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A gold watch and shackles for your chain — importance of long service awards in 4IR era


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

A long service award isn’t merely a clocking of years spent at an institution. It represents employees’ role in moulding an organisation and shaping its story.

The very world of work has undergone seismic changes. Generations before us would clock up years at a single organisation. But in our current context, things rarely remain static. This begs the question, is the notion of long service awards outdated?

We have witnessed in recent years how employee tenure has become much shorter.

This can be attributed to a range of factors: in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), rapid automation and technological advancements have led to changing skill requirements and sometimes result in job displacement; the rise of the gig economy (temporary part-time positions) and remote work opportunities; shifting attitudes toward work; evolving career paths that do not follow linear trajectories; and increased entrepreneurial opportunities are just a few examples.

The reality is that alongside the changing world of work, we are also seeing the evolution of employees — and their needs. Employees are increasingly valuing an organisation’s culture, values, and environment. As the 4IR gains pace, job satisfaction is no longer determined by financial incentives but also by an alignment of values and a sense of purpose.

As the current US President, Joe Biden, once said, “A job is about a lot more than a pay cheque. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in your community.”

Last year, the recruitment platform Career Junction found that most South African employees tend to stay in jobs for just under three years. Career Junction noted that employees who have been in the same job for over three years are considered above the norm.

According to the report, Baby Boomers (between 58 and 77 years old) had the highest average tenure of seven years and a month. Gen Zs (under 27 years old), have the lowest job tenure of just one year and four months, although this is largely because many of this segment have just entered the labour market.

Millennials, or employees aged between 28 and 42, stay roughly two years and six months on average in the same job, while Generation X (between 43 and 57 years) spend around five years in the same position. The data indicates that younger generations view the idea of tenure differently.

Long service award more than appreciation

As I reflect on my own career, I am definitely an outlier in this narrative. I have been with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) for more than a decade, but my history with the institution runs much further than this. I have found myself intertwined with UJ and the institutions that formed it at many junctures. For many at UJ, this is quite normal.

Last year, for instance, UJ recognised 397 staff members who had been at the institution for a decade and 153 staff members who had been at the institution for 20 years and upwards. In fact, one of those staff members was recognised for being with the institution for 45 years.

A long service award isn’t merely a clocking of years spent at an institution. It represents employees’ role in moulding an organisation and shaping its story. There is inherent value in the institutional knowledge and experience long service encourages that should be recognised.

It is often thought that in the 4IR and this changing world of work unfolding before us, long service awards will fade into obscurity as the notion of remaining with an institution for an extended period will become less desirable.

Not so, I would argue, when the promise of an organisation is dynamism and a genuine commitment to innovation. As Rolls-Royce phrases it at its long service awards, “To create a truly desirable brand, it is vital to create a business that is truly desirable to work for. And the best indicator of whether this has been achieved is the length of time people invest in the brand”.

However, long service awards are also just a piece of the puzzle in a changing context. Organisations are increasingly seeing the value of performance-based rewards and recognition, as well as constant and consistent employee engagement and feedback which could encourage tenure and serve as an important motivator.

It is crucial for organisations to strike a balance between traditional forms of recognition and new dynamic forms of appreciation. As Mike Robbins wrote for the Harvard Business Review in 2019, “Recognition is about what people do; appreciation is about who they are… Recognition is appropriate and necessary when it’s earned and deserved. Appreciation, however, is important all the time.”

If organisations successfully merge their values with innovation and excitement, long service awards could stand the test of time — but they certainly cannot stand alone. DM


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