work anniversary

How to Make a Work Anniversary Meaningful

By George Dickson on September 28, 2016

Many organizations miss the point -- and the benefits -- of work anniversaries entirely.

Each year with a great employee on the team is an achievement that should be celebrated, but you can forget about handing out a plaque, a postcard, or a paperweight if you want it to be meaningful.

Despite questionable efficacy, most employee recognition programs still focus on tenure.

Josh Bersin shared some striking statistics on this. Research by Bersin and Associates found that of the $46 billion market recognition has grown to become,

"87 percent of the recognition programs focus on tenure. Yes, that’s right. People get rewarded for sticking around."

But that's not really what we're celebrating when we celebrate an employee's one, two, ten, or twenty-year anniversary, is it?

It's not about how long they secured a chair to the floor; it's about what they did while they were there. That's the crucial point most tenure programs miss.

So what could you do to show an employee the immense impact their work has made on the organization over the past year (or years), and how do you make that celebration memorable?

Highlight Specific Achievements and Contributions

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Being in the office for another year isn't really a contribution unless you're making an impact while you're there; however, it's incredibly uncommon that you'd still be employed at the end of the year if you didn't.

Even after one year, there's almost certainly going to be a highlight reel's worth of contributions an employee has made to your organization. Don't miss out on an opportunity to celebrate and reward them.

Highlight what they've done.

Be specific about it -- don't just say "Ahmed has grown a lot since he started this year, and we're lucky to have him."

If he did grow a lot, that's truly great! Highlight the specific areas of growth, and why that growth was so important. Give everyone a chance to see where he's developed his skills, and why that matters.

Not only is it more meaningful for him to receive specific praise, there's a good chance it will be useful for his colleagues to learn about his expanded skill set. They might require those skills in an upcoming project, but if they don't know he has them, they'll probably never ask.

Don't say "We're so glad Keisha's been leading our engineering team for the past five years. Looking forward to the next five," and call it good.

Highlight the reasons you're so glad.

Did she show grace under pressure, and help her team through an exceedingly challenging situation last year? Highlight that.

Did she win an industry award, secure a coveted certification, or receive a patent grant? Those are all major achievements everyone should, but may not know about.

Conversely, consider this common example:

"Happy Anniversary! We appreciate your contribution to the team, and wish you much more success in the years ahead."

There's a lot missing here.

  • Who are you writing this to?
  • What contribution is it referring to?
  • Why is that contribution appreciated?

This shows a lack of familiarity with the recipient's actual contributions. That's not only going to be ineffective, it could easily come off as insincere.

I wish I could say I conjured the above quote up as an extreme case, but it's based on several examples of 'great work anniversary quotes' from across the web.

Work anniversary quotes like this might seem to provide a nice sentiment on the surface, but they're impersonal, and they don't celebrate the unique contributions each member of the team makes.

Here's a quick litmus test: If you could say the exact same phrase to anyone on the team, it's not personal or unique enough -- and as a result, it's probably not going to be very meaningful to its recipient.

Sure it's better than nothing, but nothing is a pretty low bar.

Frequent Recognition

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How do you highlight a whole team of employees' contributions on such a personal and individual basis?

It's actually fairly simple.

Don't wait until a work anniversary to show your appreciation for their work. Show your appreciation frequently, make it as visible as possible when you do, and encourage others to follow the same strategy. As leadership expert Josh Bersin put it in his Forbes article on effective recognition

"Make it trivially simple for employees to recognize each other."

That's really it. That's the key.

All of this is going to be dramatically easier and more effective if you and the rest of the team are already visibly recognizing and rewarding contributions as they happen throughout the year.

This is especially true if you've got a system for keeping record of those contributions, and the praise they generated.

Instead of scrambling for examples of the contributions someone's made throughout the year, you and everyone else on the team will already have a pretty good sense of what those contributions were, and the impact they had.

You'll have a laundry list of great things you can highlight when the time comes.

Include Colleagues

This can't be stressed enough.

Get everyone involved. There are almost guaranteed to be some valuable contributions this person made that you weren't aware of. The more people taking part in this, the more of those great contributions will surface. 

Opening this celebration up to the entire team and encouraging their participation will not only make it more meaningful, it's likely to improve work relationships as well. 

This also takes some of the pressure off of leadership.

The more people taking part in celebrating their teammate, the easier it will be to revel in their success during their work anniversary, and the more genuine that praise will be. 

It really comes down to this: a work anniversary should not be anyone's single moment of recognition each year. It's even less effective when that piece of recognition is generic, and handed down from management.

Let the team help decide how to approach work anniversaries so they're irresistible, rather than mandatory, to participate in as a team.

Reveal Purpose

It's important for everyone to know how their work impacts their team, the organization, its customers, and the world at large.

Nathaniel Koloc wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review titled "What Job Candidates Really Want: Meaningful Work." In it he explains a key feature of many top performers:

"They are not picking their next job based on the size of the paycheck. They are instead looking for a worthwhile mission and promising team to join. And, they are having a frustratingly hard time finding that."

Think about it this way: you don't want to see another year ticked off on the calendar, and feel like you have nothing to show for it.

An employee's anniversary is an opportunity to remind them of the impact they've made over the past 12 months, and over the course of their career. 

Don't just say "You've made a big impact this year." Explain exactly what the impact was, why it matters, and how crucial their work is to the team, the organization, and the people it serves.

It's highly motivating to be reminded of the purpose behind your work, and how important it is to so many people.

In Conclusion:

Although work anniversaries are one of the most common forms of employee recognition in use today, they're often poorly-executed.

Think about your goals for this, and how your strategy is helping to achieve them. If you're handing out greeting cards each year and calling it good, you're missing a huge opportunity.

Even taking a few of these points into consideration can help make anniversaries something everyone looks forward to.

If you're ready to take the next step in building a great organizational culture, check out our latest guide:

The Leadership Survival Kit

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.