Many organizations miss the point — and the benefits — of work anniversaries entirely.
Each year with a great team member is an achievement that should be celebrated with purpose. Creative employee rewards can be a first step, but if you really want to make a work anniversary to be meaningful, you'll need to do better than handing out a plaque, postcard, or paperweight.
Despite questionable efficacy, most employee recognition programs still focus on tenure. Researcher Josh Bersin found that out of $45 billion spent on employee recognition, "87% of companies have some type of tenure-based reward program. That means you 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
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 recognize your team.
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 a day.
Highlight the reasons your team is glad.
Did she show grace under pressure, and help her team through an exceedingly challenging situation last year? How did that impact others on the team? Highlight that.
Did she win an industry award, secure a coveted certification, or receive a patent grant? Those are all major achievements. They're reasons to celebrate, but everyone may not know about them unless you share it.
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 your 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.
Give frequent recognition
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. The faster you recognize an individual and action, the more impactful it can be, creating an explicit connection to positive behavior.
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.
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.
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. Here's an example of public recognition at CB Insights:
"People like the automated birthday and work anniversary bonuses. Our mid-and senior-level leaders are active on Bonusly, so everyone gets involved in celebrating these special milestones. The Work Anniversary Bot reminds us to highlight new employees’ first days and celebrate tenured employees’ years of service.
Because we can store everyone’s start dates in Bonusly, work anniversary bonuses are automatically issued on the appropriate date and we don’t have to do any admin work. We’ve grown a lot recently — we had 33 employees in June 2015 and we have over 200 today — so the Bots prompt us to celebrate the people that have been here for several years and welcome those who are just joining us."
– Menaka Chang, CB Insights
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 everyone's 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 work anniversary is the perfect opportunity to thank them for 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.
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. Looking for a scalable way to celebrate work anniversaries? Learn about Bonusly's automated Anniversary Award.
If you're ready to take the next step in building a great organizational culture, check out our latest guide: