Topic: Employee Experience


6 Best Practices for Celebrating Career Milestones

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Updated on 

April 22, 2024






A great myth of our time: People are not interested in building a career with one organization. Gone are the days of commitment and loyalty between an organization and an individual.

The reality is quite different. For organizations, the high cost of turnover has led to a keen focus on employee retention and engagement. What constitutes high cost? Some sources put that estimate at 30%-50% of the annual salary of entry-level employees, 150% of middle-level employees, and up to 400% for specialized, high-level employees. Add in the nonquantifiable, but equally critical, loss of industry and client knowledge and experience—and the motivation is there to keep valued employees.

At the individual level, research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually depicts a trend of people staying longer with a company than they did 25 years ago. In 1983, the average tenure was around 3.5 years. Fifteen years later, in 1998, people stayed on the job an average of 3.6 years before quitting. In 2012, it’s now at 4.6 years.

People want to invest in careers, not just jobs

Building a career with an organization is something many employees aspire to today; a place they feel they fit in, belong, and can make a commitment to. When employees feel they work for an organization that cares about their wellbeing, three important things happen:

• They embrace the goals and vision of the organization

• They feel their contributions make a difference

• They become inspired to do great work

If people are interested in building their careers with the same organization, how do organizations best support that? Recent research points to celebrating an employee’s career achievement over time as an effective strategy on multiple levels.

30-50% annual salary of entry-level employees, 150% middle-level employees, 500% specialized high-level employees.


Jobs vs. careers

1. They feel they’re doing what they chose to do.

2. A certain skill level has been acquired through years of service or specialized education/training.

3. They feel and express a sense of ownership or concern for company success.

Celebrating loyalty drives tenure

A recent global quantitative and qualitative study by The Cicero Group, looked at the impact of years of service or career achievement programs. The findings: Celebrating career achievement is strongly correlated to increased tenure. In fact, organizations that offer a career achievement program keep employees an average of two years longer than organizations that don’t. If the program is perceived to be effective, employees plan to stay at their current employer for an additional two years on top of that.  

Average number of years an employee plans to stay with their current company. 8.6 years no program, 10.5 years with a service program rated (0-7), and 12.7 years with a service program rated 8-10.

The research also shows celebrating career achievement actively improves key employee engagement metrics. Specifically, communicating that a company cares about its employees and helping employees feel they fit in and belong. It’s interesting to note that all of these results are true globally and cross-generationally.

Bar chart representing the percentage of employees who strongly feel the company cares about employees. Employees stay longer and feel like they belong at their organization when organizations have years of service programs.

Career celebrations uniquely help employees feel they “fit and belong” with co-workers (horizontal engagement) and also show the “company cares about them” (vertical engagement).  

With career achievement programs, employees have a greater sense of how they “fit in and belong” with co-workers (horizontal engagement) and how their work and role fits into the overall organizational strategy. It also shows how the “company cares about them” (vertical engagement) and values employees for their individual contributions. The key: Career achievement programs touch every employee, at every level.

What this illustrates: With career achievement programs, employees have a greater sense of how they “fit in and belong” with co-workers (horizontal engagement) and how their work and role fits into the overall organizational strategy. It also shows how the “company cares about them” (vertical engagement) and values employees for their individual contributions. The key: Career achievement programs touch every employee, at every level.

Reinforce your culture to deepen commitment

Celebrating career achievement provides unique opportunities to teach and reinforce what matters most to the organization. During the presentation, a clear connection is made between individual employees and your brand values.

Training managers to connect employees’ actions to organizational goals can help create meaning in your employees’ work. It gives your employees a purpose; making them part of the bigger picture. Such communication assures employees they have an active role in the organization’s success. Managers’ roles are also enhanced, because they take the time to consider the service and contribution of their employees—when they ordinarily might not have done so.  

Employees at companies that currently have a years of service program report: 58% would feel their company cares about its employees, 76% would feel their company cares about its employees.

Opportunities for workplace connection

Working with thousands of clients, we’ve seen how celebrating careers at key milestone years is a unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity to focus on an individual. It’s about someone’s entire history of contributions, not just one single event. It provides opportunities for leaders to connect with their people, enabling them to see new talent. And, it creates moments that inspire peers to grow their own contributions to an organization. But as the research proves, it’s important not just to celebrate careers, but to celebrate them effectively.

Significantly, more employees would feel their company cares about its employees, if they observed an effective presentation for co-workers a few times a year.

6 Best practices for recognizing employee career achievement

Integrating research with best practice insights, here are six tips to help ensure a career celebration meets your business objectives and supports your culture.

1. Equip managers with the right tools and training

Appreciating employees at every stage in their career inspires loyalty, while providing important touch points for managers. But as busy as managers are, they need to be set up for success. Start by setting clear expectations of your management team to recognize their employees on or near their anniversary date. Put a system in place that automatically reminds managers of upcoming service anniversaries. This gives them enough time to plan the presentation, invite the right people, and prepare their remarks. Finally, provide training that teaches recognition best practices. Companies that have implemented recognition training for managers have seen an increase in satisfaction with the recognition experience.

2. Give awards with a personalized presentation

In the white paper, “Optimizing Employee Recognition Programs”, The Cicero Group published their findings from a 2010 rewards study. The research revealed employees felt more appreciated and had greater loyalty toward their organizations when they received tangible awards. On a scale of one through seven (with seven equaling ‘I feel very appreciated by my company’) recipients rated the actual award at 4.21, while a presentation of recognition ranked 3.48. Yet, giving an award—along with a personalized presentation—took the rating up to 6.08.

The same research also reported recipients desired awards that satisfied their wants (luxury items they might not buy with their own money) versus needs (cash or certificates used to pay bills or some other unmemorable, impersonal purchase). If your goal is to celebrate the career milestone and make the recipient feel appreciated, you want to reward them in a way that is memorable and effective.

In the end, you want to make the entire experience—from selecting the award to the actual presentation—as personalized as possible.

3. Plan a celebration appropriate for the number of years being honored

Celebrating one or five years should feel very different than celebrating 25 years. In fact, research shows each distinct career milestone triggers specific emotions. Understanding the emotions and psychology of someone at their one, three, five, 10-year (or more) anniversary will help in creating a more personalized and effective celebration. At 10 or more, consider inviting family members. Valuing these relationships recognizes all those who have sacrificed for and benefited from an individual’s career. By 20 and 25, you should make a big deal of the career achievement moment. Employees agree that 25 years is the most significant milestoneand culmination of all previous milestones. It is a reflective time where employees want to celebrate the career they’ve had to-date.

4. Invite other people to speak

Consult with the recipient on what they would like. Who should be invited? Who should speak? Invite peers to participate, especially those who know the recipient well and are familiar with his or her contributions. The audience for a career celebration is not just the recipient—it also includes the manager, leaders, peers, and sometimes family. A typical employee will probably observe numerous career achievement presentations before experiencing their own. Through these presentations, each individual employee can embrace the organization’s goals and vision, feel their contributions matter, and be inspired to do great work.

Because everyone gets a career achievement award at one time or another, the audience is greatly receptive to the messages being shared. It is a time of reflection and even inspiration for everyone: Managers reflect on the contributions of the recipient; the recipient reflects on his own achievements; and co-workers reflect on their contributions. Stories of success inspire everyone toward what they can do themselves to make a difference.

It’s also very important to invite leaders to participate. When senior leaders attend career achievement celebrations, it shows they value their people and are committed to recognizing them. Research shows an increase in engagement levels when, senior leaders show interest in the well-being of employees.6 For leaders themselves, it offers an opportunity to connect directly to employees. They’ll listen to the stories told by the employee’s peers and discover exactly how that individual has contributed to the organization’s success.

5. Prepare your remarks

During your presentation, share memorable stories that highlight the recipient’s unique qualities and illustrate his or her contributions to the rest of the organization. Talk about what they’ve accomplished, linking these contributions to your brand values and overall vision of the organization.

When employees better understand the connection between what they do and achieving top company goals, they are more likely to trust their employer. This trust leads to a high level of engagement, enhanced contributions, and commitment. In fact, researchers found employees who were committed to both their immediate work group and the organization had the highest level of collaboration and overall job satisfaction, and were least likely to leave.

6. Extend the appreciation experience

Once the celebration is over, you want the impact of the experience to live on. Record the event to give the employee a keepsake to save and share with family and friends. During the presentation itself, present a keepsake certificate with the award to serve as a valuable reminder of the day. Symbolic awards and pins also offer reminders of the culture, values, and meaning of the organization and specific career achievement. Finally, look for capabilities that connect with social appreciation tools. Integration with social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, let the employee’s entire community—personal and professional—offer congratulations. This will spotlight your organization as one that values and celebrates its people.

Key features recognition presentation include: 74% engaged employees feel appreciated, and 77% of engaged employees include an invitation for co-workers to comment.

Decrease turnover and deepen the commitment of your employees with these effective career achievement strategies. Through regular award presentations, employees will feel your organization cares about their well-being. They’ll see better how they fit in and belong. They’ll see how their contributions matter. In the end, you’ll build and reinforce a culture of inspiration, appreciation, and great work.

“I’m filled with memories and stories; the folklore; company challenges; emergencies; the fun times; the changes. I have witnessed and been a part of so much.”
–Focus group participant reflecting on their 25th work anniversary                       


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