Choosing a holiday gift to motivate your crew

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

Yes, it is hard not to know that Santa will arrive soon. But you knew that a month ago when holiday sales began. They seem to start earlier each year, and Black Friday events began at midnight on Turkey Day — goodness.

As a manager, you know December is typically a month of low productivity. There are so many distractions. Most people have just been all wrapped up in Thanksgiving — the turkey and trimmings and dessert varieties. And now we begin four more weeks of fun: food, parties, gifts and sales — maybe a trip or two to the grandparents or the adult children and the grandchildren. And, of course, employees request more time off.

So what will Santa Claus bring down your company chimney? Remember that he always brings “presents” to the “good” boys and girls. Who have been the “good” boys and girls in your operation? How do you know this? Do you have performance review data? Have these employees excelled by consistently exceeding sales goals? Have some received extraordinary customer feedback?

Experience tells us that significant differentiation among holiday gifts from the employer can create conflict. Different “gifts” are better reserved for the rewards in the performance appraisal system.

What have employers done in the past? Maybe your company fits one of these traditional models:

• A turkey or ham for each employee. This has probably been the most common over time.

• A grocery store gift certificate. Often this has replaced the turkey distribution and has pleased some and displeased others, but it’s easier for an employer to manage.

(Both of the above appear to suggest that the employee may not have sufficient income to pay for a holiday meal. Surely this is not the case today for those you employ.)

• A holiday party in early to mid-December. At some companies, only employees participate; at others, spouses are also invited. One goal of such a party is to celebrate the holiday, true, but more importantly you want to break down the barriers between levels of the organization in hopes of improving productivity.

(Some companies have found attendance falling off at these parties in recent years. One Mid-Atlantic firm has just announced that there will be no party this year and that the company funds normally used to sponsor the event will be given to a local holiday charity. That was received well until it was discovered that a party for managers was to be added this year. What would you think of that? Can you guess the employees’ reaction?)

• A savings bond distributed to each employee. Many have discontinued this practice because interest rates are so low.

• A share of company stock distributed to each employee as a means of building greater loyalty to the company.

An increasing number of employers are eliminating all holiday gifts as a cost-cutting measure. Have these employers considered the cost-benefit aspect of such an action? As a university faculty member I have never received any holiday gift from a university.

Some years, a governor would give non-teaching employees an extra half-day before the holidays. In years when this was not done, employees were quite perturbed. A benefit taken away creates hard feelings that may result in a reduced commitment to the job. That’s the likely result when holiday gifts are discontinued for any reason. If you want real dissatisfaction, try having a party or giving gifts to one group (management) while others get nothing. “Class warfare,” the term so much in use today, can manifest itself in your own company.

Consider what has been discussed in the management columns during the last year. You’ll find shopping tips that can serve as real employee motivators — not the same old things in lieu of nothing. Here are some to consider:

• The same gift to everyone will not motivate everyone the same.

• Employees vary by position, age, gender, point in life cycle, savings, family size and expectation, along with a likely multitude of other variables.

• People like to get something they can use — something they want.

• People will compare any gift they receive with those that others receive.

• A national retail grocer gave a $15 gift card last year for use at the chain’s store and an additional discount when the card was used. It was in a nice folder, along with a handwritten note of thanks from the employee’s own boss and best wishes.

So what are your options? Many. However, I will offer the standard formula and a few ideas that will meet the requirements.

Offer a choice: Choices are desirable. The gifts should be approximately equal in value, and the employee chooses one.

A. Gift cards: Best Buy, a restaurant chain (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse), a grocery or department store, iTunes. (Grocery and iTunes gift cards can be $10 and up; others are $25 and up.)

B. A company certificate for a day off with pay, such as adding a day to vacation time. (No real cost.)

C. A local special treat, fitted to the community.

Each should be wrapped as a gift with a bow and a note from the company president expressing appreciation for a year of special service and looking forward to a great 2012.

I bet your employees can find something to want and appreciate and remember the special effort put in by the managers. I hope these ideas will help you in 2012, if not this year.

*     *     *

FOLLOW-UP: The management column in the October issue offered observations about ethics. Wow! It generated responses from readers like no other topic in a long time. People have passionate feelings about ethical behavior issues.

We can always see unethical behavior in others. At least a dozen examples were sent to me by readers and, in one case, a friend of a reader. All of the observers looked up the company ladder and noted critical behavior flaws — not good if the senior management team wants to be respected and emulated. It’s amazing how much the responders seemed to know about what was happening “upstairs,” as one reader described it.

Consider these observations:

• A company allegedly hires undocumented workers, pays them less than other workers and offers them no benefits. “When we see our company being so unethical, and likely illegal, we are being told it is OK to cheat also, and many do.”

• Another company’s owner gives periodic raises to several women in the company, but not to all. “Does he not realize that we all know what he is doing with his favored women employees? It is almost a joke as to who will get the raise this month! Other managers are also beginning to be more aggressive in their sexual antics. A great example-setter.”

• A company encouraged employees to contribute to the United Way campaign, and even told people how much they should have withheld from their pay each month. When several employees began to tally the results they found that the company had added nothing. The company portrayed it as a company effort and did not mention employee contributions. “The president got an award for being in the 100 percent club and took credit for the effort and had not contributed. Would you be surprised to know that many of us have found ways to make the company pay after all?”

What is the message? Senior management must set the example and realize they are under the microscope today 24/7.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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