Creating a Successful Employee of the Month Program

The employee of the month award might just be the oldest and most popular type of corporate recognition in the history of corporate America. The Employee of the Month program is so overdone and cliché that it brings about only eye rolls and spoof reels from today’s workforce. And yet, the number one thing employees are looking for is more recognition at work. 

In fact, Bonusly asked 1,500 employees about their thoughts and 82% said they feel happier when they’re recognized at work. So, if we can revitalize the classic Employee of the Month program and make it applicable and relevant to today’s employees, it might just be the golden ticket you are looking for to boost morale, retention, engagement and perhaps even transform company culture. 

Whether you are just starting an employee of the month program or you’ve been tasked with breathing new life into a decades-old company tradition, here are a few tips, tricks, and pitfalls to keep in mind. 

How to Get Started

There can be no one-size-fits-all approach to what an employee needs. So put yourself in the employee’s shoes and think about how you would like your company to recognize you.

Define Clear Objectives

What’s the point? Why are you starting this program? This is the most important place to start. A purpose like “recognizing our employee’s hard work” is too vague. The assumption is all employees should work hard, so that’s going to be difficult to quantify a winner. Instead, consider a more specific program objective such as: 

  • Creating a collaborative work environment
  • Promoting innovation
  • Living the company core values

Nailing down a specific objective will make it easier to draft the rest of the program in a way that makes sense and support your company goals rather than contradicts them. 

Specify Criteria

“Sir, we need to select the next employee of the month” 

“Who hasn’t been recognized recently?” 

“Maybe someone from accounting?” 

“Ok, sure – pick one of them.” 

When there are no clear criteria for Employee of the Month, the entire program becomes arbitrary. It’s just a ridiculous tradition that quickly becomes pretty meaningless.

Create, communicate, and keep the criteria clear. This ensures two critical components:

  • Clear criteria eliminate biases in the reward system. 
  • Clear criteria create genuine competition and motivation. 

When choosing criteria, everyone should feel like they have a shot at winning. Don’t set criteria so high that the new guy doesn’t have a chance and the same people continually win month over month. It also makes it easier for managers to select an employee rather than simply choosing someone who hasn’t had a turn. Here are some examples of criteria based on the program objectives. 

If your objective is:   Criteria may include: 
Creating a collaborative work environment Showing a commitment to workDisplay positive mentoring skills Regular and on-time attendance
Promoting innovation Submitting new ideasSolving a problem in a new way 
Living the company core values Choose a singular value to promote each month and reward criteria specifically pertaining to that value. 

Decide Who Decides

In my experience, an employee of the month program works better when the winner is chosen by vote rather than by an individual. The decision maker might be a committee or group, or can be a peer vote. Either way, make sure that the guidelines should be clear on who can vote, when voting takes place, and how voting happens.

Choose a Prize

A certificate is nice, a treat is better, but the best awards need to be attractive so that your employees are motivated to strive for them. The best reward is a combination of both monetary and non-monetary benefits.

Because each employee is unique. What might motivate one won’t necessarily motivate others. In my opinion, the best motivation is a boost to the employee’s Lifestyle Benefits Account. This allows the employee to enjoy their reward in any way they choose. It also takes the pressure off of your team to try and find the perfect gift each month. 

Lifestyle benefits allows each reward to be both personal and simple at the same time. Some ideas for other reward ideas may include: 

  • Social media appreciation posts 
  • Paid vacations and days-off work. 
  • Tech and work equipment upgrades;
  • An exclusive feature in the Wall of Fame, the company website or newsletter

Revitalizing an Old or Outdated Employee of the Month Program

So, you’ve had a program for a while but it’s lost it effectiveness. Or maybe you’re six months behind and you’re not sure how to reboot the program again. It might be time to switch things up and breathe new life into an old tradition. Here are a few tips to revitalize an old or outdated employee of the month program: 

Change the Name

The first step is to change the name. This gives you two opportunities: First, you can restart the entire process and second, you can reward multiple employees. Changing the name also allows you to get very specific on your program’s purpose and objective. 

Here are some examples provided in a recent article by Saurabh Wani, a digital marketer at ZoomShift and writer for HRCloud:

  • Champions of Change Award — for the risk-takers who best adapt to changing situations.
  • Best Mentor Award — for those who motivate others to give their best.
  • Problem Solver Award — for those who come up with creative ideas to solve challenges.
  • Ultimate Team Player — for those with an immense collaborative spirit.
  • The Engagement Champion — for the highly engaged.
  • Standout Performer — for those who give above and beyond performances.
  • Culture Champion — for those who keep the company culture vibrant and alive.

Announce Big

Make the award announcements loud and public. This is the best way to keep the program alive, make sure people know it’s happening and provide instant social recognition. People like getting appreciated for their work. Calling out the star employees provides a really valuable moment. And please, put a little thought into it. Don’t just use a standardized email. This is a big moment, treat it as such and include the specifics about their contributions and why they deserved the award. If the purpose is recognition, make sure you actually recognize the employee.

Assess Impact and Downfall 

If you had a program that has been neglected, evaluate what happened. Did it have a null or negative impact? Did it cause problems among managers? Was the reward unimpactful? Were the employees uninformed? If the program is dormant for long enough, it might not be clear what the problem was, but it’s worth discussing where things went wrong so you can course correct moving forward.  

Get feedback from employees about what they’d like to see in the program and how it can be more impactful in the future. With this information, you can create a revitalized, more effective, and sustainable program. 

Even the Playing Field

Sometimes a small shift can make a big difference. If it seems like your current program continuously rewards the same people, consider ways to even the playing field. 

  • Recognize an employee from a different department each month
  • Structure the awards to make sure all employees have a chance to win at some point throughout the year.
  • Require employees to have at least six months of service to be eligible to receive the monthly recognition award.
  • Limiting the number of times per year that an employee can win. 
  • Make sure you have measurable selection criteria. 

Change the Incentive 

It’s critical to understand the type of incentives that your workforce values. This includes both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Choosing the right incentives can change the whole program. My best recommendation is to reward them with extra money in their lifestyle benefits account, which allows them to use their reward for whatever they choose. This makes each incentive personal and meaningful to the individual. 

Thinking Outside the Box: 

Here’s a few companies going above and beyond with their employee recognition programs and finding unique ways to recognize their team: 

  • Nominations: This is the recognition program from the company behind the Button mobile commerce platform. During product demonstrations, employees pass around a stuffed Nemo (from Disney’s Finding Nemo) to symbolize going the extra mile. (In the movie, Nemo’s father travels several thousand extra miles to find his son.) The stuffed animal is adorable, and it serves as a strong visual anchor for the helpful qualities colleagues love. 
  • Value Victor: At SnackNation, employees of the month are called “Value Victors,” because they embody one or more of our core values. The award comes with preferred parking, a trophy, and a giant bag of healthy snacks (naturally).
  • Make Others Great: Limeade, an employee engagement company, came up with a monthly Make Others Great award to acknowledge team members who “go above and beyond to help others do their best work through collaboration and teamwork.” This rewards actions that help others instead of acknowledging outstanding individual work. Recipients get to keep a shiny green shoe for a month. 
  • Best New Mistake: A monthly award by SurePayroll, the Best New Mistake Award encourages employees to take risks and try new things by reminding them that innovation will inevitably come along with a few hiccups, and those hiccups should be celebrated.
  • Founder Legacy Award Winner: The Walt Disney Legacy Award goes to Disney Parks Cast Members who embody cultural values that the company’s famous founder and namesake, Walt Disney, lived by—and would surely applaud if he were around today.


According to statistics gathered by Deloitte, companies that have highly effective employee recognition programs have 31 percent less turnover than those that have ineffective worker recognition programs. Creating a culture of recognition doesn’t happen overnight. But by implementing a monthly recognition program like this, you take a small step to improve work-life for all of your current and future hires.