Not all service award recognition programs are created equal. Some are cobbled together. Some lack excitement. Some are simply not loved by those who participate in them. Unfortunately, most service award programs are a lost opportunity for organizations to delight their people and help them bond with your organization. When done well, service awards celebrate friendships, relationships, and shared success—all the reasons people choose to stay.
While traditional years of service awards have long been valued as a way to improve employee satisfaction and engagement, they have often been misunderstood as a tool to recognize employee tenure alone. The most effective years of service 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 organization 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 organization or their 20th.
How Service Awards Have Changed. Years of service award programs 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 recognize employees when they hit a specific work anniversary (5, 10, 15, 20+ years of service). Historically, employee service awards programs were positioned as a company benefit, part of a total reward and recognition package. They were, and in many cases 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 symbolize an employee’s years of service.
Today, service awards at work have been modernized to include other forms of rewards and more personalized experiences. Service award programs are more likely to be combined with other recognition programs to create a more holistic, comprehensive employee recognition strategy that praises everyday effort, rewards results when appropriate, and celebrates careers at key intervals. When done well, modern service award programs create peak moments, foster a sense of belonging, and honor friendships and contributions over time. They provide a time to pause and celebrate exactly how an employee fits in and belongs in the organization. These programs have the power to connect people to one another and to the organization.
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 a major impact on organizational success:
• They improve retention. Employees stay at organizations for 2-4 years longer when their company has an effective years of service program.
They increase employee engagement. There is 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 discretionary effort.
• They foster feelings of appreciation. 81% of employees say career celebrations help them feel appreciated for their work.
• They create connections. When companies recognize years of service they experience a 35% increase in employees feeling like they fit in and belong (especially important in a time where loneliness at work is at an all-time high)
• They inspire peers. By simply observing a years of service recognition presentation, employees are more likely to feel their company cares about its people.
• They reach every employee. Unlike above and beyond awards, the instigation of which involves a lot of subjectivity on the part of the giver, all employees receive years of service awards, regardless of level, function, or location.
• They provide potential tax benefits. Several countries offer tax advantages for programs that comply with tax requirements, which can mean significant cost savings for companies.
• They define workplace culture. By appreciating the influence an employee has on the company, service award recognition builds trust with leaders, strengthens loyalty, and shapes culture by sharing stories that illustrate what your organization stands for and cares about.
“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 1983 was 3.5 years. In 1998 (15 years later) it was 3.6 years. And 20 years later, in 2018, that number is 4.2 years. Job tenure has actually increased, rather than decreased, over the past 35 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. Millennials are particularly sensitive to knowing their work matters to those around them. Because they want companies to demonstrate they value them, their skills, and their contributions, Millennials do indeed appreciate years of service awards.
A career is built over time, with unique stages. People experience different emotions in each stage. 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.
Focus groups with employees reveal different emotions at each career stage:
Learning. Employees made it through the learning curve, and are soaking everything up like a sponge. They feel pride in finishing their first year, and are adding value.
Fitting in. Employees are starting to fit in. They are becoming culturized, and feel comfortable with their teams. They want to grow and develop and are looking ahead for more opportunities.
Expertise. Employees are feeling confident, becoming the expert in their area. They value their relationships with coworkers, and have a sense of this being a possible home, but are also questioning their worth and wonder if they might be more appreciated elsewhere.
Belonging. Employees are beginning to feel real ownership in the company. They now see their coworkers as family and feel a sense of belonging, but are still solidifying their role in the growth of the organization.
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.
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.
Triumph. Employees believe this is the most significant milestone and an accumulation of all previous milestones. A time to celebrate victories past and present.
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 service anniversary award. Should it be the same type of award you give for every day effort or above and beyond achievements? The answer is no.
Some organizations still give service award plaques and pins. Some use extra vacation days or company stock as service award gifts. Instead, companies should strive to turn service anniversaries into lasting memories with a combination of symbolic and personal awards.
Research finds years of service awards for employees should be things employees desire that satisfy their “wants” vs “needs”. Things like luxury items and experiences they may not normally buy on their own work the best. Cash, in particular, is not a very personal award, and most employees use extra cash to pay bills, groceries, or make other unmemorable, impersonal purchases.
So, what are some service awards employees love?
- Personal note of congratulations from CEO or senior leader
- Personalized card or book with messages and comments from peers and leaders
- Symbolic award to represent the years of service in a meaningful way and connect back to something memorable about the company
- Choice of personal award item (ranging from jewelry, electronics, home accessories, leisure/sports items, travel accessories, luxury items, etc.)
- Nice celebration or meal out
- Heartfelt notes, emails, ecards
Very large or smaller organizations may need to tweak their years of service award programs to meet the needs of their organizations. Read this article for more ideas on how large companies can effectively recognize their people.
6 ways to modernize your service award program
The future of service awards is making workplace anniversaries more meaningful, memorable, and fun. It’s important to remember that you want to create a memorable experience for people, not just toss an award on their desk. Hold informal gatherings and share stories of accomplishment that define your culture. This is a good time to give people credit for the company’s success. It’s a prime opportunity to help employees feel a sense of belonging to something bigger.
Modern service award programs incorporate more elements of social recognition. Gone are the days where managers hand over the award and shake the employee’s hand in a corner office. Today’s service award experience should involve mentors and peers, family and friends, and create an experience that connects people to the organization. Here are 6 ways to modernize your service award program:
1. Empower managers to create the experience.
Help leaders cheer as loudly as peers. Ensure managers have the know-how and the resources 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 organization’s purpose.
For more details on a leader’s unique role in creating the perfect service anniversary experience, check out our whitepaper.
2. Remember 5 is different
Plan a celebration appropriate for the number of years being honored. Tailor the experience 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 to mentor of a 25-year employee, with anniversary-specific sentiments and year-specific awards.
Don’t forget about the onboarding experience and off years (2, 4, 6, etc. years). 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 that first year, and every year they work hard to contribute to your organization.
3. Involve others.
Include peers, vendors, previous leaders, family, and friends. Invite them to share photos, comments, stories, and gifts to celebrate the recipient’s life at work. Years of service awards speeches don’t have to be given by leaders only. Involving friends and coworkers the employee loves the most will turn a boring service anniversary into a shared celebration people look forward to, because they are honoring a cherished friend for their indispensable role on the team. Stories from co-workers and leaders highlight individual contributions and create a history of one person’s expanding influence on the company.
4. Connect people.
Celebrate success–not just sticking around. Don’t think of service anniversaries as rewarding time served. Instead, celebrate things like personal growth, accomplishments, and relationships—all the reasons people choose to stay.
Prepare remarks ahead of time. They should be personal, specific, genuine, and aligned with organization’s purpose. Focus on the important role each recipient plays on the team. How does the individual fit in and belong? How do they help further your organization’s purpose? Connect the individual to your company’s culture. Capture your company’s heart and soul in words, logos, symbols, and custom awards. Help people feel a part of something bigger.
5. Avoid using everyday awards to honor an extraordinary event.
Whatever awards you choose to give, make sure they are personal, symbolic, and include a keepsake of career highlights. Don’t use the same awards you would give for a thank you or to recognize extra effort. A career anniversary deserves a memorable award. Offer a mix of symbolic items/custom awards and brand name awards appropriate for each career stage. Don’t forget a personal keepsake that the employee can share with family and friends and treasure forever.
6. Extend the appreciation experience.
Continue the celebration over lunch or treats. Provide a personal keepsake commemorating the day to take home. Spread the news of the service anniversary on internal social channels, and publicize it throughout your organization (on newsletters, shared screens, on your intranet, through your recognition program, etc.).
Without a qualified partner’s help, this may all sound quite daunting. But a good recognition partner can help you leverage technology, solutions, and services to simplify the service award process from start to end. You can save time and money by finding the right partner to help you build service award recognition into your culture, and make it something employees love, talk about, and are inspired by.
Service award recognition presents a unique opportunity for organizations to create peak experiences for their people. It’s a time to show appreciation and communicate how important each employee is to the organization’s success. Don’t waste this chance by providing a lackluster experiences and forgettable awards. Modernize your service award program and give your people meaningful, memorable recognition experiences that make them feel connected to purpose, accomplishment, and one another.
Check out how Yearbook can help you celebrate careers the way they are meant to be celebrated.