A Brief History of Rewards and Recognition in the Workplace

As an employer in today’s business environment, you know the value of recognition and appreciation in the workplace. On a basic level, rewards and recognition programs help create positive company culture and keep employees motivated and engaged at their jobs. On a higher level, rewards and recognition in the workplace can help add value and purpose to a job and to a career. Where and when did recognition start in the workplace? What did early workplace recognition look like back in the day? From ancient Greece to the modern workspace, we explore recognition's origins below.

Workplace Recognition Beginnings

When did workplace recognition first begin? Although there is not one single event that pinpoints the birth of workplace recognition, some early forms of rewards can be found in the first Olympic games in ancient Greece. The winners of Olympic events were awarded with various prizes, including laurel (or olive) leaf crowns, horses, and bronze tripods. These athletes were also honored in the host cities with statues and stone inscriptions of their victories. Olympic medals became a part of the modern games, starting in 1896. Moreover, what was true in ancient Greece is still true today — athletes consider it a great honor to participate and be recognized for their Olympic achievements. In fact there is still no prize money associated with Olympic events!

"Last one to the Parthenon is a rotten egg!"

In addition to the Olympics and other competitions in those days, early work recognition was really a barter system, where a person must give something — a commodity, service, etc. — and receive something in return. People were trying to earn a living and provide for their families, which at that time was rewarding enough. (Let's be real—sometimes that's STILL rewarding enough, right?)

Scientific Management

With the Industrial Revolution came a new way to manage and divide workers for better productivity and efficiency. Enter Frederick W. Taylor and his Scientific Management theory. Taylor studied factory workers and what made them more or less productive and motivated on the job. What he found was that having the promise of employment the next day was not enough motivation for workers to work more efficiently. Behold the beginnings of employee recognition and rewards to help motivation and engagement! 

The actual workplace reward Taylor believed in was monetary, since he theorized that workers were mostly motivated by money. It made sense that those that were more productive were paid more. This scientific management practice was a necessary in the advancement of leadership, employee motivation, and incentives.

20th Century

During the 20th century, most workplace recognition programs were based on B.F. Skinner’s study of positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner was a groundbreaking behavioral psychologist who's theories still influence our lives today. Skinner theorized that employers only reward employees that exhibited hard working behavior every time they observed it in the office or within their business results, and that’s why pay incentive plans were popular during this time period.

In addition, recognition awards were also heavily influenced by employee tenure. From jewelry to trophies and plaques, employees were rewarded but didn’t have much of a choice on what they received, and most of it was based off tenure with the company. Rewards also came in the form of promotions, as status in the office was very important to Baby Boomers at that time.

The birth of the internet brought about an increased focus on more personal/lifestyle awards that employees could use daily.

Modernized Recognition Programs

What do modern recognition programs look like today? Successful rewards and recognition programs include the following aspects: personalization, timeliness, socialization, peer-to-peer, unique to company culture, etc. Furthermore, employers should reward employees with items that they actually want/will use, and make sure employees also recognize great work being accomplished by other coworkers.

Recognition programs will continue to evolve with the new and incoming workforce, so it’s important to take the time to understand what current employees value and how they would like to be rewarded and recognized. It's also important to remember our history when it comes to recognition so we can avoid the pitfalls of the past!


It's the future. But which is the boss, and which is the employee?

All in all, as recognition programs continue to evolve in the coming years, look to see what improvements you can make today that let employees know how valued they are within the organization.