Skip to main content

57 No-Cost Employee Recognition Ideas From our Nation’s Colleges


Ah, the ramen noodle diet of sophomore year. Find no and low-cost recognition strategies you can implement in your business today. Inspired by college life.

Fall is upon us and that means college is back in session. But as the nation’s students once again fill up the dorms and get ready to hit the books, instructors and non-faculty employees are also getting back into the swing of things, and we could all learn something from how they approach recognition.

Back to Recognition School

Similar to the healthcare industry, public colleges are perpetually forced to meet bigger goals in the face of ever-narrowing budgets. And like the healthcare industry, employee recognition programs have become their first line of defense for keeping employees motivated. According to Modern Think’s annual Great Colleges to Work For® survey, 96 percent of U.S. colleges have a recognition program in place.

In the collegiate spirit, the University of Washington and the University of Michigan united their recognition program strategies to create a comprehensive list of 57 no-cost employee recognition ideas:

  1. Post a thank you note on an employee’s door.
  2. Take time to explain to new employees the norms and culture of your department.
  3. Give special assignments to people who show initiative.
  4. Arrange for a team to present the results of its efforts to upper management.
  5. Encourage and recognize staff who pursue continuing education.
  6. Create and post an “Employee Honor Roll” in reception area.
  7. Acknowledge individual achievements by using employee’s name when preparing a status report
  8. Make a thank-you card by hand.
  9. Give employees an extra-long lunch break.
  10. Establish a place to display memos, posters, photos and so on, recognizing progress towards goals and thanking individual employees for their help.
  11. Swap a task with an employee for a day – his/her choice.
  12. Establish a “Behind the Scenes” award specifically for those whose actions are not usually in the limelight.
  13. Nominate the employee for a formal award program.
  14. Keep in mind that managers should serve as coaches to indirectly influence rather than demand desired behavior.
  15. Present “State of the Department” reports periodically to your employees acknowledging the work and contributions of individuals and teams.
  16. At a monthly staff meeting, award an Employee of the Month and invite co-workers at the meeting to say why that person is deserving of the award.
  17. Recognize employees who actively serve the community.
  18. Have staff vote for top manager, supervisor, employee and rookie of the year.
  19. Name a continuing recognition award after an outstanding employee.
  20. Include an employee in a “special” meeting.
  21. Allow employees to attend meetings in your place when you are not available.
  22. Create an Above and Beyond the Call of Duty (ABCD) Award.
  23. Ask your boss to attend a meeting with your employees during which you thank individuals and groups for their specific contributions.
  24. Pop in at the first meeting of a special project team and express your appreciation for their involvement.
  25. Send a letter to all team members at the conclusion of a project, thanking them for their participation.
  26. Start an employee recognition program. Give points for attendance, punctuality, teamwork, etc. Provide gift certificates to employees who reach certain point goals.
  27. Find ways to reward department-specific performance.
  28. Plan a surprise achievement celebration for an employee or group of employees.
  29. Start a suggestion program.
  30. Privately recognize employee’s personal needs and challenges.
  31. Write a letter of praise recognizing specific contributions and accomplishments. Send a copy to senior management and the employee’s personnel file.
  32. When you hear a positive remark about someone, repeat it to that person as soon as possible (Face-to-face is best, e-mail or voice mail are good in a pinch).
  33. Call an employee to your office to thank them (don’t discuss any other issue).
  34. If you have a department newsletter, publish a “kudos” column and ask for nominations throughout the department.
  35. Publicly recognize the positive impact on operations of the solutions employees devise for problems.
  36. Acknowledge individual achievements by using employee names in status reports.
  37. Express an interest in employee’s career development goals.
  38. Post a large “celebration calendar” in your work area. Tack on notes of recognition to specific dates.
  39. Create and string a banner across the work area.
  40. Greet employees by name.
  41. Practice positive nonverbal behaviors that demonstrate appreciation, such as smiles, or a handshake.
  42. Support “flex-friendly” schedules.
  43. Encourage employees to identify specific areas of interest in job-related skills. Then arrange for them to spend a day with an in-house “expert” to learn more about the topic.
  44. Encourage employees to participate in community volunteer efforts.
  45. Share verbal accolades – forward positive voice mail messages.
  46. Actively listen to co-workers, especially when discussing their accomplishments and contributions.
  47. Use 3×5 cards to write “You’re special because…” statements. People can collect the cards and refer to them when things aren’t going perfectly.
  48. Have a recognition event created by a peer group that decides what they will give and why they will give it.
  49. Keep a supply of appropriately funny notes that can be given as immediate rewards. Keep the supply visible – in a basket or box in your office.
  50. Widely publicize suggestions used and their positive impact on your department.
  51. When someone has spent long hours at work, send a letter of thanks to his/her home.
  52. Acknowledge and celebrate birthdays.
  53. Arrange for an outstanding employee to have lunch with a [manager] or director.
  54. Allow an employee to choose his/her next assignment.
  55. Recognize a team accomplishment by designating that team as consultants to other teams.
  56. Recognize those committed to personal health and wellness.
  57. It’s contagious.

Extra Credit

Modern employees want some form of recognition at least every seven days, yet only 16 percent of them get it that frequently. No-cost recognition is a great way to supplement ongoing recognition efforts, give your employees several more recognition touch points, and encourage a positive culture without burning through your budget. Go ahead; give it the old college try.