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How to set up an employee service award program

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Service awards are an integral component of employee recognition, and the introduction of a service award program is a powerful way to recognise employees for loyal service.

Many people invest years of their life working for an organization – with little recognition when they reach milestones of service. Yet service recognition is easy to do.

Universally, employee surveys show that employees want more recognition. Leighton Contractors, where I completed a short-term contract two years ago, was no exception. The national employee survey found that only 34% of employees were satisfied with the recognition they received for the performance in their current job.

In the old days, a 25-year watch was the traditional and only recognition of significant length of service. People move on far more frequently these days, and should be recognised for serving shorter periods of time.

Some may believe that recognising employees for their time served only emphasises quantity rather than quality – the chair warmers rather than the achievers. However, the fact is that any significant length of service represents a major investment by an employee from their life. This choice of investment is something to be valued, especially when there is a comparatively high employee ‘churn’ (and cost of turnover) these days compared with the past.

Service awards are traditionally an HR-initiated activity. But if HR are slow to act, the PR branch could easily set them up, which is what I did at Leighton. As these programs have a high communication component, they are an area for the public relations branch to play a significant role.

In addition to gifts of a tangible value, many other acts of recognition can be accorded to employees for length of service. Some of these are outlined in the matrix below, which is the actual matrix used by Leighton in its employee service recognition program. This matrix should be communicated to all employees so that they readily understand and expect certain actions to recognise their service milestones. The matrix is shown below as a helpful guide.

Most of these acts are low cost or no cost. The sheer act of recognition itself often has the most impact – the fact that the employer has remembered and has acted to celebrate the employee’s length of service.


Item / Action 5
Engraved pen ($100) x          
Gift to value of $500   x        
Gift to value of $1,000     x      
Gift voucher to the value of $2,000       x x  
Gift voucher to the value of $2,500           x
Other recognition            
Letter from Regional Manager x x x x x x
Letter from Group CEO   x x x x x
Listing in newsletter x x x x x x
Article in newsletter   x x x x x
Morning tea and
informal presentation
x x x x x x
Dinner with
colleagues / family
  x   x x x
Honour board (Hall of Fame)   x x x x x
Christmas presentation & certificate x x x x x x
Mention in staff publication
(if sufficient news angle)
      x   x
Long service pins (ruby, emerald etc)     ? ? ? ?
Retrospective application            
Letter from Regional Mgr
& gift for most recent milestone
x x x x x x

The problem of retrospectivity

When establishing a service award program, the problem of what to do about past milestones always occurs. There has to be a date set as an arbitrary starting point for the program. But what should be done about people who have passed previous milestones without any recognition?

To be fair to all, a starting date should be set for a service award program. Any people who have reached milestones before this date should be recognised in a low key way for the most recent milestone. Anyone who is due to reach a milestone in the current year should not receive retrospective recognition for previous milestones because their award this year will supersede any previous milestones. Due to the increased number of people these days who move on quickly after starting a new job, the cost of recognising people for past service is not as high as you might think.


Most organizations conduct an annual staff survey. You can ensure employee recognition is included, with a question such as “How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for performance in your current job?” The survey results will be a valuable guide to the extent to which employees respond to the service awards and later recognition initiatives. This year’s survey result will form the benchmark figure for employee recognition.

There are many ways to communicate about positive initiatives like these.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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