Let’s talk about employee service award programs and how they can go wrong.

Typically, I try to keep my feelings of schadenfreude in check, partly because I prefer the lift I feel when someone hits the heights over the wince that comes from watching them hit the skids. But also because, all too often, I find myself on the bad end of that particular stick: I have (occasionally) failed.

But what remains true when it comes to both our own flops and the errors of others is that after the sting subsides and perspective sets in, failure can be a great roadmap to future success.

That’s why it’s important to examine employee service award program failures (glee-lessly, if possible) as we develop employee experiences that succeed.

Keep in mind this important point: there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to employee service award programs. Research shows that employees are overwhelmingly unique in their preferences. It’s a good idea to stay away from generic, across-the-board milestone awards and instead focus on customizable and flexible options that are more meaningful and memorable.

Related: Find unique reward ideas.

Here’s a reward I received when I was a kid – technically, as a member of a club, not an employee, but stick with me here.

example reward for employee service awards programs

Why it worked:
Contextual: A belt buckle made perfect sense in my milieu and circumstances.
Personal: Literally personalized with my name and achievement but more important, designed for someone my age and with my interests.
Usable: Wearable! And (trust me) fashionable at the time. Since then, my fashion sense has changed somewhat but I display my cowgirl-era belt-buckle awards proudly in my home. They’re nifty and meaningful relics.

Contrast that award with the closing trophy I received when I first joined the workforce. As a first-year paralegal working with a team of lawyers, I was grateful and excited to be on a successful team and delighted to receive recognition for the relatively small part I had played in our win. But there’s no photo available of my trophy because, alas, the object has been lost to time.

Ultimately, while I appreciated the sentiment, the trophy itself wasn’t quite personal or useful enough for me to hold onto it throughout the years.

Below are five employee service award program fails – all imagined, but drawn from all-too-real-life experiences – along with alternatives that fix them.

Who: Sally in Accounting
Achievement: 30 years of service
Award Fail: An indoor skydiving “Party Package”
Award Fix: Weekend at a theme park with her grandchildren

Context matters: Sally’s not the adventurous type, but her family means a lot to her. Reward her with a fun way to spend time with the people in her life.

Learn more about the science behind reward and recognition systems that work.

Who: Yvonne in Tech
Achievement: First project completed
Award Fail: Noise-activated singing fish
Award Fix: Noise-canceling headphones

Think Useful: Yvonne’s desk is meticulously organized and free of unnecessary decorations, but she’s always seeking ways to stay more focused in the office.

Discover more ideas for rewards techies appreciate.

Who: Igor in HR
Achievement: Referred a new hire
Award Fail: Box of fresh cookies
Award Fix: Half-day off

Try something more Personal: Igor is under 30 and gluten-free — he’d prefer a half-day off to give back by volunteering at the local animal shelter.

Here are tips for rewards that are meaningful to millennials.

Who: C. J. in Product
Achievement: Developed a new feature
Award Fail: Friday office party
Award Fix: In-home cooking lesson

Again, Context counts, and so does a more Personal touch: C.J. is remote and coming into the office for a party would be more inconvenient than rewarding — but, he’s been sharing recipes with the team and is an avid cook.

Find more ideas for rewarding remote workers.

Who: Oliver in Marketing
Achievement: Exceeded quarterly goals
Award Fail: Engraved plaque
Award Fix: Financial coaching

Oliver is in his early 40s and is very keen on professional development. He’d find a coaching session more Useful than he would a physical award.

Find out how to motivate Gen X employees.


About YouEarnedIt:
YouEarnedIt is a SaaS HR technology platform that redefines the way companies engage with their employees. By providing tools to connect, reward, reveal and report in real-time, YouEarnedIt can consolidate employee engagement initiatives into one, easy-to-use mobile platform for teams of all sizes. Since launching in 2012, YouEarnedIt has delivered its flexible software to small enterprises and Fortune 500 brands across several industries. Visit youearnedit.com for more information or schedule a quick demo here.

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Rebecca Beegle