“An anniversary in an opportunity not to be wasted. The pride and unity it inspires makes it an ideal time to ask people to think about why their work matters, and how it should move forward.” That was Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, talking about the Foundation’s centennial celebration in her piece “Why Anniversaries are Not to be Wasted” for Harvard Business Review. What could the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100th anniversary as an organization possibly have with your employee’s 1st anniversary? Or 2nd or 3rd? In a word, everything.
Anniversaries aren’t tired excuses for minimal recognition efforts: they’re actually an important moment in the employee lifecycle that opens the door to reflection, growth, and yes, celebration. Done well, time-based recognition policies can be leveraged to increase productivity, engagement, and ultimately retention—benefits that all far outweigh the effort and budget they take to implement.
Done well, time-based recognition policies can be leveraged to increase productivity, engagement, and ultimately retention.
The Impact of Recognition
When it comes to the impact of time-based recognition, the numbers speak for themselves. Gallup reports that employees who don’t feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year—and that only one in three employees strongly agreed they’d received recognition for doing work in the past 7 days.
Renowned behavioral economist Dan Ariely dedicated an entire TED Talk to the subject of what makes us feel good at work. One important takeaway? Mere acknowledgement of someone’s work dramatically raises their motivation (and has more of an impact than compensation).
Why Time Matters
If recognition is so important, why the focus on anniversaries instead of more frequent intervals? Length of tenure is an important factor in job satisfaction and engagement. A Harvard Business Review study of 300,000+ employees found that the most unhappy people were mid-level employees and managers with an average tenure of five to 10 years. Some of the top reasons cited for their dissatisfaction? Minimal appreciation or recognition, absence of challenge and meaning in work, and lack of pride and satisfaction with the organization.
There’s a honeymoon effect when an employee first joins an organization that can wane over time. The realities of familiarity and routine, along with inevitable organizational change, can disconnect employees from the things that attracted them to the company in the first place. And it doesn’t take five to 10 years for that rift to happen: a Department of Labor study in 2016 found the average length of tenure with a current employer to be 13 months.
The good news is that milestone programs can lengthen term of service significantly. Maritz reports that employees at companies with milestone programs stayed on average two years longer than at companies without milestone programs, and projected staying nearly three years longer. The higher the quality of the anniversary program, the longer employees are likely to stay. In fact, years of service award programs were more correlated with employee tenure than any other employee benefit.
Years of service award programs are more correlated with employee tenure than any other employee benefit.
The reason? An increased sense of belonging, and knowledge that the company cares about them.
Opportunity for Growth
Creating belonging and growth opportunities are highly correlated with those all-important engagement metrics, which makes anniversaries significant contributors to productivity as well as retention.
As Rodin observed, “an anniversary is a good moment to recommit to what should never change” — a principle that applies both to the company and to employee celebrating an anniversary. It’s the ideal time to reflect on accomplishments, and recommit to embodying the values that brought employees there in the first place.
Case in Point: Quartet’s Anniversary Program
The significance of time-based milestones is especially important at an early-stage company where so much growth and change happens. Louie Martinez, HR Business Partner at Quartet Health, knows firsthand that it’s a real accomplishment to reach milestones from one to five years, and to have experienced so many different phases of a company’s lifecycle. In his words, “being recognized at a company for years of service is really thoughtful, and people like that call-out.”
While Quartet employees aren’t staying solely because of anniversary recognition, it’s a warm-and-fuzzy moment in their lifecycle, and an opportunity to get a renewed sense of buy-in. In other words, anniversaries are the perfect reminder that there are a lot of reasons to stay.
Designing an anniversary program at a fast-growing hybrid company is no easy feat. Here, Louie shares some lessons learned on the value of anniversary recognition, and what makes them impactful.
“Celebrating anniversaries creates a moment for people to talk about why they’re still at Quartet.”
On congratulatory messages:
Every employee receives recognition two ways in Slack: in our #general channel so others can jump in to add their congratulations, and in a personalized message sent via Donut. Our CEO is also in the loop for anniversaries, so he’ll usually stop by someone’s desk to congratulate them in person or send a Slack message to remote employees.
On remote-friendly recognition:
Now that we are 45% distributed, we are exploring the best ways to celebrate remote anniversaries. In addition to Slack shout-outs, we include anniversaries in our biweekly people ops newsletter. We also send remote employees a celebratory care package with a thank you card, gift cards for coffee or lunch (or a budget for an outing), a champagne bottle filled with confetti, and wooden coins with the company values on them. While we are still assessing the most meaningful way to celebrate with our remote folks, we’ve found these methods to be successful.
On the importance of anniversaries for strengthening core values:
It’s great to recognize people, and to let them know we’re paying attention and appreciative of the work they’re doing. It’s a pretty big win to have employees here for two, three, four, or five years.
Celebrating anniversaries also creates a moment for people to talk about why they’re still at Quartet. It sparks a valuable conversation, and is a reason to reflect back on our core values (and those coins!)
On involving managers:
Managers have the latitude to celebrate anniversaries, too. Each manager has a discretionary budget per direct report per month that can be used for anniversary recognition, like a fully-loaded gift card to a local coffee shop or a lunch on Quartet.