Despite us spending a lot of money on them, people were demoralised by the lack of effort put into the process.”

The organisation decided to overhaul its long-service awards to ensure the focus was on celebrating careers and achievements, not simply rewarding length of service. It radically changed its programme by inviting everybody who had reached a qualifying service anniversary to one of its ViP (‘Values in Practice’) Staff Appreciation Scheme lunches to celebrate their achievements. The awards are now presented on stage by a member of the board, with a photograph to commemorate the day. Individuals receive a personalised acrylic trophy and a bespoke ‘yearbook’, which outlines career highlights and includes a message from the CEO.

Gledhill adds: “Staff feel so much more valued and appreciated, and the whole process is a lot more individual and special. We are now doing it right and the energy and enthusiasm from the awards recipients is having a positive ripple effect across the group.”

Getting buy-in from senior leadership, such as that seen at MAG, is incredibly important to the success of any awards scheme. “Awards have a strategic benefit,” says Baker. “It’s important that leaders see the awards for what they are – a really visible demonstration of what the organisation values.”

The companies that are the most successful at recognition, and get the most from it, use a mixture of programmes. They have big annual banquets, but they also do lots of everyday recognition. And the reason they do it all is nicely summed up by Rose: “Recognising what people are doing, acknowledging, praising and thanking counteracts the natural tendency of people to just criticise, and has a very significant impact on the levels of engagement within the organisation.”