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Everybody wants to be appreciated. Whether it be at home, at school or on the job, hard work deserves to be recognized and celebrated. The restaurant industry is no exception.

Here’s the problem: 87% of employee recognition programs are “stale and outdated.” In other words, they don’t work as they should, and workers are taking notice. That means it’s time you went back to the kitchen and cooked up a fresh batch of employee recognition ideas — but where do you begin?

Fortunately, we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll take you through the ins and outs of employee appreciation and lay the groundwork for your new recognition program. And because we know your hands are full running a business, we’ve put together a list of creative ways you can recognize employees for their hard work and create a positive company culture.

Why is employee recognition important?

An employee recognition program is the answer to one of the restaurant industry’s most commonly asked questions: How do you motivate workers to perform at their best? 

Simply put, people are motivated by peer recognition. There’s nothing quite as energizing for an employee than when a coworker, manager or boss holds them in high esteem and acknowledges their contributions to the business.

Therefore, a recognition program is about demonstrating employee appreciation in a meaningful and authentic way. This is especially important in the restaurant industry, where labor shortages and rising costs are challenging operators to be more efficient and productive. With 1.8 million unfilled positions, operators need every advantage they can get when it comes to recruitment.

The good news is that recognition programs provide exactly that. When you recognize employees on a consistent basis, you stand to gain the following benefits:

  • Happier employees: Staff appreciation is one of the key ingredients to a positive company culture. Not only does it boost employee morale, it also maximizes employee engagement. In other words, workers will be more interested in producing good work when they know they’ll be rewarded.
  • Improved employee retention: 79% of people who quit their jobs cite a lack of employee appreciation. Formal recognition can reduce employee turnover and help drive loyalty to your company through a long-lasting relationship. In fact, employees whose work is consistently recognized are 56% less likely to look for a new job.
  • Incentivized self-improvement: Consistently recognized employees are driven to perform. That means they’re willing to continuously improve their abilities so that they can continue making a good impression in the workplace. Not only does this incentivize learning, it also produces a more talented workforce.

Clearly, employee appreciation and peer recognition are powerful business assets. According to research from O.C. Tanner, the proof is in the pudding. Businesses who implement effective recognition programs are:

  • 4x more likely to have highly engaged employees.
  • Twice as likely to have increased revenue over the past year.
  • 73% less likely to have layoffs.
  • 44% less likely to have employees experiencing burnout.

Best of all, employees are 3x more likely to report an extraordinary experience when recognition is embedded in company culture.

How to create an effective employee recognition program

Employee recognition boils down to rewarding employees for their good work — so how hard can it be?

The truth of the matter is that staff appreciation isn’t a piece of cake. There’s a lot of nuances involved and things you ought to consider. Here’s a list of best practices you can use to get your employee recognition program off the ground as effectively as possible.

Know what your employees should be recognized for

Remember the goal of employee recognition: reinforcing particular behaviors, practices and activities that result in better performance and positive outcomes. This is what builds talent for the future. 

How employees are recognized now will ultimately determine their future performance and potential. So, you need to choose wisely which behaviors to reward and which ones you shouldn’t. 

Recognize employees for:

  • Going above and beyond through excellent customer service.
  • Performing outside the normal expectations of their job description.
  • Sharing their knowledge and skills with a fellow team member.
  • Raising employee morale by contributing to a positive work environment.
  • Reaching a particular employee achievement, such as a certain length of employment.
  • Producing exceptionally good work over a certain time period.
  • Communicating an idea that saves the business time, money or other resources.

Consider how often employee recognition should occur

Employee appreciation shouldn’t be a one-time thing. Effective praise is frequent, which means you need to be consistently recognizing workers for their effort. Better yet, reiterate positive feedback to make sure it really sinks in with the deserving employee.

What’s also important is to think generationally when creating your program. Younger employees generally have a greater hunger for recognition than their more seasoned counterparts. According to Gallup, 38% of Generation Z workers prefer to be recognized by managers a few times a week or more. In comparison, only 25% of millennials, 17% of Generation X and 16% of baby boomers feel the same way.

Use more than one type of recognition award

Don’t assume your employees are only interested in a monetary reward. Instead of just gift cards and bonuses, consider offering positive feedback and formal recognition, too. 

The important thing is that the reward matches the employee achievement. If a team member is performing at an exemplary level, they probably deserve more than a simple thank you for their hard work. And if they maintain that level of performance over an extended period, they’ll likely be expecting an appropriate degree of recognition.

Give employees a say in the program

Communicate with your staff to better understand the types of employee rewards they’d be interested in receiving. If you’re planning on handing out gift cards, it’s wise to make sure that they’ll actually use and enjoy them.

Involving employees in the process is also a great way to demonstrate how much you value their opinion. Better yet, it lets everyone know that the program exists in the first place — that way, they’ll have something more to strive for knowing that their work will pay off.

Make recognition meaningful

Above all, make sure your employee recognition program is actually meaningful. In other words, create a recognition program that is:

  • Timely: Expressing gratitude once or twice a year won’t suffice. Effective recognition needs to be given consistently for it to continuously motivate and gratify employees.
  • Specific: A generic “thank you” is lackluster when an employee’s just completed an especially difficult task. Make sure your positive feedback is specific to the worker’s actions (e.g., “Great job handling all of those customers today during the lunch rush!”).
  • Immediate: Staff appreciation should immediately follow the completion of high-quality work. Waiting too long causes the recognition to lose meaning and may come off like you forgot about their effort in the first place.
  • Visible: Public recognition is powerful. It reinforces positive behavior for both the deserving employee and all those around to witness the praise. Plus, it’s a great way to acknowledge work that may have gone unnoticed by their peers.

Employee recognition ideas your restaurant should try

Not sure where to begin your employee recognition program? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. 

Here are five creative employee recognition ideas that are sure to spark some inspiration:

1. Turn work into a friendly competition

This idea serves a dual purpose: Not only does it reward staff for their performance, but it also motivates them to sell more goods. Show your team some appreciation with a competitive rewards program that awards employees for meeting key objectives.

For instance, hold a contest to see who sells the most appetizers. Or, see which staff members can incentivize the most customer reviews. No matter the goal, it’s a great way to appreciate a job well done.

2. Hold an employee appreciation day

Reserve a day completely dedicated to giving back to your team (mark your calendars: National Employee Appreciation day falls on March 3!). Invite everyone to your location and fill the break room with fun festivities or take the team out to a special lunch — the sky’s the limit. 

3. Offer experiential rewards

Positive feedback is nice, money’s always an option — but experiences won’t be forgotten. Experiential rewards like a company field trip or catered luncheon are great ways to leave a lasting impression on your employees.

4. Celebrate employee milestones

Reward employee loyalty and longevity with formal recognition. Taking the time to appreciate your most-seasoned employees is a great demonstration of how much you value their service to the company. Keep track of work anniversaries and give employees a shout out on the big day. Offer them a special reward to celebrate their milestone, such as a hefty gift card, free dinner or small party.

5. Combine recognition with charity

Looking for a way to reward employees while also building good will within your community? Here’s the perfect idea for you. 

Host a fundraiser for a charity of an employee’s choice. Advertise the event with that employee’s name, then donate a small portion of sales to that charity. Socially-conscious businesses reap many rewards, including:

  • Recognition: You’re donating to charity in honor of an individual employee, which will make that team member feel great about their work.
  • Good will: Positive news about the good deed will spread in your community, reflecting well on your business.
  • New business: Diners are attracted to socially conscious companies. Hosting the event will likely encourage new customers to try your restaurant.

And that’s just a fraction of the rewards you’ll reap when you recognize employees in a consistent and meaningful way. As the backbone of your business, your workforce matters. With employee recognition ideas like these, you’ll make sure they feel that way.

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