Years of Service Award Programs: Best Practices

In an era of wavering loyalty, long-term employees are gold. Celebrate them well.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, wage and salary workers spend a mere 4.4 years (median) with their employer before moving on. Considering the time it takes to get workers fully up to speed on the job and the inner workings of the organization — plus the fact a departing employee has usually mentally “checked out” well before leaving the job — companies aren’t getting much “quality” time from their employees. Retaining good people is critical, and the overwhelming majority of people(nearly 4 out of 5) who voluntarily leave their jobs say they don’t feel appreciated, reports bestselling management book The Carrot Principle.

One of the goals of a Years of Service award program is to reward employees for longevity and commitment. But recognizing and celebrating career milestones also leaves an indelible impression on the workforce as a whole. Even if an employee can’t envision staying in one place for decades, the Years of Service Award creates positive morale by showing that the company truly appreciates its employees. However, it’s only effective if the program has high prominence in the company. Based on nearly 60 years of experience in this business, QIC has cultivated a few “best practices” to ensure success with milestone awards.

1. Consider the times.

Years of Service awards proliferated across Corporate America in an era when people didn’t move around so much, and staying with a company for 20, 25 or even 50 years was a realistic possibility. Times have changed, younger generations are more mobile, and the typical LinkedIN profile shows a handful of job-hops. Accordingly, your Years of Service program should celebrate “shorter” employment milestones, such as 1 year and 3 year, anniversaries, in addition to longer tenures. One key to improving churn is getting employees “hooked” into the organizational culture early enough to improve retention through the first five years. If employees can be retained through the first 3-5 years the odds of keeping them long term greatly increases.

2. Richly reward your people.

This is not the place to be frugal. Employees who have stayed with your organization for many years have cultivated valuable skills and knowledge that could have been taken elsewhere. Their demonstration of loyalty warrants more than a “token” of appreciation. Offer service awards that are commensurate with the milestone; for example, rewarding an employee with a nice vacation or comparable lifestyle reward for 10 years of service would not be over the top.

3. Include spouses/significant others.

The spouse or significant other of an employee is very much part of the organization’s “family” too. This person has seen the employee through stress, challenges, long work hours, highs and lows of the job. Including he or she in the employee’s milestone reward is not only appreciated, but completely appropriate. Of course, trips are a natural fit for spouse/partner recognition, and we offer many “couple friendly” merchandise options as well, including items for the home, garden and entertaining. In other words, think beyond the traditional gold watch.

4. Make a big deal of it.

Milestone achievements are a big deal, especially in today’s business environment. Present Years of Service awards in a visible way throughout the company. While a company-wide assembly might not be practical, presenting the award to the employee at a department or facility gathering is a nice way to celebrate the achievement, reinforce company values, and inspire other employees to further commit to the organization. The scope of the event — i.e., a simple informal presentation of a few minutes, versus a group lunch or reception — depends on the milestone. Larger scale presentations are usually reserved for bigger milestones, say 20+ years. And, for the latter, consider announcing the employee’s achievement via local newspapers and social media. It’s nice recognition for them and showcases your organization as a caring employer.

Regardless of the size and scope of the milestone celebration, invite the spouse or partner to attend.

5. Brand your program, and market it.

A Years of Service program is one more tool in your recruiting and retention strategy. It conveys that you’re not looking for “warm bodies” to fill short term needs — but rather, you’re offering a long-term career opportunity and want to commit time and resources to your employees for many years to come. Brand your program, and make it visible on the “careers” section of your web site; on your company intranet; and on posters, paycheck stuffers and other materials.