Work anniversaries are a big deal in today’s job market, where half of all employees are leaving their jobs before they hit the five-year mark.
In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and their most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary, 3.5 million people in the US quit their jobs every month. That’s about 2.3 percent of the entire labor force.
HR Dive estimates that, annually, turnover costs a company a third of an employee’s annual salary, or $15,000 per employee, assuming a median salary of $45,000 per year. That’s for one employee. How many people does it take to get to 2.3 percent of your workforce? Let’s say you hold onto just five of them for another year—that’s $75,000 off of your expense sheet.
Celebrating service anniversaries can be a cost-efficient way to achieve this goal. Data shows that the most common spending level for an anniversary incentive is between $50 and $100—less than one percent of the cost of replacing the employee.
Why are work anniversaries important?
Anniversary celebrations acknowledge a person’s value, and feeling valued is one thing that employees need if you’re going to convince them to stay.
According to a white paper from the O.C. Tanner Learning Group, 79 percent of employees who quit their jobs note a lack of appreciation as a big reason why. And yet, 65 percent of North American workers report receiving no recognition at all for a full year.
Work anniversaries provide a framework for recognizing service. When done right, they do much more than celebrating a person’s loyalty. They draw attention to the person’s accomplishments, acknowledging what they have contributed throughout their tenure and how they have grown.
How often should you celebrate work anniversaries?
A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Globoforce, now Workhuman, found that most companies celebrate work anniversaries per each five years of service. However, because the first five years of service are so crucial and make such a difference to longevity, many companies choose to celebrate shorter milestones during that time.
- 28 percent of organizations surveyed celebrate an employee’s first anniversary
- Eight percent celebrate two years of service
- 12 percent recognize three years
- 90 percent celebrate five years
- Five percent celebrate seven years
The most common anniversary celebrated is 10 years, with 92 percent of surveyed organizations recognizing that milestone. The vast majority of companies—over 85 percent—keep celebrating every five years up to a person’s 30th anniversary.
That said, 18 percent of surveyed employees believe that milestones aren’t celebrated frequently enough. It’s important to gauge the interest of your team so you can strike the right balance.
What makes a work milestone celebration effective?
First and foremost, a work anniversary award should remind the recipient of their value to the organization. A bonus won’t work since the experience of receiving cash isn’t very memorable. About a third of people will use the money to pay their regular bills, and 20 percent will forget how much they got and how they spent it after only a few months.
Plaques and trophies are popular alternatives. People can display these awards on their desks and have a tangible reminder of the company’s appreciation for years to come. They’re nice components of a work anniversary gift, but they’re not enough. You also need to offer something truly memorable with real emotional value to the employee.
Need some work anniversary ideas?
Here are eight creative options that can supplement—or even replace—the traditional years-of-service awards.
1. Designer for a day
What better way to show someone’s value to the company than to let them make a meaningful change? If someone is coming up on a big anniversary—five years, 10, or 20—consider inviting them to design something for the company’s use.
With this model, you get a lot of flexibility and plenty of customization opportunities. Consider tying the design opportunity to the person’s role at the company. Marketing team members can create client swag, for example, while an HR rep can create a theme idea for the company’s holiday party.
You can even align the importance of the design assignment to the person’s years of service. Maybe the fifth anniversary could be something small, like new wall art for the break room or a new brand of soap for the bathrooms. Then, by the time the person reaches a decade or two or three, they’re designing increasingly important elements like web pages and logos.
2. Paid career coaching
A work anniversary isn’t just important to a person’s relationship with the company. It’s also a career milestone, and it should be celebrated as such.
When you offer career coaching as a thank-you for someone’s years of service, you show them that their career growth matters to you. Coaching frames the work milestone as more than just a “What you’ve done for us” moment and turns it into “We value you as a professional.”
Career coaching also shows the employee that your company will encourage them to grow. A feeling of stagnation is one of the most common reasons why high performers quit their jobs, according to an article recently published by CIO magazine.
To make this win-win incentive work for everyone, set the employee up with a professional coach, either in-house or hired for the purpose. Make sure you’re working with someone who will talk to the person, asking them what they need and how they view their career trajectory. Make notes on what they’re working on with the coach so that when they accomplish something as a result, you can recognize it.
3. Invitations to special service
In a world that so often celebrates youth and novelty, you stand out when you recognize someone’s experience. Someone who has been with your company for many years is a great asset, and they need to know that you’re aware of that.
When someone reaches a big milestone, invite them to join an elite committee or panel, or ask them to serve as a mentor to a junior employee. If you don’t already have something along the lines of a senior advisory committee, consider starting one. The same goes for a mentorship program, which can come along with tangible incentives for mentors.
Just be sure that you frame it as a privilege, not as a responsibility. You’re not celebrating someone by asking them to do more work—you’re offering them the leadership role and influence that their seniority deserves.
Make sure to welcome the person to their new role with celebration and honor. If they’re being named to an existing committee, have a public welcome with other members of the committee. Send out an email to all relevant personnel acknowledging the step-up for the celebrated person. With that message, acknowledge what the person has accomplished in their years with your company.
4. Paid sabbaticals for senior employees
It’s typical in corporate America for companies to offer more vacation time as employees build their seniority. What’s less typical, but increasing in prevalence, is the sabbatical.
Paid sabbaticals fight burnout and boredom by giving people the time to explore new interests. On sabbatical, senior employees can feel the novelty that they’d experience if they switched jobs, but you as an employer don’t lose them.
This model has worked well for companies like Autodesk Inc. which offers paid six-week sabbaticals every four years. If you tie a sabbatical like this to an employee’s work anniversary, you give people something to look forward to as well as a reason not to go through the stress of job-hunting when they start to feel bored.
Additionally, research shows that when senior employees take a sabbatical, their junior counterparts get the chance to step up and show their leadership potential. These interim leaders feel more valued by the organization and feel more engaged even after the senior leaders’ sabbaticals end.
5. A party with a “shout-out wall”
For earlier anniversaries, like someone’s first, second, or third, a great way to offer recognition is to have a team-wide or office-wide party to celebrate the person’s accomplishments. Let the milestone employee choose the menu and possibly even choose a gift from a catalog or website.
Most importantly, make a point of actively involving the person of honor’s colleagues. SHRM and Globoforce found that peer-level colleagues are the least likely to be involved in an employee’s anniversary celebration, but they’re often the most able to provide meaningful recognition of what a person has done.
Invite colleagues to share appreciation in the form of a shout-out wall or guest book. Some companies hand out Post-Its to anniversary party attendees and ask them to write one thing that they appreciate or admire about the person being celebrated. The guests can then attach their Post-Its to a cork board or whiteboard that the honoree can take home after the celebration.
Shout-out boards can also be digital, and that’s especially helpful if the honoree is part of a remote team. Set up a message board where colleagues can post messages of gratitude or memories of when the honoree went above and beyond to be a great team member. This should be something that the honoree can look back on in the future to feel a sense of belonging.
6. A personalized gift
Engraved plaques are great, but they’re not very personal—nor are they particularly useful. Instead of—or in addition to—these more traditional gifts, think about something else you can customize that would be more meaningful to the employee. Ideas include:
- A baseball jersey with the person’s name, number of years of service, and the company’s name. You could even add their team membership—“Johnson 20, Acme Widgets Accounting”—for extra clout.
- An assigned parking spot with the person’s picture and their years of service on the sign. (The more years the person has served, the better the spot, naturally.)
- A personalized travel kit for employees who frequently go on business trips
Think about what employees in your office value the most. Ask around if need be. Would it mean more to get a reserved spot in the employee fridge or a dedicated coffee mug?
Remember, the more personal the idea, the better. If you want to make an impact, you could ask the honoree’s supervisor or colleagues about their out-of-work interests. When one person gets a monogrammed baseball bat for their fifth anniversary and another gets an engraved cooking spoon, both employees will know that the company cares about honoring them as people.
7. Remote work time
Remote work is a great way to offer special consideration when you can’t afford to let employees take time completely off. It helps people to feel respected by offering them flexibility and self-determination, and it can even boost their productivity in the process. Consider these statistics shared by Forbes:
- 82 percent of telecommuters feel that the arrangement reduces stress
- 86 percent of workers feel more productive when they work alone
- 61 percent of office workers feel distracted by noise from colleagues
- 68 percent of millennial job candidates prefer companies that allow remote work
Remote work is an even better incentive than a work-from-home day because it offers more choice. Someone could elect to work from home, or they could decide to see the world and become a temporary “digital nomad.”
People love dreaming about new places, so you can make this an even more attractive option by suggesting destinations that other professionals have loved.
8. Incentive travel
If you want something truly special for a big work anniversary, consider skipping the remote-work part entirely and springing for an incentive trip.
Incentive travel is a growing trend in the world of employee recognition. The Incentive Research Foundation reports that approximately 40 percent of financial services firms in the US are offering incentive travel as part of their employee rewards strategy. What’s more, 65 percent of firms worldwide are investing more in incentive travel.
Travel hits all of the checkpoints of a great years-of-service incentive.
Most people remember their favorite trips. Travel means new experiences, and neuroscience shows that people are more primed to make memories when they’re experiencing something new.
These memories stick around better when they’re positive. A classic study from the 1930s shows that people forget around 60 percent of their unpleasant travel memories, but only 42 percent of their pleasant memories slip away. You can be fairly confident that a few years down the road when an employee is looking forward to their next sponsored anniversary trip, they’ll remember the most recent one fondly.
It improves work output
Many studies have shown a link between travel and a person’s ability to think creatively. In one such study published in 2015, researchers concluded that those fashion directors who have lived abroad show more unique thinking in their designs than those who haven’t.
Those who lived and worked in three different places show even more creativity in their thinking. It makes sense—the more exposure you have to different ways of thinking, the more original ideas you can offer.
When you sponsor work anniversary trips, you can let people pick their travel destinations (within parameters, of course). This individualizes each person’s milestone experience, and the traveler continues to personalize the incentive just by going on the trip.
Let’s say you send two people on incentive trips in a given year. Person A chooses to go to Guatemala, and Person B chooses to go to the US Virgin Islands.
Because both employees are choosing their trips, they will get all the more excited about the sights they’ll see and the experiences they’ll have. That excitement drives them to post pictures of their trip on social media and talk about it when they get back, getting others excited about incentive trips to come.
Incentive travel also offers benefits that other awards and prizes don’t. First of all, it’s an experience, which is a major draw for today’s workforce. Unlike in the past when people worked for bigger and better things, today’s employees work so that they can have more enjoyable and memorable lives. That means seeing as much of the world as possible.
Also, incentive travel can be—and often is—a group experience. If you have multiple people celebrating their fifth anniversary, you can sponsor a group trip. It’s a fun way to encourage team bonding while honoring individual contributions.
Finally, milestone trips can be part of a broader incentive travel program. Working with an experienced agency, you can sponsor anniversary travel as well as trips that recognize an individual or team accomplishments not tied to tenure of service.
Your work milestone program has the potential to be an exciting, engaging program for everyone in your company. Remember your best practices:
- Choose an award that you can customize to each person’s interests.
- Consider tying it to the honoree’s role.
- Make the presentation a team-wide or even company-wide event.
- Make it memorable. Encourage honorees to share their memories of the ceremony or incentive experience after.
- Involve people from the honoree’s team—both colleagues and supervisors.
- Acknowledge the honoree’s accomplishments—the more specific, the better.
Once you have your plan in place, get people excited. Tell everyone what anniversaries you’re going to celebrate and what people will get when they reach those milestones. You’ll get people excited and boost employee engagement, even for those who still have a ways to go until their next anniversary.