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Communicate about employee service awards

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Time after time, employee surveys show that people want to be recognized for doing good work. It’s basic psychology – when people do a good job they like to receive a pat on the back. But most employers let them down by handling recognition miserably. It’s very poor employee management.

A typical example is Wal-Mart, the biggest US employer (and the world’s second biggest company by revenue). Known for being mean with its staff, the company has realized it needs to become more responsive to its employees’ needs and has established a recognition program this year to show it values its 1.3 million employees.

This year’s employee survey in the organization where I have been contracted for the past few months, found a poor level of recognition. The question on employee recognition received the 6th worst response out of 77 questions. Only 35% of respondents gave a favourable response to the question, “How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for performance in your current job?” And only 17% of the 20-35 year age group were satisfied with their recognition. And only 39% agreed with the statement “My manager seeks out opportunities to celebrate our success.” 

Even when some recognition activity is undertaken in organizations, many managers and supervisors do it badly. They don’t understand how to best say a few words to recognize an employee’s contribution. They are offhand in what they say or don’t show how the achievement being recognized links with the organization’s values or goals.

One of our senior executives received his 15-year service pin in the internal mail because he hadn’t attended the annual Christmas party during which such pins are traditionally presented. Do you think this was a sore point with him? Two years after receiving the award, he still hadn’t bothered to open the presentation box containing the pin!

Although it is difficult to separate out, research has shown that recognition activities are a significant contributor to employee satisfaction, and research shows that satisfied employees perform better.

What should you recognize? That’s up to you and your organization. The best organizations use a combination of formal and informal activities. You can start by doing something simple like recognizing employees’ birthdays and length of service, and building up from there.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to obtain a list from HR of people’s birthdays and send an email in the name of the CEO conveying birthday wishes on the day, or on a Friday if a birthday falls on a weekend. The CEO’s PA or a PR PA is the obvious person to do the actual administration of it. As part of this procedure, the administrator could send a routine email every week to every birthday person’s boss to remind them to organize a suitable activity to mark the birthday/s in their area. But how many organizations bother with this simple, courteous gesture?

Length of service is another workplace aspect that should automatically receive due recognition. The days of only recognizing length of service after 25 years should be long past. In this era, there is much less retention of employees than in the past. Recognizing them for periods of service from five years onwards is one way to make them feel valued and could tip the balance in their decision to stay or move on.

Some managers question why people should be recognized for simply coming to work, but more enlightened managers understand that being on the workforce for years is a major life-investment for any employee.

A range of activities can be based on recognition for length of service, most of which can be low-cost or no-cost. All of the activities including gifts can be the responsibility of the PR department because they are all communication-based. The matrix below provides a real-life summary of a new employee service awards program. The value of the gifts can be adjusted to suit your organization’s culture and budgets.

Length-of-service awards for employees

Item/action 5 yrs 10 yrs 15 yrs 20 yrs 25 yrs 30 yrs
Engraved pen ($100) x          
Gift to value of $500   x        
Gift to value of $1,000     x      
Gift voucher to the value of $2,000       x x  
Gift voucher to the value of $2,500           x


Other recognition

Letter from Regional General Manager x x x x x x
Letter from Regional General Manager and Group Managing Director   x x x x x
Listing in regional newsletter x x x x x x
Listing in regional Intranet x x x x x x
Article in regional newsletter   x x x x x
Morning tea and informal presentation x x x x x x
Paid dinner with colleagues/family   x   x x x
Honor board (Regional Hall of Fame)   x x x x x
Christmas function presentation of certificate x x x x x x
Mention in national staff publication
(if sufficient news angle)
      x   x


Any new program recognizing length of service has to start at some point in time, and therefore decisions need to be made about how to recognize people for service milestones achieved previously. For instance, someone may have been on the payroll for 12 years when the old system didn’t recognize any service below 25 years. However, the new system does acknowledge 10 years of service. In all fairness, you just can’t ignore their past service. What do you do?

The answer may be that you recognize them retrospectively for their most recent milestone and do the recognition activities in a more low-key way than for people celebrating their anniversary this year. Obviously, recognizing employees for a past service milestone will incur a significant once-off cost in the first year, but after that it is plain sailing.

Recognition for long service needs to be perceived as genuine by employees. For instance, Wal-Mart has decided to give a polo shirt to employees who reach 20 years of service. This is a mean, low-cost thing to do. Twenty years of service is a long time to be on the payroll and should be recognized accordingly, but in merely giving a polo shirt to mark the occasion, the company is offering a token gesture rather than a meaningful action.

Done properly, employee recognition is a powerful workforce motivator. Done badly, it leads to morale problems and can generate lower productivity. It is a step that every employee values and is easy to implement. If you supervise employees, why don’t you set up your own simple recognition program for them?


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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