Making it personal

Too often, service awards miss the mark
By Mike Byam
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

In giving a talk on employee recognition to a group of about 100 business leaders recently, I asked how long they had each worked at their current employer. Everyone in the room was able to state the date of their hire, with the longest-tenured person a gentleman who had been at his organization 37 years.

What does this tell us? We are wired to commemorate milestones such as birthdays, graduation reunions and wedding anniversaries. It’s no different in our professional lives. An occupation is a significant component of most people’s self-identity, so it stands to reason service anniversaries are important on a personal level.

Anniversaries are also important on a business level. Service milestones provide employees with an opportunity to reflect on their career goals and objectives — what they’ve accomplished to this point and where they hope to go in the future.

Service awards are also fundamental to an effective recognition strategy. Recognizing workers for career milestones is the most effective (and objective) way for businesses to ensure everyone in the organization — from the factory floor to the front desk to the executive offices — receives recognition on a consistent basis for the ways they contribute to the organization’s success.

And research shows consistent recognition is a key ingredient for an engaged, motivated workforce.

There’s never been a time when businesses were more creative with recognition. Organizations are implementing newly designed programs such as social-media-style recognition, 360-degree recognition and performance recognition.

Too often, recognition left neglected for years

At the same time, service recognition — the foundation of most employers’ recognition strategy — is often left neglected for years. Seven out of 10 organizations said they have not made any changes to their service award program in the last 10 years, according to a 2008 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

In too many cases, businesses invest dollars and resources into service awards that miss the mark, leaving little impact on the recipients or, even worse, have a negative impact.

A CEO recently told me she knew it was time to re-examine her organization’s service awards program when she received her own 15-year award. A mail-merged letter with her own stamped signature on the bottom was left in her interoffice mail, along with a gift certificate. Because of the impersonal delivery and uninspiring award choice, the message of appreciation and celebration the award program was intended to convey had been lost in translation.

For service awards to have a positive impact on both the business and award recipients, the award mix should reflect the significance of the milestone. The award needs to reinforce the message of appreciation — and personalization and exclusivity are important characteristics of effective awards.

To that end, cash and gift cards fall short. By nature, these are impersonal and cash can be an expensive award.

Gift cards have added challenges. Two-thirds of them remain unused after one month and one-fifth are never used, according to Steven Dubner, author of Freakonomics. For businesses looking to get the most bang for their recognition buck, these are disheartening statistics.

So, what makes a good award? A meaningful award that leaves a lasting, positive impression is one that connects personally with the individual. Choosing a specific award item that is designed to appeal to the recipient or achievement level is one method among many.

A number of businesses offer employees the ability to select their own awards from a collection of items that are customized to have a symbolic connection to the organization. This ensures the recipient receives an award she’ll enjoy.

Another effective way to personalize an award is to incorporate the organization’s logo with an imprint or an emblem, or to engrave the recipient’s name and a special date or message.

For intangible awards, such as time off or travel, consider including a personalized certificate or tangible award presentation kit that provides the recipient with a personalized memento.

Perhaps the most important way to personalize a service award is to create a special moment through the delivery and presentation. Make the most of the chance to celebrate a career milestone with an employee who has dedicated his efforts to the organization and worked hard to reach a special milestone.

As a business leader, this is a priceless opportunity to tie an individual’s efforts and contributions to the ways she impacts the mission, vision and values of the business as a whole.

The award presentation can and should be a highlight for the individual to commemorate her achievements and contributions over the course of her career.

Mike Byam is managing partner of Terryberry in Grand Rapids, Mich. He can be reached at,
(616) 458-391 or (800) 253-0882. For more information, visit

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