A Great, Inexpensive Way to Recognize your Employees

I am fortunate enough to work with a large group of high-performers every day. Without the support of my team, coworkers, and vendors, our supply chain and operations would end quicker than a diet in a fudge shop. I thank people around me often, but sometimes I feel they deserve even more recognition than a quick “thank you.” However, with budgets being so tight, it’s difficult to give them anything of extrinsic worth. As I have tried to be creative in my methods of recognizing people in a way that will be meaningful to them, I have found a superb way of showing appreciation that only costs a dollar. Because of the significant intrinsic value in this method, it has quickly become one of my favorite HR tools.

Recognition for a Dollar

Fire Truck Award

Some time ago, a team I was on had worked tirelessly to successfully launch a new product line with a key customer. The day after the launch was complete, the brand manager, who was armed with a secret box, gathered the entire company together. From his box, he pulled out a fire truck that he had purchased at a dollar store and called up a team member to give it to her. He talked for a minute to all gathered about how this team member had stayed very late for several weeks to put out fires. He thanked her publically, and she kept the fire truck to proudly display on her desk.

Continuing with his secret box, the brand manager next pulled out a microphone. This was for the team member who was always voicing concern and helping come up with solutions. The manager also presented a hairbrush to the designer who had helped to make the product beautiful. Next was a game of jacks to the employee who was a “jack of all trades” and kept up with broad details.

The meeting was a hit; everyone felt appreciated and had a good laugh. Following this tradition, I’ve seen quite a variety of unique dollar store gifts of appreciation:

  • A thermometer – keeping cool under stressful situations
  • Bouncy balls – Always staying on the ball and steadily working on long tasks
  • An inflatable sword – “The Sword of Accuracy” for making sure orders are complete and correct when they ship
  • A bath toy boat – Helping keep orders shipping on time – and doing great at managing logistics
  • The Hulk Action Figure – Tirelessly wrapping pallet after pallet and doing much of the heavy lifting
  • Glow sticks – Keeping the team upbeat and making stressful work more fun
  • Magic wand – Ability to magically solve problems
  • Giant Dollar-sign Glasses – Catching small detail problems to help save money

Almost anything can creatively be turned into an award; you might even be able to just collect a few unneeded items from your home.

This method of recognition is effective because it’s memorable and fun for everyone involved, not just the people being recognized. The entertaining prizes keep everyone engaged (imagine how much better the Academy Awards acceptance speeches would be if the awards were something fun like oversized novelty hats the recipient had to wear). After the fun recognition meeting, each team member wants to see the others’ toys and hear again the special importance attached to them. Making them funny, but also putting serious thought and appreciation behind the awards will give them meaning. Recipients will be sure to tell their family about the fun award, and they’ll likely hold onto it for some time.

The best way to carry out this method of recognition is to go to a dollar store and wander the toy section until creativity strikes you. When examining a specific product, think “what could this represent?” or “what funny play on words could I make with this?” Have fun and stretch the meaning as far as you need to – the words you’ll say mean much more than the object you’ll give.

Be sure to make a detailed list of who the award is for, the meaning behind the award, and several specific examples of what that individual has been doing for the company. Without a list, I usually stumble and forget the details behind the award during the presentation. It’s embarrassing to be holding a Frisbee and completely forget the meaning behind it.

A Couple Disclaimers

Appreciation at work is extremely important to employee retention and motivation. However, this should not be a substitute for fair wages and increases when appropriate. Additionally, do not overuse this method – using it every week would quickly diminish its novelty and usefulness.

Other Effective Methods

Here’s a Dollar

The school my wife works at uses dollars in a different way to recognize outstanding teachers and staff. At each faculty meeting, the principal has five $1 bills at the front of the room. At a specific point in the meeting, anyone in the meeting can go up, take a dollar, and then give it to someone and explain to everyone what that person did to deserve recognition. This is a great way to encourage recognition that has the additional benefit of having team members recognize each other instead of relying only on recognition from supervisors (who may not see all of the great things that an employee is doing.)

Call for Appreciation

Another effective method of recognition is something I saw when visiting O.C. Tanner. Every morning, teams meet for a morning stand-up huddle. After reviewing key metrics and the day’s priorities, the meeting leader calls for appreciation. Anyone who has noticed someone doing something good steps to the center and compliments the person. If the person isn’t there, his or her manager makes note, and both the person offering the compliment and the manager make sure to recognize the person that day.

Smokey the Bear

Smokey Bear Vintage Tin Sign from Amazon

Emergencies and fires plague a lot of companies. Employees who prevent fires are often unnoticed despite the great good they play in the company. To encourage fire prevention, I know a company that bought Smokey the Bear memorabilia as awards. These items, such as a vintage “Only You” sign or a Smokey Bear Coin, became coveted trophies that helped recognize and encourage fire prevention. Suddenly the heroes of the company aren’t just those who solve problems, but those who avoid them before they break out.

Final Thoughts

No matter what you do, take some time to recognize your team. Systems and processes are great, but it’s the people that make companies work. When the work day is over, 90% of your company’s assets walk out the door. Appreciation, whether with the fun dollar-store method or some other way, goes far in keeping your team happy and the supply chain running.

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    One thought on “A Great, Inexpensive Way to Recognize your Employees

    1. Jen, SC Enthusiast

      You know…I still have that fire truck award at my desk, but I would rather get a Smokey the Bear award any day. I’d much rather be celebrated for making things better in the long term than be a hero in the short term.

      Adding to that idea – it seems that the people who are the farthest downstream have very little power to prevent the fires that start upstream, but they are the ones who often times deal with the consequences and physically enact the solution.

      What about a reward system that works from the bottom up? It’s great to get recognition from leadership, but I think it is also beneficial for it to go the other way – it can be easy to throw blame for the fires around, but, as you have pointed out, it is much more productive and constructive to use positive reinforcement. And if praise and recognition for improving processes, finding solutions, and preventing fires are flowing from both directions, then the benefits will be magnified as well – kind of like attacking a fire from both sides at once.


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