Brad White appreciated the nice plaque he received after 10 years of employment at AddVenture Products in San Diego, where he currently works as vice president of sales. But this avid baseball fan was “thrilled” when he received another anniversary gift: two baseballs autographed by former Major League Baseball player Rickey Henderson—his favorite player.
But that’s not all he received.
AddVenture Products’ owner Alan Davis also presented White with a case containing an autographed baseball bat. “I was floored,” he told SHRM Online. “The bat was from the year 2001, when Rickey played here in San Diego and broke the all-time record for runs scored and walks, and also got his 3,000th career hit,” he said.
“This bat wasn't used once—it’s beat to heck—it looks as if he used it all year long,” White continued. “There are dents, scuffs, pine tar, and even a sliver of navy-blue uniform stuck to it.”
“I couldn't believe that I was holding that bat in my hands,” White said. “It's the best gift I have ever received in my life. I stood in front of the entire company accepting this gift, completely awestruck, honored, shocked, grateful and thrilled.”
“The value of having an employer that truly cares for you, that truly knows who you are as a person, and that goes the extra mile to show their appreciation, that value can't be measured,” White said.
A truly thoughtful length of service award is, in a word, “priceless.”
Length of service award offerings have changed over the past decade to meet the diverse preferences of a changing workforce. But many companies fail to use employee service anniversaries as an opportunity to show how much they are appreciated.
“I’ve heard of 15-year plaques delivered by interoffice mail and awards that were given out three years late,” says Cindy Ventrice, author of Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2003).
One employee received his 10-year service award pin moments after being berated by his manager for failing to meet a goal. The employee’s response, according to Ventrice, was to pitch the pin into the trash and begin updating his resume.
Sue Chehrenegar, a writer in Culver City, Calif., never received her anticipated five-year anniversary pin, because she needed neurosurgery and had to miss the company’s holiday party. “I never received any acknowledgement of my years of service in that company,” she told SHRM Online. “I would have been happy with a simple letter.”
Poorly managed service awards send employees a signal that they aren’t valued, Ventrice says.
A truly tacky award may even become a company joke.
Such was the case for Cassandra Cockrill, an education counselor in the San Francisco area, who describes the first service award she received while working at a private college: “At the one-year mark, the company would send you a ‘bronze-like finish’ eagle trophy. There was no engraving, not even a crappy metal plate that you could take somewhere and have engraved,” she says. “One day, it would simply arrive in your mailbox. No one even took the time to actually say ‘thank you for your service.’”
Give Employees a Choice
After her ugly eagle experience, Cockrill believes employees should have some choice as to what kind of gift they’ll receive.
Many companies offer lifestyle awards so employees can select gifts of higher-end items that fit their hobbies and interests, Ventrice says, such as cameras, espresso machines and camping gear. These are items they wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves but would like to have, she says.
Freedom of choice is a key element of the service award program at McMurry, a Phoenix-based marketing communications firm with nearly 200 employees.
Employees with five years of service are given $1,000 to spend on the gift of their choice. Those with 10 years of service receive $2,500, and 15-year employees receive $5,000. All award amounts are grossed up for tax purposes.
Employees enjoy selecting—and bragging about—the service award they’ve selected says Lee Vikre, the company’s vice president of “tremendous people.”
“It's easy to be proud of working for McMurry as you're showing off your Movado watch or big-screen TV. It turns staff into ambassadors for the company,” Vikre says. “I heard one employee say that his friend at another company got a keychain, and he got a trip to Hawaii. He had tears in his eyes.”
There are many ways to say thanks, says Anthony Luciano, senior vice president of sales and marketing for TharpeRobbins, a recognition and rewards company.
“We support diversity through multi-lingual translations, cross-cultural award selections and minority vendor product offerings,” Luciano says. “We have also placed a significant emphasis on specific product categories, including: green, safety, and health and wellness.”
Make It Special
But the gift is only one piece of the service award program, experts say.
“Half of the experience is attributed to the award, the other half is attributed to the event of recognizing the employee,” Luciano says.
Unfortunately, many companies lump length of service awards with all of the other awards given during an end-of-year celebration, says Larry Weaver, a Durham, N.C.-based professional comedian who has hosted many awards shows. “When you're just rattling off a laundry list of award recipients, it loses the effect of making anyone feel special.”
Weaver’s advice: “If you're going to give out length of service pins or other gifts, give them on the anniversary date and let the entire company know. You can then acknowledge those people again at the end of (the) year.”
McMurry, which has been recognized four times as one of the top 25 “Best Small Companies to Work For in America,” does just that. They celebrate employee service anniversaries annually at the “McAdemy Awards,” a catered event held during the work day.
“It's a big Oscar-themed celebration in which all the honorees are awarded a trophy, very personalized individual speeches are given to recognize each of them and their good work, and they receive lots of applause and praise,” Vikre says. “Honorees receive a ‘star’ on the floor, posters are made with their photos on them, and personalized invitations including their photos commemorate the event.”
But that doesn’t mean a McMurry employee’s anniversary passes by without notice. “We send staff members who are celebrating milestone anniversaries a letter just prior to their anniversary congratulating them, explaining that they are free to choose their gift and how to go about it,” Vikre says. “We then publish a photo and story about them and the gift they chose in the McMurry News (our daily e-newsletter). That's done around the anniversary date.”
Ventrice says people appreciate it when there’s time and effort put into the awards.
But how and when awards are distributed should be based on what makes the most sense for the employer. Smaller companies might favor an elaborate annual event while larger organizations might choose to celebrate employee anniversaries on a departmental level, in which case a quarterly or monthly celebration might be best. Employees won’t mind waiting, Ventrice says, as long as they know what to expect.
In addition, organizations should respect the preferences of those employees who shy away from public recognition.
Start a Tradition
Employees of the Chicago-based online payroll company SurePayroll have a good reason to stay with the company for several years: an all-expense paid trip for two to an exotic destination like Jamaica or the Riviera Maya for every employee who achieves five years of service.
“The five-year trip is a great motivator,” says Alex Infante, partner channel sales manager. “Knowing I was going to be rewarded gave me the enthusiasm to persist on days when I was absolutely swamped.” That’s important for a company which is particularly busy in January.
“The five-year trip to Playa Del Carmen was absolutely awesome!” says Michele Cassell, tax specialist. “It truly felt like the company was telling me how much they appreciate my years of service,” she says. “I talk about the trip to co-workers all the time and know they can’t wait until it’s their turn.”
Managers should play a key role in recognizing service. Ventrice says one manager took the time to hand-write a card to each of his employees every year, outlining what he appreciated most about their work. Employees really valued these notes, she says, because of the time and thought he put into each one.
Above all, employers should resist the urge to let HR present awards, a practice she says is common. “They often do it because managers say they don’t have time.” But she says this sends employees the wrong kind of message and makes the award too impersonal.
For example, Ventrice says, one employee received an anniversary plant purchased by HR through a local florist. The employee’s boss noticed the plant and said “oh, is it your anniversary?”
Focus on Appreciation
Employees might say they want cash or paid time off, but research proves otherwise.
More than three-quarters of employees (76 percent) who responded to the 2008 World of Work study published by Randstad, an Atlanta-based employment services firm, said feeling valued was the most important factor for happiness at work, out of more than a dozen options.
Two-thirds of employees (66 percent) said recognition and appreciation was second most important, beating out tangible factors such as a lack of stress and rigorous performance management.
Employees were asked by Randstad to identify the employer attributes they value most. The top response identified by 67 percent of employees was “recognizes the value I bring to the organization.” But only 29 percent of employees said the trait describes their employer.
“Employees are driven more by acknowledgement and appreciation for their hard work than for cash,” Luciano says. “The best performing companies have one thing in common; they have loyal, motivated employees. Their employees feel that the company appreciates the work they do, and they are motivated to work harder in order to receive additional praise.”
“I've received every type of trinket possible,” says Rod DeVriendt, PHR, HR specialist for the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. “In my opinion these are awards that show no personal effort in recognizing what I do to contribute to the mission of my organization.”
“The best recognition I've received is recognition for my efforts from my supervisor and staff,” DeVriendt says.
Leverage the Opportunity
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2005 Rewards Programs and Incentive Compensation Survey, 83 percent of respondents said their companies recognize employee length-of-service milestones.
But 71 percent of SHRM members responding to a June 2008 poll said their service award program had not changed in the previous 10 years.
Companies that fail to keep their award program fresh and interesting might be missing out on a key opportunity to reinforce desired behaviors.
“If [service awards] focus on just the name and years of service, they’ve done nothing,” Ventrice says. But if the presentation highlights things the employee did over time, then the award can be used to reinforce what the company values.
Cockrill suggests that employers look at the one-year anniversary as a great opportunity to ask an employee how they like working at the organization. For example, she says, a high-ranking official might invite an employee for a brief meeting, congratulate them on their anniversary and then ask how their first year has gone, whether they see room for growth with the organization and if they are challenged enough.
In 2007 the average service award cost per employee ranged from $80 for employees with five years of service to $415 for employees with 35 years of service, according to TharpeRobbins.
But small employers needn’t feel that a service award program is beyond their means. In many cases a simple “thank you” is enough.
Cockrill’s current employer enters employee birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions into the company’s computer system so an automatic announcement pops up to say “Happy Birthday Cassandra” or “We really appreciate all your hard work and the success you've created over the past three years.”
“It doesn't even cost them anything, but I'd trade that for an eagle any time,” Cockrill says.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.