As an human resources professional in a small or mid-sized organization, you are likely to be the point person for any issues or topics related to your company’s workforce. As that resident pro, you know that one of the most important aspects of managing people well is providing recognition for work done well.

A lot of elements go into good performance on the job. First, it’s important that employees clearly understand exactly what is expected of them and all the duties that comprise their position. Training may be needed if an employee doesn’t have all the skills or know-how the job requires; or if procedures, policies, tools, technologies, or other relevant factors change. Your workers also need to understand how their efforts contribute to overall company goals – how they figure into the firm’s success.

When all those considerations come together and an employee turns in a great performance, recognition provides the icing on the cake. Not only does a reward call attention to good work and reinforce it, but it also contributes to engagement and retention of an employee who is contributing value to the organization.

Fine, you say. But where am I supposed to dredge up a budget for rewarding employees when the cranky economy is putting the squeeze on my employer? As an experienced HR pro, you know that organizations nationwide are facing that same situation. Fortunately, even when your budget for rewards and recognition is minimal or non-existent, there are innovative ways to call attention to the good work of your employees.

Because the most effective rewards are tailored to individual employees’ preferences, it’s always good to customize when you can. That said, here are a few possibilities for low-cost rewards:

  1. A standing O. Everyone appreciates positive attention. When an employee deserves recognition for a small triumph, have your CEO make a personal visit to the work area, offer his or her thanks, and lead co-workers in a round of applause.
  2. Put it in writing. Make it easy for an employee’s supervisor to request that your company’s CEO, owner, or other appropriate senior leader send a handwritten note of praise to a high-performer.
  3. Create a certificate. Today’s selection of pre-designed, pre-printed certificates makes it easy to choose one that can be filled in with an employee’s name and signed by the company brass. Presenting a framed certificate of merit or special achievement – whatever you choose to call it – gives your employee a visible and lasting thank you that may also serve as motivation to co-workers who’d like to earn one of their own.
  4. Give a “Best Effort Award” to encourage good ideas, even when they don’t work out as intended. If your company is serious about establishing an innovative culture, you’ll want to reward employees for being creative – whether or not their efforts are successful. Have fun deciding what the award should be – ask your workers to contribute suggestions.
  5. Give a day off for good performance. When an employee’s contribution is particularly good, reward him or her with a day off.
  6. Flex it. One of the most appreciated options that employees enjoy these days is flexible scheduling. If your company isn’t already reaping the engagement and morale benefits of this approach, test the waters by offering scheduling flexibility as a reward for high-performers. It’s a great way to see how the perk can benefit your firm, and a limited start as an employee reward enables you to work out any kinks that might come with expanding flex time to all employees.
  7. Send ‘em to class. If you have an employee who values opportunities to learn, reward him or her with development. Pay for an inexpensive class at a local community college or an online learning course. If that’s too costly, ask a manager or employee with special skills to provide one-on-one coaching.
  8. Hand out company bucks. Arm supervisors with a supply of play money from your local toy store. Then they can hand out those company bucks on the spot to reward special achievements.  When employees earn a specified amount for their good work, enable them to “buy” merchandise, a movie night, dinner out, or other rewards. Involve your employees in naming the reward – a banking firm calls theirs “Wow! Bucks.”
  9. Build a Wall of Fame where photos of deserving employees provide a lasting tribute commemorating especially valued contributions.
  10. Park it. Award a special parking place for an employee who has excelled. These can be time-limited to allow for frequent rewards – a month, perhaps. Some companies designate the spot next to the CEO, affording the honored employee a month of opportunities to chat one-on-one with the boss.