10 Employee Recognition Ideas for Small Businesses

Recognizing your employees’ hard work on a regular basis boosts workplace morale. These ideas for showing staff appreciation are worth a look.

8 min read
Kokomo restaurant staff

As a small business owner, you know only too well the challenges of hiring and retaining  employees. Almost a third of small business owners report having unfilled positions for at least three months, double the level from a year ago.

Employee Appreciation Day — celebrated the first Friday in March — serves as a reminder of the importance of showing recognition of the sacrifices and commitments that small business employees make on a regular basis. 

Taking the time to recognize your employees’ hard work on a regular basis is a smart way to keep morale high. After all, 82% of employees report that they’re happier when they’re recognized at work. 

Keep reading to learn creative employee recognition ideas for small businesses.

Reasons to show employee appreciation

1. To boost morale

It’s no secret that the past several years have taken a toll on the emotional well-being of your employees. Finding ways to bring your employees together can strengthen social ties and help your staff feel less isolated, boosting their moods.

2. To drive productivity

It’s important to show that you care about your employees as people — recognizing that they have inherent value as human beings. But it’s also good for your bottom line. It turns out that happy employees are actually more productive employees. In fact, 40% of employees say they'd put more energy into their work if they felt their efforts were being recognized. 

3. To build a stronger culture

A strong work culture contributes greatly to your business’s reputation and success. In fact, 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to the success of a company. An open culture of communication and goodwill begins with regularly showing staff appreciation.

Colin Denton

Everyone thinks it's always money that gets people in, but it's things like autonomy, feeling like they have a say at the table, health benefits, and communication — those are the things that are lasting.

Colin Denton, Owner, Kokomo

Employee recognition ideas

Having detailed the top reasons to show your employees that you care, keep reading for creative staff appreciation ideas.

1. Throw a party

Step away from work and let your employees connect with each other on a personal level with a company party or festive event. Spark a little friendly competition with a Trivia Night or a karaoke contest.

2. Create an Employee of the Month program

Recognize employees with a formal program such as Employee of the Month, or a similar superlative award — highlighting each winner with a photo shoot or video on social media. For fun, try infusing a little humor with whimsical awards, like the ‘Best Beard Award,’ or the ‘Early Bird Award’ (for that one person who always shows up 10 minutes before her shift). For inspiration, see these funny award names for employee recognition

3. Recognize employees’ work anniversaries 

Treat your team members’ work anniversaries like a birthday or holiday — and celebrate with balloons or a cake. Make a fuss over the major milestones as the years (and loyalty) tick onward. If your staff is large, combine several anniversaries at a time so you can all celebrate as a group.

4. Offer a family meal

If you run a restaurant, serving up a free meal with each shift is not only a tradition, it’s an easy way to familiarize your staff with new menu offerings. It allows the chef to experiment with new ingredients while encouraging employees to connect with one another and decompress.

Stephanie Izard

Family meals are not just about leftovers. We put effort into creating a delicious dish for the team.

Stephanie Izard, Owner, Girl and the Goat

5. Create a friendly competition

Host a fun contest — i.e. who can sell the most banana fudge sundaes — and reward employees who win. This keeps the mood light, makes the workday go faster, enlists everyone in staff appreciation, and adds more revenue to your bottom line.

6. Give employees time off

Employees will appreciate free time — even a half-day — to focus on their personal needs. You can give employees the flexibility to schedule the time and day in the upcoming months, depending on their preferences. Pro tip: 7shifts is a convenient tool that enables staff to request time off, if you don’t have a current solution for this.

7. Consider a wellness gift

Once in a while, a hand-selected employee recognition gift can contribute to overall well-being. This could be something like a plant, a pair of nice headphones, or a gift certificate for a home cleaning service to take that chore off an employee’s shoulders for the week. 

8. Name a menu item after them

If you run a restaurant, you’re always dreaming up new names for each dish. Why not recognize and appreciate your staff members by incorporating their names into your weekly specials? Mad Martha’s Eggs Benedict and Disco Dave’s Hot Spicy Chili can pique customers’ curiosity while honoring the contributions of your team members.

9. Distribute gift cards

Gift cards are a convenient way to support the local economy and encourage employees to treat themselves — whether it’s the standard coffee shop gift card or maybe a gift card from DoorDash. They’re also easily regifted if employees want to share with family members or friends.

10. Write thank-you notes

Sometimes the best way to say thank you has no monetary value at all. A personal, handwritten thank-you note — or a sign posted in a visible spot — can make an employee feel seen and appreciated. Explain why you value that employee as a person – whether it’s their sunny disposition, warm leadership style, or their unique ability to make even small talk feel authentic. Make it a part of the work culture for everyone to recognize positive employee contributions. 

Find ways to celebrate employees every day

Building the culture of a small business takes time and effort. Along with best practices for retention such as sharing an employee handbook with newly hired staff, formalizing your employee recognition activities will help establish your workplace as a place of goodwill. 

Employee recognition shouldn’t be limited to just one day a year – it should be a continuous practice of letting employees know you care. Ask employees about how they would like to be recognized, and adjust accordingly. Remember that happy, valued employees are more productive in the long run, leading to a stronger business overall – it’s a virtuous cycle that benefits everyone.


Diana Donovan
Diana Donovan


logo subscribe to blog

Subscribe for insights to help you run a great business, delivered weekly to your inbox.