The Recognition category measures the extent to which employees feel they are recognized for their performance and innovative contributions to the workplace. 

We spoke to several agency leaders about the barriers and opportunities they faced in 2021, as well as the strategies they implemented to improve their scores in this category. These strategies offer vital lessons to other agency leaders. 


After two challenging years, it is especially important that agencies recognize federal employees’ work on behalf of the public. Amid extraordinary circumstances, most employees successfully fulfilled their missions—both old and new—while navigating personal challenges brought about by the pandemic.  

At some agencies, resources were scarce or directed to other priorities, leading to less funding for employee training and recognition. In addition, the federal pay raises in 2020 and 2021 were only 2.6% and 1%, respectively, putting more pressure on employee wages as inflation grew.  

Overall, however, many agencies realized that recruiting and retaining staff for the long term required more intentional strategies to recognize and reward employee excellence. 

“Leadership across the agency has taken a range of actions based on feedback from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, including publishing newsletters and hosting town halls, building new avenues to reward and recognize employees, creating mentoring programs, enhancing opportunities to connect with colleagues, and establishing initiatives that support employee well-being.”

Senior official at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security

Strategies for Success

  • Integrate recognition into overall engagement planning: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration approached recognition holistically as part of a larger engagement plan called SAMHSA STRONG. The campaign touched on every part of the employee journey, from internal communications and recruitment to material benefits and expanded awards programs. Recognition is one gear of a larger engine, and pairing it with other strategies can help agencies more regularly and effectively recognize employee performance. 
  • Think outside the box: Leaders at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are getting creative about how they recognize staff. Some offices have incorporated cash bonuses into existing awards programs; others have increased or reinstituted their employee awards programs. Many offices in the organization have peer-to-peer awards that enable staff to recognize each other and their supervisors. One office uses a points-based peer-to-peer recognition program, and these points can later be redeemed for prizes. USCIS seeks to increase the excitement around these awards and create more opportunities for employee recognition. 
  • Use data effectively: The Department of Education embarked on a multiyear engagement strategy in 2020 that targets several key parts of the employee experience—including rewards and recognition. By regularly reviewing insights from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, Education has been able to respond to concerns and improve its score in this category.  

“The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Best Places to Work rankings are critical to internal benchmarking and are healthy barometers for measuring and evaluating agency success.”

Senior official at the U.S. Export-Import Bank

The Future

There will always be more employee accomplishments to recognize and celebrate since so many of them occur behind the scenes or are underpublicized.  

But as agencies implement new policies for the return to work, employees will take on even more challenges. Leaders should plan to reward employees for their hard work. 

  • Marathon, not a sprint: The Securities and Exchange Commission understands that it’s important to recognize and uplift employees when times are tough. The agency plans to continue to provide wellness resources and communicate with staff about challenges, while celebrating the adaptability, resilience and creativity of its employees along the way. 
  • Consolidating and sharing ideas: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are developing a series of tip sheets to share with managers and supervisors, in order to collect best practices on rewards, recognition, and other drivers of engagement. These tip sheets will make it easier for teams to learn about new strategies and implement them quickly.