You’ve Been Here How Long? Employee Service Awards

as the world turnsIf there is one thing I’ve generally never been a fan of it’s the “Employee Service Award.”  For far too many organizations the extent of their employee recognition is the Annual Service Awards lunch/dinner/banquet wherein the CEO descends from his glass tower in the sky, mingles with the commoners for a bit, and insincerely hands out awards (in alphabetical order) to all the employees he’s never heard of before.  Ideally, at the very least, Sally in HR will have phonetically written out the correct pronunciation of the honorees’ names so that Mr. CEO can pronounce “Martinus Bydgosczc.”


Now I do admit that I’ve seen the good and the bad in these Service Awards Programs over the years and when they work well it’s due to 2 things:

  • The Service Award is not the only time (“once every 5 years!”) that individual employees are recognized or celebrated, and
  • The Service Awards Program matches the overall culture of the organization


So I’ve seen them fail.  Once upon a time, at large Company X, employees received a treacly greeting card (via interoffice mail!) signed by the CEO and their direct manager along with an enclosed gift card (5 years = $100; 10 years = $250, etc.).  “Thanks for toiling with us for another 5 years. Now get back to work.”

But I’ve also seen them work.

  • At a very traditional/conservative organization I worked at years ago we held an annual Service Awards banquet for employees with 5 years service and above; once an employee hit that milestone, they, and their spouse/partner/guest were invited to attend every year.  It was a fancy event with an open bar, voluminous hors d’ouevres, sit down dinner, and dancing.  Transportation was provided for any and all who didn’t, or shouldn’t, wish to drive after enjoying the open bar.  As the organization had less than 400 employees, the CEO knew everyone and usually had a very personal story to share about the employee when he called them up individually to recognize them.

And while we had handed out some watches and crystal trinkets we also provided highly personalized gifts.  One year a 30-year employee (can you imagine?!) was being recognized and happened to be a mega fan of the soap opera “As The World Turns.”  And everyone knew it.  So, as part of the planning, I mailed off a request to the producers of ATWT and asked if they would send some autographed memorabilia from the cast which we could present to the employee as part of the surprise.  Which they did.  The CEO told a funny story tying the longevity of the show into the longevity of the employee’s tenure and then presented the cast-signed photo which also included messages such as “Congratulations on the 30 year anniversary.”   And the employee – his name was Don – broke down.  It was magical.

  • At another organization, where there were limited funds, the Service Anniversary celebration had a different flavor.  Rather than the organization providing a gift or cake or balloons, the service anniversary was flipped on its head as the employee, rather than receiving thanks for continuing to work at the organization, instead provided “thanks” to their team members and fellow employees for supporting them in their time in the job.   The employee brought in a cake or doughnuts or snacks and gathered others together to celebrate with them.  It was something that worked because – and only because – it matched the values, mission and culture of the organization.


So yeah – I’ve generally never been a fan.  These programs (for they do turn into PROGRAMS) are often insincere attempts at checking something off the annual HR to-do list in a failed effort to ‘engages’ (gag) employees.

Is it appropriate to celebrate – and recognize – the tenure of employees?  It surely can be…IF it’s something that matches the organization’s values and culture.  And I mean the real values and culture…not the drivel that’s posted on the company website or listed in the Employee Handbook.

And that’s how the world turns.


  1. Julia says:

    Great article, Robin! I especially liked your point about how employee recognition programs work well when they’re not limited to every 5 years. For recognition programs to be successful, they need to be constant and culturally-aligned. I agree that some service-anniversary-only programs can be successful for certain companies, but the only behavior they motivate is retention. Truly impactful recognition programs seek to motivate behaviors that are outlined in a company’s values. When consistent recognition becomes a part of a company’s program, it becomes a part of the culture, too.

  2. Blake M. says:

    I totally agree with your article. When I worked at Wal-Mart for 5 years (Yes, I stayed there for that long, :/) they used to give out the 4-star cashier award where I swear I only got it because I was a suck up and my boss liked me. I got $50 and got to wear a maroon vest (when they still used vest, shame they dont anymore, I liked them).

    I think Wal-Mart did it right in this aspect just because it was an on-going recognition that I went above and beyond. Unfortunetly, they got rid of the award and then the recognition aspect of the job altogether and I think that comes down to the root of why so many people are unhappy at big retail jobs. There isn’t enough recognition and you’re forced to work for the machine and that’s basically your life. At least with this 4-star cashier award I felt honored to come into work everyday with my maroon vest and enjoyed customers asked me about it.

    Good article!

  3. Great article Robin. Aligning a recognition program to the organization’s value and culture is essential in reinforcing a culture of recognition. At the same time, the recognition needs to be genuine and meaningful.

    Employees have a strong emotional connection to their work anniversaries. On average, they will spend 106,575 hours, or roughly 15.5% of their lives at work, so a new television is nice, but may seem like a drop in the bucket from their perspective. More than anything employees want to be respected and recognized for their commitments, and their new television, while capable of providing thousands of hours of quality entertainment, will not tell them “Job well done.”

    We recently sponsored a Rewards and Recognition Trends Survey conducted by Accelir in which 91% of survey respondents utilize service awards. Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents – regardless of their own tenure – agreed that employees should be recognized and rewarded for their service beginning with their one-year anniversary.

    Service award programs shouldn’t be a “check the box” initiative, but rather a sincere celebration of an employee’s commitment and contributions to the company–whether it’s 1, 5 or 25 years.

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