5-Star Rewards & Recognition 2023

Reaping returns in a tight labour market

Employers that offer an attractive mix of rewards and recognition (R&R) will beat the odds and retain their valuable workers.  

Attracting and retaining top talent, hybrid work, and building social capital has posed challenges for all industries. The winners of Canadian HR Reporter’s 5-Star Rewards & Recognition awards for 2023 recognize that putting people first is the best defense against corporate complacency. 

“If we cater our rewards and recognition around creating experiences, employees become more engaged, and they want to work with you more because you’re giving them something they’re not finding elsewhere”
Tristan Kirk, Citadel Mortgages Tristan Kirk, Citadel Mortgages


An analysis of over 400 survey responses from employees at this year’s award-winning companies reveals that 91% of respondents indicate they are more likely to remain with their current company due to its respective R&R programs.  

The hallmark of an industry-leading R&R program is that it exists to create a high-performing and engaged workforce, says HR consultant Jana Tulloch (HR Strategy | Tulloch Consulting).  

“Sometimes, companies think rewards and recognition is a bit of a fluff program and that all it takes is gift cards or kudos once in a while,” Tulloch explains. “That approach is short-changing the significant impact a well-done program can have on the bottom line.” 

This year’s top-ranking companies all clocked an overall employee satisfaction rating of 75% or higher, with three cracking 90%. The majority were between 80% and 89%. 

Those figures are even more impressive in the context of Express Employment Professionals data that showed 75% of Canadian employers entered 2023 with fears over hiring challenges. The second biggest reason behind this fear is employees leaving to go elsewhere. 

CHRR’s 2023 awardees have implemented a variety of innovative incentives, including monetary rewards, fully funded trips, learning opportunities, and rewards within the reach of everyone.  



Elevating employee experience

Winner Citadel Mortgages in Toronto, Ont., achieved an overall employee satisfaction rating of 92.32%. One of its best-performing incentives rewards employees with a fully paid, five-day, four-night vacation to 65 different locations worldwide if they come back to work in the office.  

About 20% of the full-service mortgage brokerage’s workforce are back in the building, says principal broker and managing partner Tristan Kirk. More experience-type rewards are on the way in 2023 for top performers, including a day in Ontario wine country, $500 hotel vouchers per quarter, and monthly spa packages.  

“We launched it last year and the growth and the attention paid to that reward by my team was pretty cool to see,” Kirk adds. “If you take the time to listen and understand your people and build an experience for them in a way that’s meaningful, they’re going to be much, much happier and stay with you for a longer time.”  

The Microsoft Work Trend Index Special Report, released in September 2022, found that 73% of workers and 78% of business decision makers say they need a better reason to go into the office than just company expectations.  

“Where we’re headed in the next few years is that people want to experience things in life,” Kirk says. “People are tired, they’re stressed. If we cater our rewards and recognition around creating experiences, employees become more engaged, and they want to work with you more because you’re giving them something they’re not finding elsewhere.”  

“Some of the feedback we heard from people who were making moves was not because they were unhappy, but because they wanted greater challenge”
Laura Salvatore, Centurion Asset Management Laura Salvatore, Centurion Asset Management


Satisfying employees’ thirst for challenge

Fellow award-winner Centurion Asset Management stepped up to help its frontline workers with a new recognition bonus based solely on appreciation and gratitude. 

The Toronto-based asset management company, which owns and operates residential and student rental housing, topped up frontline employees’ weekly wages by $100 and offered a $500 per month rental concession to staff who work and live in its properties. 

Frontline staff include property and resident managers, leasing agents, maintenance technicians, and custodians. 

“It was easy enough to say everyone at head office pack up and work from home, but our site staff live and work at home, so this was a challenge for them,” says Laura Salvatore, Centurion vice-president, human capital, about the early days of lockdowns. 

Employee excellence, innovation, and commitment to continuous learning are also acknowledged and rewarded with a mix of gifts, cash, public recognition, and promotion. 

It’s a smart move when you consider that Microsoft’s study data shows that people will head for the door if they can’t learn and grow: 56% of employees and 68% of business decision makers say there are not enough growth opportunities in their company to make them want to stay long-term.  

To encourage its employees to thrive within the organization, Centurion launched its namesake learning academy. Since being implemented during the pandemic, 207 employees have completed 1,500 training hours from about 4,000 different modules, with 143 rewards given out. 

“Some of the feedback we heard from people who were making moves was not because they were unhappy, but because they wanted greater challenge,” Salvatore says. “In the last five years, we have promoted 114 people internally, so that’s really exciting for us.” 

A new award tied to Centurion’s values of respect, integrity, simplicity, and excellence, known by the acronym RISE, recognizes an exemplary peer-nominated employee each quarter with a small monetary award and a feature profile in the company newsletter.  

“Throughout the pandemic we learned communication was key, and that goes two ways,” says Salvatore. “There’s nothing more valuable than listening to your employees, listening to how they want to be rewarded, how they want to be recognized.” 

“I think it’s better if people celebrate together what they accomplish without bringing people up and creating an example that sort of shows why others aren’t measuring up”
Michael McCullough, Improving – Calgary  Michael McCullough, Improving – Calgary 



Strength in the collective 

CHRR’s survey results show that 100% of employees at the Calgary office of IT services firm, Improving, are likely to stay with the company based on its R&R programs. 

Employees, or ‘Improvers’ as they’re referred to in company culture, receive personal ‘thank you’ cards written by leadership and public recognition of their achievements and impact made within Improving and the community. They also benefit from annual profit sharing and an internal gratitude channel exclusively for thanks and recognition. 

But perhaps more importantly for president Michael McCullough, is the firm’s Employee Involvement Program (EIP), a praise, recognition, and reward solution that allows “everyone to feel like they’re winning”. 

The EIP is the employee’s own record of involvement, engagement, and contribution for all leadership to see. The management team tracks employee involvement across different categories such as business development, initiatives, culture and community, and a monetary award is paid out quarterly as well as recognition for their engagement. 

“The EIP is important and meaningful,” explains McCullough. “With most companies, what you’ve done lives with the leader you’re reporting to, but the EIP system is the employee’s own record of what they’ve been doing and their contributions back. I always look for ways that everyone can feel they’re being successful.” 

McCullough believes the strongest programs reward and recognize collective effort. 

“I think it’s better if people celebrate together what they accomplish without bringing people up and creating an example that sort of shows why others aren’t measuring up, which can be what happens in many cases,” he says. “This is my own strange view of the world and a lot of people don’t see it this way, they believe it will inspire others to work harder. I think it’s more demotivating than motivating.” 

ScaleX founder and CEO Maysa Hawwash (HR Consulting Agency in Toronto | ScaleX | Accelerate Your Growth), whose firm provides wide-ranging HR consultancy services, warns firms against not tailoring their R&R in a bespoke fashion.  

“Every employee is different in the way that they want to be recognized, what works for some may not be appreciated as much by others,” she adds.  


5-Star Rewards & Recognition 2023

Company size: 1-299 employees

  • Canola Council of Canada
  • Citadel Mortgages
  • Improving
  • Paystone
  • Verico Xeva Mortgage
  • WorkTango


Company size: 300-499 employees

  • CAAT Pension Plan
  • Centurion Asset Management
  • Creative Options Regina


Company size: 500+ employees

  • BDO Canada
  • Canada Cartage


Canadian HR Reporter’s 5-Star Rewards & Recognition (R&R) entry process comprised two steps: an employer submission followed by an employee survey. Twenty-one organizations applied by completing an in-depth survey that detailed such things as a programs it initiated over the last two years to better recognize and reward employees. 

Companies successful in the submission phase were then sent a link to an online employee survey to be circulated internally. The survey, which ran from October 12 to 30, 2022, asked employees to rate their employer across a range of metrics that constituted drivers of employee satisfaction. In total, 653 responses were received from employees of the various organizations.  

To be named to the 5-Star R&R list, companies had to meet a minimum number of responses based on size: 10 responses for organizations with 1–99 employees, 20 responses for those with 100–499, and 50 responses from companies with 500+ employees.  

Organizations that achieved an overall employee satisfaction rating of at least 75% were recognized as 5-Star awardees.