UK: IS TIME RUNNING OUT FOR THE LONG-SERVICE AWARD? - Rewarding staff for sticking around looks outmoded but -

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Rewarding staff for sticking around looks outmoded but -

Who's in line for a gold watch? No one, surely. Awards for long service are scarcely appropriate in times of delayering and downsizing, when people take responsibility for their own careers and self-development. Tokens of loyalty belong to the past. Today the watch and the carriage clock are either irrelevant or insulting.

Carol Pemberton, careers research consultant at Sundridge Park Management Centre, is one of many who think so. Pemberton finds long service awards anachronistic and the notion that they motivate employees bizarre. 'Who actually wants them?' she asks. 'Where is the evidence that employees are motivated by long service awards?' Younger people especially are 'quite cynical' about them, and not simply because the gifts are so 'paltry'. 'People nowadays are embarrassed to say that they've worked for the same organisation for five or six years. It's seen as negative. Sticking around is not very smart.'

Yet service awards have by no means disappeared. A surprising number of companies - still believe in rewarding old retainers. Courtaulds Textiles, for example, which has a reputation for innovation in staff development, keeps the tradition going, with gifts, presentation ceremony and a night away for the recipients - in 1994 150 who had clocked up 25 years, 30 with 40 years and a venerable pair who had served 50 years. 'This is a very traditional industry,' explains Carol Gerrard who administers the awards. 'In the older units there are families who've worked there for generations. The awards are a way for the chief executive to say a personal "thank you".' British Steel, whose numbers have been decimated over the past 15 years as it sharpened up its act, also rewards employees for their loyalty. Nor is it only in the 'traditional' industries that awards survive. Other givers (chosen at random) include IBM, Vodafone and Glaxo-Wellcome. In spite of the thousands of job losses of the last few months, and a careful review of all pay and benefits in the newly merged companies, Glaxo-Wellcome has not merely decided to keep long service awards but to improve them. 'Yes, there has been delayering, but it is important to motivate those that remain,' says a spokesman.

Companies whose long service awards have been discontinued (the banks, for example) are often reluctant to comment on the reasons why, precisely because this is a sensitive issue. Doug Gummery, policy adviser on employee relations at the Institute of Personnel and Development, believes that 'In an age of anxiety, people value recognition. Long service awards are an overt sign of the maintenance of the psychological contract.' Sociologists might consider the donors paternalistic, says Gummery, but the people who get them feel appreciated - provided the gifts are 'valuable in today's climate'.

Pemberton, too, accepts that people who have served the same organisation for 25 years 'still like the idea of some reward for for having stuck it out'. To them, she suggests, an award is a 'visible icon of the old, traditional culture'. At a time when everything and everybody is judged by performance, 'this is one thing that's not performance-related'. Employees might well be financially better off under performance-related pay, she says, yet regret the passing of the old days when loyalty was recognised. They therefore take comfort from awards which signify that 'age and experience still have a value'.

Perhaps British Telecommunications' imaginative compromise offers the best solution. BT gives long service awards only to people leaving the company. And the award is not a gold watch but a gilt capital bond.

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