Employee Recognition

5 steps to modernize your employee milestone recognition program

What did you get for your last work anniversary?

While most companies do celebrate some employee milestones – either formally or informally – the sad fact is that very few do it well. The process is often poorly managed, dates are missed due to bad tracking, and the gifts people do receive are often lacklustre.

As our Head of People Noah Warder covered in a recent episode of our Employee Horror Stories series, failing to make an employee feel valued when they reach an important milestone is a surefire way to instantly disengage them, and even cause them to quit altogether.

So how do you create an employee milestone recognition program that works? In this blog, we’ll cover the basics of what a milestone program is, some of the drawbacks of how companies currently run them, and 5 steps you can take to put the program that your people deserve into place.

What is a company milestone program?

Employee milestone awards (also known as Employee Anniversary, Years of Service, Service Milestones, or Service Anniversaries) recognize employees for reaching a certain amount of time with the company. 

The most common milestones recognized are at the end of years 1, 3, 5, and every 5 years after that. More comprehensive programs can also include certain birthdays and other important events in employee lives (such as getting married).

Key anniversaries are often celebrated with some sort of public acknowledgement and/or a reward that increases in value based on the years of service. The value of rewards can vary, but commonly ranges between $25-$75 per year of service. For example, an employee might receive a reward of $500 for their 10-year anniversary.

Recognizing employee milestones is a way to formally appreciate people for their contributions, accomplishments, and successes over the course of their career with the organization. When done right, a milestone program can produce tremendous benefits.

Why run an employee milestone recognition program?

Recognizing, celebrating and rewarding employees for hitting major milestones heightens their sense of pride for career accomplishments, and makes them feel appreciated for their efforts and contributions. 

This can help to boost their morale, engagement, performance, and ultimately productivity. In a survey conducted by Work.com, 69% of employees said they would work harder if they were better recognized in their organizations. Your people are your most important asset, and need to feel the love when they hit major employee milestones.

Anniversary awards can also play a role in retention, as employees strive to reach milestones when they see their colleagues being publicly recognized and rewarded. Companies within the top 20% of “recognition-rich culture” see 31% lower turnover rates. Implementing an employee milestone program is the first step in building a culture of recognition, where people love coming to work and crushing it every day!

5 steps to build your perfect company milestone program

So, what can your company do to recognize employee milestones better? How do you know which milestones to recognize? And how do you build a milestone program that’s efficient, easy to administer, and effective? 

Here’s 5 simple steps to build the right company milestone program for your business.

1. Define the employee milestones that matter to your company

Every company does milestones a little bit differently. Some simply celebrate anniversaries and nothing else. Some go further and recognize other professional accomplishments, while others even make the effort to celebrate personal achievements.

What’s right for your company will depend on what kind of culture you’re trying to build, and what sort of employee milestones reflect your values. Typically, they’ll fall into three broad categories.


Employee milestone awards for service anniversaries might seem fairly self-explanatory, in that they are given to employees to mark a certain amount of time with the company.

What you may want to put some thought into, however, is which anniversaries your company want to recognize. For example, a lot of companies have traditionally only recognized employee anniversaries from 5 years onwards. In a world where it’s becoming less common for employees to stay at one company for that long, it may be worth showing your appreciation for their loyalty a bit sooner.

For a lot of today’s companies, annual anniversary milestones are becoming the norm, and many employees will expect them. In high turnover companies, like retailers for instance, marking an employee milestone as early as 3 months in with a small reward might even be beneficial, and help you retain more staff. 

Professional employee milestones

Depending on your industry and culture, recognizing certain professional milestones might be a good idea, particularly in jobs where employees need to complete specific trainings or earn additional qualifications as their career progresses.

A good example of this would be certain finance professionals like actuaries and accountants, who need to pass a series of exams over the course of several years while working in order to obtain certain designations. These qualifications are a crucial milestone in their professional careers, so celebrating them makes a lot of sense.

Personal milestones

Celebrating your employees' success in their personal lives can be a great way to show that you care about them personally and support them in their lives outside of work. 

However, it’s important to think carefully about which personal employee milestones to recognize. Some companies will celebrate employees welcoming new family members, buying a house, getting married, or other major life events. Others might also include things like bereavements in their milestone program, in order to show their employees support when times are tough.

Again, what’s appropriate for you will depend on what culture you’re trying to build, and what personal goals are likely to matter for your employees. For instance, a milestone for employees welcoming new family members might be appropriate in an office made up mostly of people in their thirties, but might not be worth including for a retailer where the majority of employees are students and seniors. 

2. Plan your milestone program budget

You might assume that defining your budget would be the first step here, but we find that can be counterintuitive. If you approach your employee milestone program with a set budget in mind, that will dictate how you structure it. 

For example, if your budget is limited, you’ll likely include less milestones in your program in order to offer larger rewards, even if you’d ideally want to be recognizing your people more often.

Instead, decide what milestones you want to celebrate first, then fit your budget around them. Even if this means you’re spending less on rewards for smaller milestones (like 3-month anniversaries, for instance), your employees will still appreciate you marking them. Most of the positive impact of recognition for employees comes from feeling like the company sees them and values them, even if the rewards are small.

3. Choose impactful milestone rewards 

One of the reasons our clients love Guusto’s employee milestone rewards is because our gift cards offer so much variety and flexibility, meaning their people can always find something they really want when they redeem them. 

Providing rewards that matter is crucial to making milestones a success. Most employees don’t want cheap plastic plaques or certificates – they want something of value that they can use and enjoy for their hard work.

Having said that, offering some kind of ‘trophy’ that marks their achievement can be important to some employees, particularly when it comes to anniversaries. Usually, this is in situations where the award is something that holds prestige and value within the company’s culture. 

A good example would be the ‘Crystal Blackberry’ awards our Culture Clinic regulars Kwesi Thomas and Shelley DaCosta used to give their employees during their time at the Canadian tech giant. The awards were well-designed and on-brand for Blackberry, and became something of a status symbol among employees. 

If your budget allows it, the best approach is to provide both something physical marking their milestone, and a gift of real value that employees can use. Again, knowing your company is making an effort to recognize them will be a huge part of the impact, so these rewards don’t have to cost the earth.

4. Get the delivery right

Nothing defeats the purpose of an employee milestone program faster than a lack of timeliness. If you are late in recognizing an employee for a major event, or need to be reminded, you may as well tell them that you don’t value them at all.

One way employee milestone recognition programs help with this is through automation. By automating your milestones, you can make sure that employees aren’t left hanging, and at least receive some acknowledgement of anniversaries, birthdays, or other predetermined events.

Other milestones for personal or career events can take a bit more manual work, but some automation as possible. If you’re recognizing weddings as a milestone, for instance, your team could preset the gift to go out in advance once your employee has set a date.

Timeliness is everything in the delivery of rewards, too. One of the reasons we don’t use traditional catalogues in our system here at Guusto is because it can take a long time for these services to actually deliver the employee’s gift. Getting your anniversary gift 6 weeks after the fact can feel anticlimactic, and diminish its impact.

5. Make a big deal of it

The other aspect of delivering an employee milestone award is what you do around it. When an employee celebrates an anniversary or another personal or professional achievement, they’ll want you to make a fuss.

In addition to giving them a gift or reward of some kind, make sure those that matter to them – executives, department leaders, their close colleagues – are alerted about the milestone, and encouraged to mark it in some way. 

In particular, make sure the employee’s manager is aware of the milestone and plans something to acknowledge it. This could be as simple as sending a message, taking them for a coffee, or even just having a chat at the end of the day. 

Making sure a milestone is acknowledged is important even if you are automating the sending of milestone rewards, and one of the downsides of these systems is that the rewards and messages may not be personalized to the employee. While it’s definitely a better option than forgetting the milestone altogether, it won’t necessarily make the employee feel valued if their colleagues don’t acknowledge it personally in some way.

Finding the right employee milestone recognition program

Now that we’ve illustrated what goes into creating an effective employee milestone program, let’s talk a little about finding the right tools to implement it. While there are a lot of employee milestone recognition platforms on the market, many service providers have failed to update their program over the years. 

If you’re still using one of these older programs, here are some reasons it’s likely not cutting it anymore.

The wrong gifts

Some of the more common employee milestone gifts, like plaques, pins, pens, watches and certificates are lacklustre, and no longer resonate with most employees, especially millennials and generation Z. 

Similarly, outdated points/catalogue programs offer a limited selection of products that do not cater to everyone’s interests, and there’s occasional fulfillment issues that lead to disappointment when the provider is unable to supply the employee’s desired item.

High fees

Many large providers are used to getting away with charging an arm and leg for their service. Not only do they charge exorbitant setup and annual service fees to execute programs, there’s also significant markups on catalogue products (often 25-30%), and shipping fees for getting items delivered to the recipient's house or the company’s office. That's a lot of wasted money!

Not timely

Without integrations that keep your employee data accurate in service provider systems, anniversary dates can sometimes get missed or simply forgotten. Similarly, shipped items can run into delays, resulting in rewards being issued days or even weeks after the actual work anniversary date. This dramatically reduces the impact of the gesture (imagine getting a birthday card 2 weeks late), and can even be counterproductive if the employee is left feeling their role does not have much importance.

No awareness

Many traditional programs will provide a milestone reward to the employee, but fail to notify an employee’s manager in advance about the anniversary so they have time to plan something for them. These legacy programs also fail to notify the employee’s colleagues on the actual anniversary date, which would have allowed them to send a personal message or even stop by to offer a congratulations.

How Guusto’s employee milestone program could work for your company

Guusto's employee recognition platform powers thousands of corporate milestone programs across the globe. It’s simple to set up, and makes scheduling 1000s of digital rewards a breeze. Gift cards sent through our platform are redeemable at 60,000+ partner merchant locations. 

Our customer success team can even help automate the process with HRIS integrations. Built-in manager notifications and engaging social feeds can make everyone aware of employees celebrating milestones, and the system offers web, mobile and offline delivery options to ensure no-one is left out! 

Pitching a new employee milestone program to your leadership team

When you’re looking to make a change to your company milestone program, getting your executive team on board might be a challenge. If you want to make the best possible case for your plan, check out our Executive Pitch Kit, which includes 4 great resources:

  • Pitching Recognition to the C-Suite, a guide featuring tips from HR experts on how get your program approved
  • A fillable PowerPoint template for your executive presentation 
  • A one-page proposal template 
  • Our ROI Calculator to help you quantify the potential payoff of your program

Fill out the form below to get instant access to all 4 of these assets for free!

***Editor's note: This blog was originally published in April 2020, but has been updated and expanded with additional information and insights.

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Skai Dalziel

Written by Skai Dalziel

Skai is the Co-Founder of Guusto. He leads the Customer Success Team, and loves helping HR leaders build workplace culture by sharing his experiences from working with thousands of companies.

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