Making Work Anniversaries Work In 2010 And Beyond

Illustration by Dreamstime.

I was talking to my wife last night about her upcoming anniversary at work. I couldn’t believe that it had already been two very short years. And since she works at a winery, this will also be her third harvest.

Third harvest is important for many folks in the wine industry because it is (mostly) their first taste of their finished red wine product. Now you get to taste your finished white wine products almost right away, but there is something special about red wine (especially a red wine that can you can drink immediately) that helps you perfect the craft.

For many others though, a second, third, or even fourth anniversary doesn’t matter. You might be lucky if your boss remembers. And this certainly isn’t your father’s workplace: most industry has seen turnover increase over the decades. Nobody needs to tell anybody that you might not retire at the place you start your career!

So I wondered: Do service anniversaries still have a place in 2010 and beyond?

It’s a new world

It reminded me of a post last year by Paul Hebert about the downfall of service anniversaries. He says:

If you’re going to spend the money get a return. The way in which most service anniversary programs work they don’t provide ANY ROI. I’ll stick with that statement because few if any programs are designed around an objective – they are designed around a government tax allowance for these types of programs.

Would you invest in a piece of equipment SOLELY because you get a tax break? Probably not.  You’d want that machine to not only take advantage of the tax opportunity but you’d really want the machine to do the work you bought it for – new capability, new quality levels, whatever. Your service anniversary program should be looked at in a similar light.

That is a pragmatic view and probably one embraced by a performance-obsessed corporate culture, but it leaves me feeling a little empty inside.

Is there no other alternative?

It is hard to imagine many companies abandoning recognition programs for work anniversaries. With retention already being a key metric discussed in corporate HR, abandoning a program that could possibly impact that key metric would take a couple brave professionals. And as I said in response to Paul Hebert’s comment, there is a positive impact at times:

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In what is probably obvious to others, if you have a good relationship with your career and your career partner (i.e. your workplace), anniversaries can be a wonderful time to celebrate another year of engaged employment. Is it directly aligned with a business result? No, but who cares? If you are managing your workforce well, being employed for another year is a great indirect business success and one that is worthy of your celebration.

If you are in a crappy relationship with an employer (or your spouse), an anniversary can be as empty of a gesture that can be made.

This whole service anniversary business gets complicated. For engaged employees, it can be fantastic and can impact business results. But for the unengaged, it can be a damaging reminder of time squandered toiling away.

A hybrid solution

What I’ve talked to other HR professionals about was a hybrid recognition program. It recognizes (briefly) the accomplishment of putting in another year but it also gives managers and employees alike to a reason to get together and talk about the next year. Talk about things bigger than just performance review stuff. Talk about broader career goals, what’s positive and what’s frustrating about their work situation and how to keep the momentum going (or get it going if stalled).

Sure, some will argue this should be happening year round and during the performance review(s). But let’s face it, having a set time when you sit down with an employee who just marked another year with your company and talk about more than just the week’s work, the latest project, or even last night’s football game is a good step.

And perhaps it will be just a little more valued than a bronze pin you can put on your jacket.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.