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Recognizing Years of Service: The Power of Employee Recognition Award Programs

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Another year has come and gone, and with 2022 in full swing, you have another year of employee recognition to think about. If employee recognition hasn’t been on your radar much, you’re not alone, but don’t worry; whether you read this in January, August, or even December, now is the perfect time to make a resolution to do better. It’s never too late to start thinking about how you can improve the lives of your employees.

Instead of bombarding you with dozens of recognition suggestions, this guide will focus on one of the most common recognition programs around: employee service awards.

We’re going to give you a breakdown of what these awards are, how you can use them, and how you can set up your own program to take advantage of the awesome benefits of recognition!

If you’re looking for a textbook definition, here it is: employee service awards are a recognition acknowledging how long an employee has stayed at a company, usually beginning at the five-year mark. You’ve probably seen or heard about these types of rewards before. A custom plaque with your name on it; a pin with your current tenure year; a custom plaque AND a fancy pin—you get the idea.

In today’s work environment though, these standard service awards aren’t enough. One of our clients said that many (50%!) of their employees left their traditional service awards sitting on their desks when they left! Ouch. 

If that’s not enough, according to information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median number of years that employees have held their current job is 4.1 years (and the median tenure for workers ages 25-34 is only 2.8 years!). So even the long-held definition of service awards is inaccurate in today’s world. If you start giving out years-of-service awards at year five, many of your employees will never even see one!

These recognition rewards are meant to show your appreciation and gratitude for your employees, but if the vast majority of your workforce never receives one before they find a new job, what’s the point?

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Why Are Service Awards Important?

Service awards are a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to building and maintaining relationships with your employees. They show that you recognize and appreciate the effort and loyalty that workers show to the company by giving their time for a year (or years). We’re here to help you figure out how to revamp your employee service award program so that each of your employees feels that appreciation and value, no matter how long they end up staying at your company. Plus, service awards are a type of recognition, and recognition, as we mentioned above, comes with a whole smorgasbord (yes, we had to look up how to spell that) of benefits. Regular recognition:

  • Lowers frustration levels by 28%
  • Improves work quality
  • Inspires trust between employees and employers
  • Improves employee engagement (which improves productivity and lowers absenteeism)

But wait, there’s more! 63% of employees who are recognized are very unlikely to look for a new job. On the flip side, 44% of employees state that a lack of recognition and engagement drive them to switch jobs. As you can see, recognition is one of the best ways to improve retention and reduce turnover, which could bump that median tenure time of 4.1 years up (and allow you to give more service awards—do you see where we’re going with this?).

As you create a meaningful service awards program that recognizes each employee for the good they do and the value they bring, employees will want to stay at your company and will be more engaged in their work. It’s a win-win cycle of recognition and retention.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

How Do You Recognize Years of Service?

We’ve talked about the standard recognition practice for service awards, and now you know why you may want to try something new. But the question is, what exactly can you do to recognize such a big milestone in your employees’ lives?

Work Anniversaries—Workiversaries

A work anniversary is what it sounds like: the day that an employee first started with your company. This is a big deal for them and for the company! The employee has stayed for an entire year (or two or ten) and has worked hard to help the company grow. The company has helped them gain the skills and knowledge they need to broaden their horizons and accelerate their career. It’s time to celebrate such a milestone!

You should never let a work anniversary slip by without some sort of recognition, and that’s where service awards come in.

How Do You Thank, Reward, and Recognize Employees for Years of Service?

When those work anniversaries come around each year, what’s the best way to acknowledge them? Well, the first thing you should do is find out exactly how each of your employees prefers to be thanked. Do they like the idea of being recognized in front of the company?

Smiling man recognizes woman in front of applauding office.

Maybe add a section to your weekly company meeting that highlights the upcoming anniversaries in your organization. Or, if they prefer to stay in the background, simply give them a hand-written note thanking them for their previous year of excellence. Thank your employees in the way that will mean the most to them!

Now comes the reward. If pins, plaques, and paperweights aren’t enough, what sorts of things are most fitting to reward employee loyalty? We actually have a whole section on this coming up in part 3 of this guide, but the overarching advice we want to give you is to make it personal. Cash is a great gift for many events, but employees will appreciate something more tangible—something that shows them you thought about them specifically. 

A gift card to their favorite store, some extra PTO for the vacation they’ve been meaning to go on, a personalized memory book that celebrates the memories of their past year; these are all great ways to show that you care. And yes, a plaque, trophy, or pin can still be rewarding—just pair it with a personal touch.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Do Service Awards Have to Cost a Lot?


Alright, we’ll elaborate. You may think that trying to keep track of everyone’s work anniversary AND creating customized gifts and rewards for each and every one of them is too much work to handle. And, well, when you put it like that, it does sound like a lot. But trust us, it doesn’t have to be! The Awardco platform, and many other tools, can help you set reminders for work anniversaries. 

As for the gifts, not everything has to have a price. You could give each employee a shout-out on LinkedIn, make a commemorative video featuring their managers or executives, or let them park in the coveted parking lot closest to the doors for a while. As mentioned before, hand-written cards are a great, budget-friendly way to show personalized appreciation.

So now the ideas are churning, and you’re ready to make some delicious workiversary butter. But how can you make a recognition program that sticks? How can you make it spread around the toasted surface of your workplace? (No, you’re taking the butter metaphor too far.)

Unsalted spreads aside, the best answer is to create your very own employee service award program, which we’ll go over on the next.

Employee Service Award Programs

An employee service award program is just what it sounds like: a system that controls how service awards work at your company. How they’re managed, what rewards are offered, how they’re sent out, and every other aspect of a service award.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

And service anniversaries are one of the few celebrations that we recommend every company have as a type of employee recognition program. Every employee has a birthday, and every employee has a work anniversary. So when you’re trying to decide which recognition programs are right for you, think about those two opportunities to recognize and appreciate everyone.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

How Do You Create an Employee Service Award Program?

Traditionally, service awards programs have consisted of a glass trophy or a plaque that’s given to the employee after a few years of service. But that’s not enough. When you set up an employee service award program, you should curate an experience that will be memorable and special for each individual employee. Instead of contributing to the 25% of employees who have received gifts they don’t want, make a service award program that really rewards them for a year of hard work!

After all, the point of service awards isn’t to say, “Hey, you haven’t quit yet and it’s been a whole year!” You want to say something more like, “We really appreciate the hard work you’ve put in over the past year, and we want to reward you for it.” Think about birthdays—we’re not celebrating the fact that a person didn’t die; we’re celebrating their life and everything that makes them unique!

You can use employee service award software to follow this pattern of genuine recognition and create a service award program that knocks it out of the park. Software lets you automate the process, send reminders, and provide rewards in easy-to-use tools and platforms.

Shameless plug: Awardco allows you to recognize, celebrate, and reward everyone in your company in a streamlined, simple way. You can set up a service award program that perfectly fits your needs, your employees, and your budget.

At Awardco, we have a few different options to celebrate employee anniversaries. One is our MemoryBooks™, a digital book that includes pictures, shared anecdotes, and quotes from everyone on the team! Employees will love the personal touch that comes from everyone getting involved. 

We also offer Bonus Boxes, or boxes customized with your brand that you can fill with all sorts of fun merch. This gift is the perfect way to show that you know and care about your employees (unlike the aforementioned plaque or paperweight).

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

How Can You Flip the Traditional Script?

We've talked about the traditional method of service awards, so we won't go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, many companies stick to a model that looks something like this:

  • After 5 years, employees receive a plaque with their name on it
  • After 10 years, employees receive a trophy thanking them for their service
  • After 15 years, employees receive an even fancier trophy in the shape of a “15”
  • After 20 years, employees get a company pin, a branded jacket, and another fancy trophy

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? How many people want plastic trophies from their company (no matter how fancy) thanking them for decades of their lives? Fortunately, this model of service recognition is outdated and many companies don’t use it any more, but it hasn’t been wiped out completely.

Create a modern model for a modern workplace.

We want to suggest a new service award program schedule that rewards and recognizes all of the steps your employees take on their journey with your company, large and small. Instead of waiting five years to start handing out service awards (since the average tenure for jobs nowadays is only 4.1 years—yikes), here are some suggestions that will start every employee off on the right foot:

  • Onboarding. The first few days and weeks of a brand new job are difficult and overwhelming. Start your service award program at the very beginning and thank new employees for having the courage to join the team!
  • Three-month milestone. The only thing harder than the first few days is the first few months. At this point, employees are starting to feel out their role and learn their responsibilities. Thank them for their efforts and encourage their success with another small service award. And it doesn’t have to be big—a handwritten note is better than nothing!
  • One-year anniversary. You can use this event to set the tone for the rest of your employee’s tenure. They’ve worked hard for an entire year and are really starting to hit their stride; give them a service award they won’t forget! Recognize them for all their efforts over the previous year!
  • Two-year anniversary and beyond. You should recognize each employee every single year. Don’t settle for five-year increments. Give them personalized rewards that they’ll love every year, and make sure the rewards reflect their service. And if just thinking about the budget and time involved in this kind of system stresses you out, Awardco is here to help! With our automation options and customizable programs, you can save time and money while still recognizing your employees.
Laptop shows Awardco platform with emails for onboarding and service anniversaries.

We’re not saying that you can’t give out plaques to commemorate five years of service. Many employees appreciate those sorts of quality, attractive displays. However, we are saying that you need to broaden your horizons and expand your definition of service awards. 

During onboarding, give them a hand-written note from their manager expressing their excitement at this new opportunity. At the three-month mark, give them a gift card to their favorite restaurant. Or, even better, let them choose what rewards they want for their service each year (that’s an Awardco speciality—more below!).

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

How Do You Manage a Service Award Program?

You may be thinking, “How am I supposed to manage a robust employee service award program and still have time for my other responsibilities?” That’s a completely natural worry to have! Traditional service award programs have stayed popular because they’re familiar and easier to handle than a completely revamped system. But your new program doesn't have to be intimidating or convoluted to be effective.

In fact, with different recognition software programs and platforms (such as Awardco, nudge nudge), managing your employee recognition programs is easier than ever. If you don’t believe us, one of our recent clients saved 296 work hours over a year while using Awardco instead of their old platform. That’s 37 business days’ worth of time back in your pocket!

With easy integration into popular tools and a whole host of automation options, you can set up your employee service award program to fully reward employees in a heartfelt, genuine, and personalized way while simultaneously saving you hours of effort. Talk about the best of both worlds.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Employee Service Award Ideas & Examples

Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty details. We all know service awards are a vital part of helping your employees feel connected, appreciated, and engaged at work, and you now have some ideas on how you can create your very own service award program. Now we want to provide some concrete examples of what you can do for each of the service milestones that your employees hit throughout their career at your company.

A simple answer is: much more often than the traditional 5-year model, that’s for sure. Many employees switch jobs before they even hit five years (though with a more robust reward and recognition program, you can lower turnover and increase engagement—just saying!), so you should think about evolving your service award program to fit the times. 

We’ve mentioned previously the schedule that we think is best for service awards (we follow this schedule with our own employees):

  • Onboarding
  • After three months
  • After one year
  • Every consecutive year

If your employee only stays for a year, recognize them for that year of new ideas and tough effort. If they stay for 30 years, give them 30 times the gratitude for such amazing loyalty! Here are some ideas for each of the milestones above.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.
We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

However, the first few days are also your best opportunity to establish a good first impression of your culture. With the right service award, you can set a tone of excitement and recognition for each new employee. Here are a few gift ideas to make this milestone a little less frightening and a little more fun:

  • Branded swag box. Help your new hires fit in with a box of swag catered to their tastes and preferences. Send out a questionnaire to learn about each new hire so that you can choose a mug, a sweatshirt, a t-shirt, or a hat that suits each person best.
  • The “I work at a tech company” pack. Do your employees need any sort of equipment to do their jobs? Provide them with earbuds/headphones, a power bank, a microfiber cloth, or a fun mousepad to start them off right.
  • Work from home kit. Will your new employees primarily work from home? Provide them with some equipment to make their lives easier. An ergonomic mouse or keyboard is a great idea, and you could even toss in a plant or a candle to improve their work environment.
  • Mental health tools. Show your employees that you care about their work-life balance from day one. Provide self-care books, healthy snacks, a salon gift card, or other self-care products to enhance relaxation.

The first few days of an employee’s career with your company don’t have to be hard. Make them fun and exciting. Celebrate such a big step in their lives and show them that you’re ecstatic to have them as part of the team!

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

Your new employees have survived the first chunk of their new paths. They’ve climbed the steep incline of the learning curve and are just starting to feel confident in their new roles. Celebrate such an awesome point in their career! You should never let this type of milestone pass by without some sort of recognition. 

Check out some ideas of ways you can make this seemingly unimportant day one that your employees will never forget:

  • A handwritten note. This is one of our favorite ideas. Now that managers and executives have had a chance to work with newer employees, have them write a personalized note to them. This will help the employee feel noticed and valued.
  • Public (or private) recognition. Learn whether each person is comfortable in front of crowds. Then, you can either bring your employees up in front of the company to congratulate them on their hard work or post a meaningful thank you on LinkedIn or another recognition feed. 
  • A day off. After three months of hard work, your employees deserve a day off. If PTO is accrued, give them the day without taking any from their total. If you offer flex-time or unlimited PTO, think of ways to make their day off more special, such as a gift card to their favorite restaurant.

The three month anniversary may not seem like a big deal on the outside, but new employees will love the confirmation that they haven’t been forgotten now that they’re not “new hires” anymore. Plus, this is your chance to reaffirm your commitment to recognition. 

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

We’ve made it a year! Your new employees no longer feel new—they feel like valuable, contributing members of a close-knit team. This is your chance to thank them for an entire year’s worth of hard work and dedication. Whether they work in an entry-level position or a management spot, a year should be celebrated all the same.

If you’re not sure what you should do to celebrate this milestone, check out these employee service award ideas:

  • Promotion and/or raise. Most employees appreciate more money. When you tie a raise or promotion into their one-year service anniversary, employees will know that they are a valued part of the company.
  • Career growth and development. Does your employee want to learn a skill that will help them improve? Provide a paid course to help them achieve their goals. As you invest in your people, they’ll invest more in your company.
  • Team party. Get everyone together to celebrate this milestone. Bring food and games, and make sure the person who’s receiving the service award gets a say in how the celebration goes down.

This is a special milestone for any employee. Make sure you show them that you recognize their accomplishments and value everything they do for the company.

We help our clients become the hero in their own story.

They made it. Three years later, and your employees are old hats now. They still are learning and improving, but they are contributing to the growth and success of the company on a daily basis. How do you reward someone for spending three years of their life working for you? Here are some ideas:

  • A luxury item. This is a great idea, but make sure the item fits your employee. Would they like a nice watch or a set of golf clubs more? Maybe they’d prefer a new set of luggage or a cutting-edge computer monitor.
  • A paid vacation: A weekend getaway may be just what your workers need after a few years of effort. Find ways to help them afford a trip to a destination of their choosing, whether that’s plane tickets, attraction admission, or travel expense reimbursements.
  • A dinner with their manager. Have the employee’s manager take them out for a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant. Let them bring their partner or family to make the dinner that much more special.
  • A bucket list experience. Find out what your employees have always wanted to do, and help them do something on their list (within reason). What employee wouldn’t love a company that helps them accomplish their life goals?

You get the idea. The longer your employees stay with you, the more you need to recognize them for their diligent efforts on your behalf. Five years, 10 years, 20 years, and every year in between. Build your service award program in such a way that recognizes each employee from onboarding to every year they stay with the company. And remember not to be intimidated—not every year needs to be a monetary reward of some kind. Find what works for you!

If you’re not sure which gifts are best or how to set up your program, talk to Awardco. We’ll guide you on your service award journey, and our platform provides unprecedented choice and customization for employee rewards. You’ll soon have a culture where employees are excited to stay for another year—all with minimal effort or stress on your part!

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