Thank You for Not Quitting: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid in Years of Service Programs

March 13, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: You work for a company for 10 years. On your work anniversary, your boss awkwardly pulls you aside and hands over a certificate of thanks and a catalog. Pick out a gift for your loyalty and longevity, she says. You flip through pages of—let’s face it, mostly underwhelming—stuff and finally settle for a crystal vase. It isn’t even worth re-gifting, cause it is embossed with the company logo, so it goes in the back of the hall closet.  And that’s the end of it. Happy ten years. Thank you for not quitting.

Loyalty matters. Long time employees are a gold mine of tribal knowledge and often pillars of company culture. Moreover, they are living symbols that your company is a great place to work. It is important to really acknowledge and reward them in a meaningful way. Instead, too many of us engage in a puzzling display of corporate auto-pilot, like the one above.

Years of Service (YoS) doesn’t have to be perfunctory, boring or insulting. It can be relevant, motivating and rewarding. In that spirit, here are five things to never do with your YoS program.

1. Don’t Damn Them with Faint Praise: Maybe it is all that engraving, but YoS programs seem to be particularly plagued with stuffiness. Certificates are printed and usually delivered in one of two ways: Formal presentations with pomp and podium—held annually or quarterly and covering dozens of people at once. Or in envelopes exchanged with a nod and an awkward whisper of congratulations—lacking only a secret handshake in an underground parking garage.

Neither of these methods hits the right note. Consider celebrating each employee’s individual contribution in a manner that reflects their importance and doesn’t get mired down in formality. Do it in a public way, that lets everyone know not only the milestone that employee has reached, but how important it is to your company. Plus make sure the system is automated so that managers are prepared and don’t forget the anniversary entirely!

2. Don’t Blink and Miss It: Along those lines, one of the biggest pitfalls in YoS is in how they are marked by those around us. Sometimes employees make it on a newsletter list. Once in a while names are announced in cafeteria meetings. (Please hold your applause till the end.) Years of valuable effort come and go in the three seconds it takes to pronounce a name. At my company, YoS awards are accompanied by a heartfelt public message from a manager, detailing the employee’s strengths and contributions, and then posted publically so that other employees around the world can add in their own observations and words of thanks and congratulations.

Allowing others to pile on their praise extends that recognition moment and makes it more commensurate with the effort that got the employee to that milestone. Give them the opportunity to bask a little. They have earned it.

3. Don’t Wait Till Everyone Leaves: Did you know the average tenure at a company is 4.6 years? That’s 0.4 years short of the 5 year mark—where many YoS programs kick in. And it gets even worse with millennial workers, whose tenure averages only 3.2 years, and highly educated Gen Y workers, who typically only last 2.3 years. This is a superb way to ensure that fewer employees feel recognized for their years of hard work. Is that really what you want? To wait out your employees before offering any recognition?

Consider providing more incentive for loyalty by setting tiered recognition milestones to intervals of 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40 and 50 years of employment with the company. The best practice here is to increase frequency of the YoS reward, and therefore its impact. This incentivizes newer employees and still honors the service of long-timers.

4. Don’t Miss the Whole Point: Why do you have a YoS program? Is it just to reward employees for not quitting? Or is it to show genuine appreciation to employees for their loyalty and celebrate their growing value to the organization? Just because it is YoS doesn’t excuse it from being strategic or aligned with your overall recognition brand. Too many YoS efforts are grandfathered programs on autopilot with outdated rewards and philosophies. And they often exist outside the scope of your other recognition efforts—which disconnects them from messaging about what behaviors and actions are worthy of recognition in your company.

Bring YoS back into your strategy and keep it within your HR brand. Putting your recognition programs into conversation—whether Reward & Recognition, YoS, Wellness, Safety, Sales Incentives, etc—puts the focus on your key messages and creates multiple touch points for employees on the themes of recognition, loyalty and alignment with your company goals.

5. Don’t Underwhelm Employees with Their Awards: It’s the thought that counts… but missing the mark with your service awards can really backfire. At my company, we often say: “it is the praise that matters, not the prize.” This is true (see above) but a proportionate reward is a tangible way to legitimize and reinforce praise. And be honest. When ten years of your life is suddenly assigned a worth of a logo trinket, it hurts. It trivializes the work we’ve done, and it makes us feel disconnected and devalued.

Make sure you’re offering an array of meaningful employee reward choices that match the level of contribution your employee has made and is relevant to them—where ever they might be in the world. To that end, consider skipping commemorative t-shirts and water bottles and offering quality merchandise and plenty of choice. (And be sure you’re offering your awards in a language they can read!)

You can realize dramatic cost savings and rapid ROI by choosing to make your YoS program strategic. That means aligning it with your values and objectives by consolidating it with your overall employee recognition program. Program consolidation alone saves 30-50% while also reinforcing purpose, objectives and values with every recognition. You’ll also be deriving significantly more value from your YoS program with meaningful awards, memorable experiences and measurable ROI. And most importantly you’re thanking employees in a meaningful and lasting way—not just for surviving, but for thriving at your company.

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