Employee recognition is one of the key drivers when motivating employees in the workplace, and 78 percent of employees would work harder if they were better recognized, according to Globoforce. It's really as simple as that. More recognition for work well done means happier, more engaged employees who are more invested in your organization and driven to produce great work.

As simple as it is to say, it's more complicated to execute. From my experience in HR, I've found one of the most difficult tasks for HR professionals is finding "sticky" ways to retain and reward employees.

A built-out rewards and recognition program is becoming even more of a corporate imperative as millennials take the workforce by storm. The modern workplace demographic has skewed younger, dominated by 20 to 24-year-olds. Indeed, millennials have become the largest generation in the American workforce, and they have big ideas for what they want out of their organizations. They don't just want compensation--although they certainly still want that--they also want a meaningful, close-knit culture, volunteer opportunities, genuine recognition for their work, and frequent praise and rewards.

Largely because of how younger workers perceive these functions as essential to their satisfaction, the structure of the workplace is facing big shifts, and reward and recognition programs need to keep up. Here's how to do it:

Reward the right things.

Organizations that reward and recognize for accomplishments that don't ultimately matter to the overall objectives of the company undermine the value of recognition in the eyes of employees. Instead, they should reward:

  1. Actions that align with the business's strategy and goals. HR professionals should focus on recognizing key behaviors that align with the company's all-embracing mission. If your organization doesn't have a defined mission and clear goals, this is the perfect moment to determine them.
  2. Big and small wins. When organizations focus on celebrating only the big wins, rewards and recognition arrive too few and far between, and employees get left feeling dejected and downtrodden. The bigger the project, the bigger the setbacks, delays, and roadblock-hurdling efforts tend to be. To prevent your team from feeling discouraged, it's critical that you celebrate the small wins along the way to the ultimate grand victory. Pinpointing small wins keeps recognition frequent and consistent, even in the face of project delays or difficulties.
  3. Being a team player. Celebrating the employees who play well together and don't let their egos into the equation is huge for maintaining a healthy work culture, and can even benefit the profitability of your organization.

Reward the right way.

Whenever I think of how to reward and recognize employees for the great work they do, work that aligns with the company mission and encourages team collaboration, I think of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors of recognition.

Here's the thing: What employees want most of all are opportunities for growth, and praise for good work. These forms of recognition support intrinsic needs--the need for autonomy, the desire for increasing responsibility, and feelings of accomplishment at their company. These intrinsic factors truly motivate employees to perform, while extrinsic factors like pay, fancy offices, free lunches and other perks only prevent dissatisfaction. In other words, if you're looking to move the needle upward in terms of productivity and profitability, genuine, individual praise and public recognition in the form of role advancement or project ownership will likely get you there faster than a new foosball table for the team break room.

Targeting intrinsic factors can be as frugal as sending a personal note that specifies exactly what the employee did, recognizing the employee's accomplishment in a meeting, sending a shout-out around your company's private social site, or arranging for a higher manager to stop by and say thanks. They're still worth more in employee engagement points than most material rewards.

Understand why it matters.

Why should we care so much about rewards and recognition? Shouldn't employees just be happy they have jobs? The truth is, not adequately recognizing employees hurts employee retention and organizational profitability--a lose-lose situation. A study performed by my company found that 82 percent of employees don't think they're recognized for their work as often as they deserve, and that factor makes them consider leaving. Just think: A few meaningful words could potentially save thousands of dollars on recruiting and hiring new talent.

What's more, recognition helps revenue. In fact, organizations that give regular thanks to their employees tremendously outperform those that don't. Companies with engaged employees have revenue two-and-a-half times greater than companies with low engagement levels, and higher-than-average employee engagement translates to close to a third higher profitability. From a dollar standpoint, it definitely behooves a company to shape up its rewards and recognition protocol.

If the increase in organizational profitability and performance coupled with decreased turnover isn't enough, you still should recognize and reward employees because it's simply the right thing to do. We don't grow out of our need for recognition, we just become accustomed to not getting it; emotional maturity helps us cope with that, but only to an extent. Praise for a job well done is as valuable now as it has always been: priceless.