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Pin Money

Howard Rohleder

I’M OLD ENOUGH TO remember when companies rewarded employee anniversaries with lapel pins. The number of years you served determined the quality of the metal and how many jewels were embedded in the pin.

I also remember when two different hospitals where I worked moved away from this practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Human resources departments came to realize that many employees didn’t value the pins. Perhaps there had been a day when pins were something people wore, but by the 1980s it was a thing of the past.

Instead, creative vendors developed catalogs of merchandise that employees could choose from. The value of the merchandise varied with your tenure. At the time of the transition, the value was set to correspond to what the organization had previously paid for the anniversary pins.

Therein lay a big surprise—and it explained the frustration of the HR staff: Those anniversary pins, particularly for long-tenured employees, were expensive. The jewels may have been small, but the higher-level pins were gold. As the price of gold went up, so did the cost of the pins.

As a result, instead of pins, long-tenured employees could be offered nice clocks, luggage or household appliances. The feeling was that an employee would value the recognition more if they picked something they wanted or needed, rather than receive a pin that would live out its life in a drawer or a jewelry box.

One of the more ironic choices I observed as a hospital CEO: A woman, who had completed 35 years in the hospital housekeeping department, selected a new vacuum cleaner. Certainly, people who clean the hospital also have to clean at home, but it didn’t seem very sentimental. I hope she thought of us when she used it.

This whole transition hit home for me when my mother passed away. She had worked for nearly 40 years at AT&T. As we went through her jewelry box, we came across several gold service pins. I don’t believe she ever wore them. As part of our own downsizing, we took the pins to a gold dealer, who verified the gold content. We were surprised by how much he paid us for them.

The lesson: If you have old service pins and they have sentimental value, by all means keep them. On the other hand, if you’re cleaning out a drawer and come across old pins you don’t want, consider selling them. You might use the proceeds to buy yourself a clock—or a vacuum cleaner.

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