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Topic: Appreciation

Years of Service Award Program Guide

Anniversary gifts by year

Four employees gathered together taking a selfie celebrating the success of their coworker.
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Not all years of service award programs are created equal. Some are cobbled together, some lack excitement, and some are simply not loved by those who participate in them. Because of that, most years of service award programs are a lost opportunity for organisations to delight their people and help them bond with your organisation. When done well, years of service award programs celebrate friendships, relationships, and shared success—all the reasons people choose to stay.

While traditional years of service award programs have long been valued as a way to improve employee satisfaction and engagement, they have often been misunderstood as a tool to recognise employee tenure alone. The most effective years of service award programs celebrate fit and belonging. They spotlight the contributions, accomplishments, and relationships employees have built over time—not just how long a person has been with the company.

What are years of service awards?

Employee years of service awards are about so much more than just tenure. No employee wants to receive the equivalent of a “participation award,” an award for simply filling a seat at an organisation for a period of time. Employees want to be appreciated for their talent, their value, their accomplishments and successes over the course of their career, whether it’s their first year at an organisation or their 20th.

Examples of Years of Service Awards from the following companies: NBA, FedEx, Taco Bell, Sinclair Oil, Chicago Cubs
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Years of service awards are also called milestone awards, service awards, service milestones, length of service awards, employee anniversaries, and service anniversaries. They’re all the same thing—awards that recognise employees when they hit a specific work anniversary (5, 10, 15, 20+ years of service). 

How Service Awards Have Changed

Historically, employee service awards programs were positioned as a company benefit, part of a total reward and recognition package. They were (and often still are) a very transactional, automated process. In these scenarios, employees may have received an award on their desk or in the mail on their anniversary date. A few employees may have gotten their award in a lackluster team presentation. 

Companies typically administered these programs themselves or relied on a service award vendor. In the past, service awards for employees usually included certificates, plaques, and lapel pins to symbolise an employee’s years of service.

But service awards have changed. Today, service awards at work are modernised to include other forms of rewards and more personalised experiences. Service award programs are now more likely to be combined with other employee recognition programs to create a more holistic, comprehensive strategy that:

  • • Praises everyday effort
    • Rewards results (when appropriate)
    • Celebrates careers at key intervals

When done well, modern service award programs:

  • • Create peak moments
    • Foster a sense of belonging
    • Honor friendships
    • Acknowledges contributions over time
    • Provide a time to pause and celebrate exactly how an employee fits into the fabric of the organisation 

In other words, these programs have the power to connect people to one another and to the organisation.

Employees showing excitement for a colleague's years of service milestone.
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Benefits of years of service award programs

Why should companies offer years of service awards? Beyond just a way to reward employee tenure, years of service award programs have major impacts on organisational success.

Employee Retention 

Years of service award programs improve employee retention. Employees stay at organisations for 2-4 years longer when their company has an effective years of service program.

Bar graph: The average number of years an employee plans to stay with their current comapny. The average number of years for companies with no service award program was 8.6. Companies with a mid-rated had an average of 10.5. And companies with a high rated program had an averaged of 12.7 years.
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Compare the following two graphs to see the differences between how employees feel about their jobs that do, or do not, have a years of service awards program. As you can see, jobs that do include such programs go a long way in increasing employee engagement. This includes a 49% increase in employees feeling like their company cares about them when service anniversaries are celebrated. When employees feel their companies care about them as people, they are willing to give more effort. 

Survey results comparing respondents past two employers and if employees strongly felt their company cared. Results are split into a "no years of service program" and "with years of service program." Both previous and current company bar graphs show about a 20% increase in percentage of employees who strongly feel the company cares about employees when a years of service award program is present.
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Survey results comparing respondents past two employers and if employees strongly felt that they fit in and belonged. Results are split into a "no years of service program" and "with years of service program." Both previous and current company bar graphs show about a 20% increase in percentage of employees who strongly feel they fit in and belong when a years of service award program is present.
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Other Benefits

Here are some other significant benefits of implementing an official years of service awards program:

  • • A full 81% of employees say career celebrations help them feel appreciated for their work.

  • • There is a 35% increase in employees enjoying a feeling of belonging when at work. This is especially important in a time when loneliness at work is at an all-time high.

  • • It inspires peers to work better, simply by observing a years of service recognition presentation.

    • Unlike above-and-beyond awards (which may involve subjectivity on the part of the giver), all employees receive years of service awards regardless of level, function, or location.

  • • Several countries offer tax advantages for programs, which can mean significant cost savings.

    • It builds trust with leaders, strengthens loyalty, and shapes culture by sharing stories that illustrate what your organisation stands for and cares about.   

Line graph: When employees observe effective career presentations, they feel their company cares about it's employees 76% of the time compared to only 58% without career presentations.
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“Your company wants you to be invested, but it’s hard to feel invested in a company if it doesn’t invest in you.”

- Focus group participant

Understanding career growth – Why Millennials value service awards too


Contrary to popular belief, employees today (specifically millennials), are not quitting their jobs more frequently or staying for fewer years than previous generations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure for working adults in 1998 was 3.6 years. In January of 2020, the number had increased to 4.1 years. 

People everywhere, millennials included, want to know their work makes a difference, to know their work is valued, and to feel they are building a successful career with their company. However, millennials are particularly sensitive to knowing their work matters to those around them. 

The career stages

A career is built over time and encompasses a number of unique stages. During each stage, employees experience different emotions. What employees feel at year 1 or year 5 is different than what they feel at year 25. Service award recognition should honor different career stages and year levels.

Here’s a look at each career stage and how employees may be feeling while in them.


How to celebrate employee anniversaries year by year.
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1 year (Learning)

Employees made it through the learning curve and are soaking everything up like a sponge. They are beginning to add value and feel pride in finishing their first year.

3 years (Fitting in)

Employees are becoming culturised and feeling comfortable with their teams. They want to grow and develop and are looking ahead for more opportunities.

5 years (Expertise)

Employees are feeling confident and becoming the expert in their area. They value their relationships with coworkers and have a sense of their company being a possible home. However, they are also questioning their worth, and wonder if they might be more appreciated elsewhere.

5 year service award
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10 years (Belonging)

Employees are beginning to feel real ownership in the company. They now see their coworkers as family, but are still solidifying their role in the growth of the organisation.

15 year service award
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15 years (Invested)

Invested. Employees are feeling invested, settled, and can balance their work and personal life. They are seeing lifelong value from this work partnership, and are proud of their contributions.

20 years (Veteran)

Veteran. Employees have seen a lot of change at this point, both in their personal life and in their company. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience they’re beginning to impart on younger employees. They are a seasoned veteran.

25 years (Triumph)

Triumph. Employees believe this is the most significant milestone and an accumulation of all previous milestones. A time to celebrate victories past and present.

30 years (Mentor)

Mentor. Employees are more nostalgic and reflective. They have plenty left to give, but are particularly interested in passing on their wealth of knowledge.

“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 on 25 years

Years of Service Awards Ideas

You may wonder what makes an appropriate years of service award. Should it be the same type of award you give for everyday effort or above-and-beyond achievements? The answer is no.

Some organisations give plaques and pins and some use extra vacation days or company stock as years of service award gifts. That’s fine, but companies should strive to turn service anniversaries into lasting memories by using a combination of symbolic and personal awards. Keep in mind, large companies may need a comprehensive strategy for effectively recognising their people.

Years of service awards for employees should be something employees desire, not necessarily things that they “need.” While you might think cash would be appreciated, most likely an employee will use it to pay bills, buy groceries, or make other unmemorable, impersonal purchases. So gifting luxury items and experiences that employees may not normally buy on their own are more valued.

Employee service award gifts: ktichen aid, mountain bike, jewelry, coffee maker, head phones, cookware, phone dock, backpack, apple tv, wrist watch.
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So, what are some general years of service awards employees love? 

  • • Personal note of congratulations from CEO or senior leader

  • • Personalised card or book with messages and comments from peers and leaders

  • • Nice celebration or exceptional dinner out

  • • Choice of a personal award item (ranging from jewelry, electronics, home accessories, leisure/sports items, travel accessories, luxury items, etc.)

• Symbolic award to represent the years of service in a unique, meaningful way or to connect back to something memorable about the company

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Let’s look at specific examples for years of service awards in each career stage:

  • • 1 Year (Learning): Giving a “Rookie of the Year” award can give a major confidence boost to a new employee. Consider gifting company swag or a local restaurant gift card.

  • • 3 Years (Fitting In): Giving appreciation for three years of service will go a long way in helping an employee feel they have a place in the company. Consider gifting tech or homeware.

  • • 5 Years (Expertise): Once an employee has become an expert in their position, it’s important to acknowledge their contribution. Consider gifting a basket of specialty items or a unique local experience.

  • • 10 Years (Belonging): Staying with a company for ten years is quite an achievement, so be sure to recognise the special occasion. Consider gifting a plaque or a weekend getaway.

  • • 15 Years (Invested): An invested employee should also be invested in, so don’t let this year pass by without notice. Consider gifting a glass trophy or jewelry.

  • • 20 Years (Veteran), 25 Years (Triumph), 30 Years (Mentor): At 20-30 years of employment, your loyal employee deserves significant respect. Consider gifting a personalised watch or a trip package.

These ideas generally work well, no matter the individual receiving them. However, what employees often enjoy most is choosing their own reward from a variety of options. 

6 ways to modernise your years of service award program

The future of service awards is making workplace anniversaries more meaningful, memorable, and fun. You want to create a memorable experience for people, not just toss an award on their desk. You have a prime opportunity to give people credit for the company’s success and help them feel a sense of belonging to something bigger.

Modern service award programs incorporate more elements of social recognition, with the involvement of mentors, peers, family, and friends. Today’s service award program should create an experience that better connects people to the organisation. 

Here are six ways to modernise your years of service award program.

1. Empower managers to create the experience

Ensure leaders have the resources required to provide a great recognition experience. Find tools that will automatically remind them (several times, if needed) when an employee’s anniversary is approaching. Train them on recognition best practices and how to use storytelling to prepare a great presentation that highlights the employee’s career and connects them to the organisation’s purpose.



2. Remember 5 is different
than 25

Plan a celebration appropriate for the number of years being honored, and tailor the experience, sentiments, and award to reflect the emotions of each career stage. Plug in to the enthusiasm of a one- or three-year employee, the hunger for growth of a five-year employee, or the desire of a 25-year employee to mentor. 

Don’t forget—just because your company’s service award program policy says employees get an award every 5 years, doesn’t mean the other years aren’t important. Acknowledge, celebrate, and reward employees in their first year, and every year they work hard to contribute to your organisation.

Years of service awards: 5, 10, 15, 25 years
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3. Involve others

Invite peers, vendors, previous leaders, family, and friends to participate in a celebration of the recipient’s life at work. Consider collecting photos, comments, and stories from co-workers to create a yearbook that illustrates a history of one person’s expanding influence on the company. Involve people the employee loves the most to turn a boring service anniversary into a shared celebration people look forward to for years to come. 

Sample Letter of Appreciation for Years of Service: "Congrats on ten years, Lisa! Your smarts, kindness, and leadership, make working here a blast. Thanks!"
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4. Connect people

Don’t think of service anniversaries as rewarding time served. Celebrate success—not just sticking around. To do that, celebrate things like personal growth, accomplishments, and relationships—all the reasons people choose to stay.

Be sure to prepare remarks ahead of time. They should be personal, specific, genuine, and aligned with the organisation's mission. Focus on the important role each recipient plays on the team. How does the individual belong? How do they help further your organisation’s purpose? Connect the individual to your company’s culture. Help them feel part of something bigger. Capturing your company’s heart and soul can be done through words, logos, symbols, and custom awards.

Celebrate company milestones with service awards
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Years of service numeral awards-5,10,15,25
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5. Avoid using everyday awards to honor an extraordinary event

Don’t use the same awards you would give for a thank you or to recognise extra effort. A career anniversary deserves a memorable award. Offer a mix of symbolic items, custom awards, and brand name awards that are appropriate for each career stage. Don’t forget to include a personal keepsake of career highlights that the employee can share with family and friends and treasure forever.

6. Extend the appreciation experience

Here are just a few of the other ways you can extend the employee appreciation experience:

  • • Continue the celebration over lunch or treats.

  • • Don’t stop showing employee appreciation after the celebration is over.

  • • Spread the news of the service anniversary on internal social channels, in newsletters, and through your recognition program.

Include a printed keepsake with your years of service awards
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How a Qualified Recognition Partner Can Make All the Difference

Without a qualified partner’s help, implementing and conducting a years of service award program may sound quite daunting. Fortunately, our team at O.C. Tanner has the expertise to help you leverage technology, solutions, and services that simplify the service award process from start to end. This won’t only save time and money, but will help you build service award recognition into your culture to make it something employees love, talk about, and are inspired by.  

Purposeful appreciation and service award recognition presents unique opportunities for organisations to create peak experiences for their people. It’s a time to show appreciation and communicate how important each employee is to the organisation’s success. 

Don’t waste this chance by providing lackluster experiences and forgettable awards. Modernise your years of service award program and give your people meaningful, memorable recognition experiences that make them feel connected to purpose, to an accomplishment, and to one another.

More Employee Recognition Resources 

There are so many different ways to recognise, appreciate, and celebrate your employees. Here are more resources for guidance:

10 Essential Tips to Celebrate Work Anniversaries
Yearbook: Let Friends Near and Far Share Comments, Photos, and Videos to Celebrate a Person's Life at Work
Complete Guide to Building Successful Employee Recognition Programs
22 Awesome Employee Recognition Gift Ideas
Employee Recognition in the Modern Workplace
11 Employee Recognition Ideas That Will Energise Your Company Culture
Victories: Employee Recognition Program

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