DETROIT — You've put in 25 years at the office, and tradition dictates that it's time for the company to fork over that token that marks your milestone. • But service awards — gifts that recognize an employee's longevity in the workplace — aren't just about wristwatches anymore.
We might not get to choose our boss, our co-workers, our cubicle location or our work assignments, but when it comes to service awards, the trend is all about choice.
Will it be a Cuisinart or a crystal bowl? Golf clubs or a massage table? A pendant or an iPod? Or will it be that traditional timepiece?
"The days of watches being the Holy Grail are gone," said Susan Lagalski, a human resources representative at Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Guardian Industries, a glass manufacturer.
A couple of decades ago, Guardian gave out tie pins to mark years of service, said Lagalski. Not anymore.
"We have jewelry. We have binoculars and telescopes. We have vases and globes and digital cameras," said Lagalski. "We try to offer items that people will actually fit into their lifestyle."
At DTE Energy, several hundred employees out of the 10,300-member work force are recognized for longevity each year. An employee who has put in 50 years at DTE may choose a gift in the $400 to $500 range, said Doug Green, DTE Energy's benefits administration manager.
"At 30 years, I picked the crystal bowl. At 25 years, there wasn't anything I was interested in much, so I got a jewelry box for my daughter," said Green, who has nearly 35 years at the company. "And at 20 years, I got a cordless drill. I still use that."
Watches are still popular — one in five employees, Green said, picks a timepiece.
Even in tough economic times, as companies slash payroll and expenses, most have held onto employee recognition programs, said Jim Mulhern, managing director in Michigan for Utah-based O.C. Tanner, the nation's largest employee recognition provider, which runs the Guardian and DTE programs.
There are tax benefits to keeping the programs: The firm can deduct the cost of the rewards for a qualified program, and the employee doesn't have to report the value of a gift as income.
"It's one way to show appreciation for those survivors who contribute every day to keep companies viable," said Mulhern.
Instead of waiting decades to recognize employees, said Anthony Luciano, senior vice president of marketing for employee rewards provider TharpeRobbins, it's becoming more popular to acknowledge an employee's one-year anniversary — perhaps with a token gift such as a titanium flashlight or a pen-and-pencil set.
"If you keep somebody and train them well, and recognize them during the first year, you've got a better chance of keeping them on the second year" and afterward, said Luciano.
The typical TharpeRobbins corporate customer offers employees a range of gifts, valued at $15 to $20 for every year of service, or about $375 to $500 for a gift for a 25-year employee, Luciano said.
"But what's equally important with the actual award you receive is that you've been recognized by your supervisor in front of your co-workers and peers," he said.
But an employee rewards program, said Green, could be a target when companies are facing bottom line pressures. DTE cut out $150 million in expenses last year.
"It's an easy place to start cutting the budget," said Green. "But we didn't do that. We thought it was very important to continue recognizing people for their years of service."
Green evaluates the array of gifts every three years. And when DTE did away with gifts that were marked with a company emblem in 2003, employees complained and asked for the option to be reinstated. In 2005, they once again offered DTE-emblem engraved crystal, watches, clocks and other items.
"It tells you that they're proud of their years of service and they want to show people that they work for DTE," said Green. "I was kind of surprised that people cared about that."
At Chrysler, which emerged from bankruptcy last year, the service award program was ended in fall 2008, said spokesperson Mike Palese. It is a temporary casualty of tough times, Palese said. Executives hope it returns.
"As soon as we start making money, we'll probably do it again," said Palese. "A lot of people looked forward to it, and it's a nice thing . . . that the company did that touched everybody the same way."