Employee Gifts: 7 New Rules to Surprise and Reward

Employee Gifts: New Rules

How many times have you surprised a key employee with a truly thoughtful gift selected with him or her specifically in mind and accompanied by a handwritten note? If the answer is never, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to motivate, retain, and inspire your most talented people. If the answer is, “Oh yeah I did that once and it was awesome,” then why not do it all the time?

There is perhaps no more important function that managers get wrong over and over again, than employee gifting. Most managers think of employee gifts as a minor annual nuisance that rears its head in early-December and then goes into hibernation until next year. If only HR would just deal with this I could get on with my life! It’s usually solved with a last minute avalanche of Amazon gift cards, logo imprinted schwag, or gift baskets of ripe fruit and chocolates. No one is surprised by these gift ideas. They’re tired, impersonal, and poorly timed.

So don’t do it anymore. Instead, follow these seven new rules to surprise, delight, and grow your relationships with key employees.

1. Give Bonuses, Not Gifts for the Holidays

Like all people, employees already expect to receive gifts around the holidays. They get them from friends, family, and even Santa. It’s actually the hardest time of year to stand out, so why try?

Instead, focus on monetary bonuses around the holidays. The money is nearly always put to good use (often on gifts for the aforementioned friends and family) and for many lower income folks, it’s the time of year when funds are often the tightest. If your company pays annual bonuses, timing them to land in early-December instead of after Christmas or sometime in January is a good way to make sure the extra cash is fully appreciated.

2. Give Gifts When They’re Least Expected

So if end-of-year holiday gifts are out and Valentine’s Day is a minefield too far, then when’s the best time to give employee gifts? Birthdays are good, but a random Tuesday is even better. It’s easy to stand out and get noticed when someone isn’t expecting a gift at all. Even a small gift can go a long ways towards cementing a solid working relationship if it’s thoughtfully selected and lands on your desk completely out of the blue.

Be careful to avoid timing a gift on the heels of a sales win or some other victory so as to avoid setting a precedent or creating the impression that the two events are connected. You want the timing to appear completely random in order to maximize surprise and make someone feel appreciated for the work they do and the person they are day in and day out.

3. Your Company Logo is Kryptonite

Avoid giving things with your company logo on them at all costs. Yes, you may have a surplus of polo shirts or fancy travel coffee mugs at the ready, but no one (not even your most loyal employee) wants to advertise for you. I’ve seen many excellent gifts, everything from Patagonia jackets to luxury picnic blankets and even binoculars, ruined by a logo plastered in plain sight.

Gifts of logo schwag are nearly always perceived by the receiver as transparent attempts to make sure the company gets something in return (free advertising) for having given a gift. That’s tacky and it ultimately undermines the spirit and effectiveness of gift giving in general.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Spend, Wisely

The question of how much to spend on employee gifts is tricky. If everyone’s getting the same thing, then it’s all about finding a universally appealing item that fits the total budget. If you’re doing one-off employee gifting, which is what you should be doing on an ongoing rolling basis, you can certainly flex the budget from person to person. If your hand selected gifts are on point for each recipient, no one’s going to get too worked up because you spent ten dollars more on someone else back in March.

Regardless of whether your budget is $25 or $100 per person, you’ll want to focus on items that are best in class. At $25 maybe it’s a hand stitched leather mouse pad. At $50, perhaps it’s a framed succulent arrangement to hang on a wall. For $200, a really good pair of binoculars isn’t out of the question. But don’t go for the binoculars at a $50 price point. You may have spent 50 bucks, but they’re still going to be crappy binoculars.

5. Give Useful Luxuries Not Available on Amazon

The common wisdom is to make sure your gifts are useful, but that’s not the whole story. The simple fact that something is useful isn’t nearly enough. Really useful items often sacrifice beauty for utility and that’s not a trade-off worth pursuing with employee gifts.

Think of something you use often and then imagine the Rolls-Royce or ultra-handmade version of it. Why don’t you already own the higher end luxurious version? Probably because you wouldn’t spend that much on yourself. Well, that makes it a perfect candidate for an employee gift. Some great examples are hand-thrown ceramic coffee mugs, a high-end sampler set of loose leaf teas, or a leather laptop case with your initials engraved on it.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can get it on Amazon, cross it off the list of ideas. The odds of something available on Amazon being perceived as thoughtful, personal, or memorable are abysmally low.

6. Always Include a Handwritten Note

This is where a memorable gift is etched into an appreciative employee’s mind for all eternity. When you pair a note written in your own hand with a thoughtfully selected gift, the real magic happens. Take the opportunity to say what you appreciate about the person’s attitude, dedication, or wit. Go ahead and be a little bit personal. That’s how you show you’re paying attention and noticing what your employee does best.

Compliments can sometimes be awkward in person but they always flow easily on paper. The handwritten gift note is an especially big deal for folks that are usually on the receiving end of an endless stream of emails. Always have stationery at the ready lest you be tempted to use a sticky note in a pinch.

7. Plan Ahead to Stay Sane

Set aside one hour the first week in January. Make a list of your key employees and jot down a few gift ideas for each based on their interests and what you know about their work and personal lives. Set aside another hour the second week in January. Revise and refine the list of gift ideas and pick a random date on the calendar (or more for multiple gifts per year) to surprise each person with an employee appreciation gift.

Set aside two hours the third week in January to: 1) order stationery for those handwritten notes, 2) research and order gifts, and 3) order some classy gift wrap and ribbon. Set aside two more hours the last week of January to finish up your gift ordering and figure out any gaps that emerged on your list.

By now you’ve invested six hours (and some $) in some very important people, and only the fun part remains: wrapping, writing, and surprising!


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