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Informal Employee Recognition: Benefits, Implementation & More

Informal employee recognition is useful when trying to engage employees and boost morale.

J.R. Johnivan
Business and HR Tech Journalist
Contributing Experts
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Most of us are familiar with traditional types of employee recognition – these include Employee of the Month awards, structured reward systems, and other, similar initiatives that can be managed via employee recognition software.

Informal employee recognition, on the other hand, isn’t structured at all. This generally takes the form of verbal or written praise, but it can include tangible rewards, too. Candy, flowers, and even company swag all constitute informal rewards.

In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of informal recognition, when it should be used, and how it can be most effectively implemented.

What is Informal Employee Recognition?

Formal employee recognition revolves around a highly structured, rigid set of milestones, processes, or rules, whereas informal employee recognition is much more spontaneous. Instead of rewarding employees based on predetermined conditions or goals, informal rewards are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Despite its casual nature, informal employee recognition is still powerful. It’s a quick, easy, and often inexpensive way to say “thank you,” and it can work wonders when trying to boost employee morale and engage your staff. Moreover, it shows your staff that their managers, supervisors, and leaders are appreciative of their efforts.

However, informal employee recognition shouldn’t be used as a replacement for a more formalized recognition program. Instead, it should be used to supplement your current recognition program. This gives employees even more incentive to excel on a day-to-day basis.

When Does Informal Employee Recognition Make More Sense Than Formal?

Although formal and informal recognition programs are both great ways to recognize employee achievements, there are times when the informal approach just makes more sense. These include:

  • Time constraints: Managers who don’t have time to pursue actions through a formal recognition program can tap into their informal recognition strategies at a moment’s notice.
  • Budget constraints: Organizations that lack the budget to maintain a formal recognition program can opt for informal recognition as a free (or inexpensive) alternative.
  • Extracurricular activities: Employees who go above and beyond their daily responsibilities, or those who contribute outside of their normal work schedule, should be recognized both formally and informally.
  • Peer recognition: Since most team members will spend more time around their peers and co-workers rather than managers, it makes sense to encourage peer-to-peer recognition in the workplace.

There are other times when informal recognition is the more sensible approach, too – but these should be taken on a case-by-case basis. 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Informal Employee Recognition 

Fair and consistent informal employee recognition benefits your entire team. As advantageous as it can be, however, there are also some drawbacks to consider. Some of the primary benefits of informal employee recognition include:

  • Motivating team members: Employees always want to feel like their hard work is being recognized, so informal employee recognition is a great way to boost employee motivation, morale, and retention across the board.
  • Increasing engagement: Recognizing the contributions of your staff on a regular basis helps them remain engaged over the course of time. It also helps alleviate workplace stress and mitigate employee burnout.
  • Providing constructive feedback: Employee recognition doesn’t always have to include positive feedback. Alternatively, it can be used to help employees correct their mistakes before they turn into a much bigger issue. In this sense, informal recognition can help you identify new learning and development opportunities for your team.

Conversely, there are some drawbacks to consider – including:

  • Favoritism: Managers who consistently show praise to one specific individual may be accused of favoritism – even if that employee is worthy of the praise he or she is receiving.
  • Missing documentation: While formal recognition programs are usually well-documented, informal recognition programs are not. As such, it might be difficult to determine when – or if – an employee has already been recognized.
  • Redundancy: Without a clear understanding of informal recognition, managers and supervisors might double-down by recognizing a single achievement both formally and informally.

In most cases, the benefits of informal employee recognition far outweigh the drawbacks. When done fairly, consistently, and correctly, an informal recognition program goes a long way in building strong teams, motivating employees, and increasing long-term employee engagement.

Informal Employee Recognition Examples

There are countless examples of informal employee recognition at work. If you’re unsure where to start, consider the following recognition ideas. For best results, try to customize these examples to match your industry, your workplace, and your employees’ specific contributions.

Using Verbal or Written Praise

Verbal recognition and written praise are powerful,formal or informal. If you’re a manager, supervisor, or organizational leader, don’t hesitate to say “thank you,” “kudos,” or “good job” to an employee who stays late, comes in on their off-days, or takes on more responsibility than others. Whether they’re delivered verbally, through a handwritten note, via email, or even through text message, this kind of praise will always be appreciated by your team.

Acknowledging Work Anniversaries and Birthdays

Colleagues celebrating a birthday at the office.

Try to acknowledge work anniversaries whenever possible. Some organizations do have a formal recognition program in place for tracking employee tenures, but they typically only cover the big milestones (e.g. 10 years of service, 20 years of service, and so on).

You might also consider celebrating employee birthdays, too. Even something as simple as a card can brighten someone’s day and, as a result, their productivity. Creating a culture of recognition like this can go a long way in developing strong team bonds and driving engagement.

Upgrading an Employee’s Work Computer

With so many employees using laptop and desktop computers, some managers are offering system upgrades as another type of recognition. Not only does this give your team an incentive to perform their best, but next-gen systems can also help bolster productivity and reduce downtime within the workplace. 

Paying for Lunch

One of the most common ways to express employee appreciation, paid lunches are a great way to treat your employees. From taking the entire team to a local restaurant, ordering in-office catering services, or even preparing a meal yourself, this kind of recognition is a fun – and filling – way to express your appreciation for a job well done.

Offering Remote or Hybrid Work Opportunities

Consider offering remote or hybrid work opportunities as a way of informally recognizing an employee’s efforts. If this isn’t a viable option for your work environment or industry, you might consider extra PTO or greater versatility in scheduling. Either way, these non-monetary incentives empower your employees by giving them some added freedom and flexibility to their day-to-day schedule.

How to Implement Informal Recognition Effectively

For those who aren’t already participating in it, informal employee recognition is easy to implement – just start recognizing your employees’ contributions. To make the most of your informal recognition program, however, there are some strategies to keep in mind.

Brainstorming with Teammates

Schedule a team meeting and involve as many of your peers, teammates, and subordinates as possible in the initial brainstorming process. Finding out how your team wants to be recognized is extremely helpful, as it can help give you ideas that you would have never imagined on your own. If necessary, you can even get inspired by watching competitors’ programs.

Expressing Appreciation in Various Ways

Try to recognize your employees differently. While it’s always nice to receive a handwritten note from your manager, too many handwritten notes can quickly become redundant. If you’re not sure how to express your appreciation, don’t hesitate to ask!

Some common options include gift cards, candy or flower arrangements, and tickets to live events, but your team members likely have their own, specific preferences (and free employee recognition ideas can be just as impactful).

Establishing Best Practices

Although informal recognition is, by definition, an unstructured approach to employee recognition, you can still establish some basic best practices. Some of these standards can even be used to mitigate some of the potential disadvantages of informal employee recognition.

To avoid favoritism, for example, you might mandate one shout-out per employee per week. Not only does this mitigate any potential claims of favoritism, but it helps avoid recognition redundancy, too.

Using Employee Recognition Software

In some cases, employee recognition software can be used to track informal and formal recognition. Using software like this makes it easy to track which employees – and which contributions – have already been recognized. This spares your team from recognizing the same achievements repeatedly while also making it easy to see which employees haven’t received recent praise or recognition.

The Importance of Informal Employee Recognition

While most larger organizations have a strict focus on formal employee recognition programs, informal recognition is still a valuable tool when it comes to acknowledging and rewarding the contributions of your teammates. Moreover, the presence of a formalized, structured program doesn’t diminish the value of informal praise and recognition. In fact, the most talented managers use a combination of formal and informal recognition to successfully strengthen company culture, reinforce company values, and encourage teamwork amongst staff.

J.R. Johnivan
Business and HR Tech Journalist
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Combining a lifelong love of technology and the written word, J.R. is constantly balancing traditional arts with next-gen breakthroughs and advancements. With 30-plus years of experience working with computers and IT of all kinds, including over a decade of reviewing HR software, he caters to audiences all around the globe from his quaint home in West Michigan.

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