Sooner rather than later

It can make sense to recognize earlier milestones

Employee recognition programs aren’t the same today as they were 10 or even five years ago. With rapid changes in the workplace, employee recognition programs vying to be effective and valued must adapt and change at the same time.

While it used to be common practice to reward five-and 10-year milestones, and other long-service awards, it is now more common to see shorter timespans for employee recognition milestones. Today, many companies are recognizing employees at one, two or three years of service (see sidebar).

Changing workplace
One reason to shorten and adjust recognition milestones is the changing nature of the workforce today. While it used to be quite normal for an employee to find a job and advance through the ranks with one company — for years, if not decades — today’s situation tends to be much different. More than ever, people are seeking better-paying positions or positions that meet their education or credentials, so they take “in-between” jobs until they can find something better. 

Another contributing factor is the need for greater recognition — employees often leave their jobs due to a lack of recognition. This contributes to higher turnover rates and creates a huge retention issue that is only expected to rise in coming years. It’s not uncommon now for an employee to stay for only a year or two with one employer and then move on. 

But it’s not just the employees who have changed, it’s the workplace itself. For many businesses, staying in the game has become so competitive that it’s necessary to streamline operations — including staffing. For many employers, it’s simply a luxury to think of having full-time positions, complete with benefits and retirement packages — that’s just not in the cards. Instead, businesses are now offering more part-time positions, job sharing and shorter-term positions in an effort to reduce costs. 

Another consideration is the presence of multiple generations working together, along with an increase of younger people coming into management-level positions. 

The effect on the workplace is interesting and dynamic but it can also be tricky because of the age gap and different values among the various generations. 

The key here is for employers to use these differences to their advantage, to make the most of them — recognize what’s important to them and find ways (even if they are very small) to give employees what matters most.

Many younger generations appreciate types of recognition that differ from those their elders prefer. Tailoring a recognition program to fit each group of employees will have a positive effect on the workplace and produce better results when it comes to day-to-day operations, attracting new talent and keeping the stellar workers.

Shortening milestones
The core response to all these issues is to shorten the length of recognition milestones. Keeping timeframes quite short allows small changes to have a bigger impact on the overall team. 

Employers can recognize one-year employees with small token awards such as a certificate, lapel pin, corporate pen or a similar item in the $10- to $30-dollar price range. Employees with three years of service would normally have a choice of an award from an employer recognition website, with companies usually spending anywhere from $30 to $70 on these awards. 

Paired with the reality of higher employee turnover rates, shorter recognition time frames allow employers to potentially keep talent that may have considered their employment temporary. Valuing and encouraging contributions from employees at one-, two-, three- and five-year milestones is a great place to start. 

Alan Whittaker is vice-president of sales and marketing at Williams Recognition in Montreal. For more information, visit

Earlier recognition
There’s an increased interest in early recognition, according to a 2015 survey by Michael C. Fina, provider of employee recognition and incentive programs.
While one-half of respondents indicated their service award programs begin at the five-year mark, one in four said they are now recognizing employees after one year of employment, found the survey of more than 400 HR professionals in the United States.

“The earlier you start building a meaningful connection with an employee, the better,” says Cord Himelstein, vice-president of marketing and communications at Michael C. Fina. “For decades, the five-year mark was the benchmark to start a service award program, but younger workers are used to instant feedback and a more social workplace.”

Ninety per cent of the respondents offer service award programs. Top goals for recognition programs include:

• increasing employee engagement (71 per cent)

• improving retention (47 per cent)

• motivating high performance (44 per cent).

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