Program Best Practices

5 best practices to launch an employee anniversary recognition program your people love

Anniversaries are special. They give us a chance to pause, reflect, and celebrate. 

For People leaders, work anniversaries are an opportunity to show your employees that they matter. That they’re seen. It’s an opportunity to celebrate and recognize how far an employee has come and how much they’ve contributed to your business. 

This acknowledgement is particularly important right now as workplaces continue to navigate economic uncertainty, layoffs, and the ongoing re-evaluation of the employee experience due to The Great Resignation. Your people are choosing to spend their energy, brain power, and precious time building your business. With the right year of service awards, you can say ‘thank you’ to employees for that hard work and dedication, positively influencing employee tenure rates.

Unfortunately, many organizations miss the opportunity to recognize and show appreciation to employees in a meaningful way on their work anniversary. This can lead to negative outcomes like high turnover rates, low morale, and a lack of company loyalty. In this post, we share best practices for how to launch a successful work anniversary recognition program that drives real impact where it matters most.

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1. Align employee years-of-service award levels to employee tenure.

Anniversary or employee years-of-service awards should map to the length of an employee’s tenure. The longer an employee has been at your company, the more significant their years-of-service award should be. 

Imagine you’ve been with your company for 10 years (way beyond the typical two to three year tenure of our current, millennial-driven workforce). You’re a consistently high performer and have stuck with your organization through highs and lows. You’re looking forward to your upcoming work anniversary because you’re expecting a personal, meaningful employee years-of-service award.

Instead, for your 10-year work anniversary gift, you get a plaque and a $50 Amazon gift card. How do you feel? Disappointed? Maybe even resentful? Unfortunately, employees experience this type of let down all the time. And those missed opportunities and negative feelings add up. 

This is why it’s critical to prioritize impactful and meaningful employee recognition gifts for years of service. One way to do this is by aligning the award levels to tenure and by setting award values that are a fair representation of an employee’s years of service. A well-intentioned employee recognition gift can turn sour for employees who have made meaningful contributions if it feels impersonal and forgettable.

2. Create the right employee anniversary award cadence.

Companies often make the mistake of spacing out tenure awards too far from each other. Many companies start their work anniversary programs at five years, and then every five years after (i.e. 10 years, 15 years, 20 years). Other than being a nice, round number, is there any rhyme or reason behind starting your employee anniversary program at the five-year mark?

The reality is — for most employees — it’s too little, too late. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average tenure for a wage and salary worker is 4.1 years. That average drops to less than 3 years for workers aged 25 to 34. That means companies that start employee years-of-service awards at 5 years are missing an opportunity to build positive will with a major chunk of their workforce.

Instead, consider structuring your employee recognition and rewards program to acknowledge anniversaries each year — especially in the first five years, which is likely to be the tenure range of most employees. And for very special work anniversary milestones, such as the five-year or 10-year mark, you can provide more significant employee experiential rewards or gifts.

Example of Blueboard yearly experiences to offer as part of your employee anniversary program and year of service awards.
Here's a sample of Blueboard experiences you could offer for work anniversary awards as employee tenure increases.

You can also leverage your employee data to set up your employee anniversary program for success. If you’re tracking employee hire dates, start dates and quit dates, you should be able to easily identify drop off points. If you find that most employees tend to leave at the 1.5-year mark, you may want to offer an impactful employee anniversary award after their first year, as well as their second year.

A final note on timing your awards: make sure you’re delivering employee years-of-service awards on the actual date of an employee’s anniversary instead of several days or weeks after the fact. Otherwise, the reward loses its significance and creates a missed opportunity to acknowledge the employee in a personalized way.

3. Engage managers in your work anniversary program.

While employee anniversary award programs typically fall under the purview of HR, a lot can be gained by including managers in the process. 

Managers have a significant amount of influence on employees. Gallup reports that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. And one in two employees report that, at one time in their career, they’ve left their jobs to get away from their manager. This relationship is critical to employee retention.

When you empower managers to be a part of recognizing an employee’s anniversary, you’re creating another touch point to help strengthen the manager-employee relationship. Encourage managers to personally express gratitude for an employee’s contributions—whether that’s through a handwritten or virtual appreciation note or a lunch out together on their anniversary date. This kind of authentic acknowledgement from the person who knows their work best can be especially impactful and show the employee that they’re seen and valued on their work anniversary date.

Learn more about the power behind manager-driven programs from Blueboard co-founder and President Kevin Yip.

4. Customize your employee recognition anniversary gifts. 

You can get everything else right when you’re building an employee anniversary awards program—reward value, cadence, manager involvement—but if your rewards don’t align with what your people want, it could all be for naught.

Your employee years-of-service program should reflect the desires of your workforce.

Even basic information, such as the general demographics of your employees, can be a huge driving factor in shaping your work anniversary program. Research has shown that younger employees prefer experiences, for example. If you’re attracting a millennial and younger workforce, you may want to consider experiences as an employee anniversary gift idea.

The key is to offer something personal, meaningful—something that reflects what an employee cares about and how they want to spend their time. After all, time is the most valuable commodity we have as human beings. Your employees are choosing to give their time to your company; it makes sense to give the gift of time right back. 

While the actual anniversary award may not make or break an employee’s decision to stay (even the coolest employee recognition awards don’t make up for weak company culture, missed expectations or poor leadership), recognition delivered in an authentic and meaningful way will make a big difference in how appreciated they feel, driving long-term engagement rates.

Related reading: How The Trade Desk celebrates employee anniversaries with the gift of quality time.

#5 Make the case to leadership for your workiversary program.

Finally, as with all HR and people-focused programs, you need leadership support if you want your anniversary recognition program to be a success. If you’re having trouble securing leadership buy-in, our recommendation is to identify your leadership team’s biggest pain point and find data to prove that an employee anniversary award program can address this problem.

If your company leaders are worried about retention, there’s a lot of research that demonstrates the positive effects of expressing gratitude on retention KPIs. Or if your CEO has positioned employer branding as a top priority, consider the social currency and virality of positive anniversary award experiences. Check out our client IAT Insurance Group celebrating their anniversary program on LinkedIn as a tool for attracting top talent.

IAT Insurance group employee anniversary program
IAT Insurance Group employees enjoy their experiential anniversary awards.

Before you make the case to your leadership team, make sure a years of service recognition program is actually the antidote to your problem. For example, if you find that your retention rates are fine, but you’re suffering in terms of productivity, you may want to shift your focus from anniversary awards to spot recognition and sales incentives instead. The most important part is to understand your business needs and present a valid solution to this pain point.

If you want to learn more about using experiential awards and gifts for your employee anniversary program or get help identifying other programs to support your core business challenges, we’d love to connect. You can grab some time to meet with our team using this form.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in July 2019 but has been updated and re-published to reflect current times.

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