While it’s the thought that counts, beware thoughtlessness

Phil Castle

What, do you suppose, will be the most popular gifts this holiday season?

Reviewing what’s hot and what’s not has become something of a journalistic tradition — as much a part of the holidays as fruitcake and, I contend, about as necessary. Should herd mentality play a role in what ought to be a thoughtful process? Or are the annual lists of the supposedly most desirable gifts actually a measure of marketing?

At the risk, then, of perpetuating the very trope I’m ridiculing, let me add to the discussion. But at least with a twist. What are the best holiday gifts businesses should give to express appreciation to employees?

The prospect of another holiday season barreling down on upon us like a runaway train brought this timely topic to mind. But so did two email pitches I recently received, one about the most horrifying gifts employees have received from their bosses and the other about a executive who grants wishes rather than give gifts.

Before I delve into the details, let me first state for the record I’m not the sort to look a proverbial gift horse in the mouth — to question the value of gift, that is. Moreover, I’ve been fortunate to receive some generous holiday gifts from my boss. Thank you very much. I’m all the more grateful for holiday gifts because I believe employers are under no obligation to give them. Fair wages and respect? Absolutely. Gifts? Not so much. Consequently, the thought really does count.

On the other hand, there’s a case
to be made that when employees feel underappreciated, they’re also less productive and more likely to look for work elsewhere. According to one estimate, 30 percent of employees said they feel undervalued at work. By another estimate, 66 percent of employees quit their jobs citing lack of appreciation as the main reason. In a tight labor market, recruiting and especially retaining staff constitutes important stuff.

Consequently, thoughtlessness counts, too. In fact, a thoughtless gift could be worse than no gift at all in demotivating or even offending employees.

Consider, then, the potential effects of horrifying gifts.

Snappy, a company that offers employee gifting and engagement services, conducted a survey to identify some of the worst gifts people have received from their bosses. The list included a seatbelt cutter and tourniquet as well as my personal favorite — season tickets for the Little League team on which the CEO’s son played. Previous lists of worst gifts compiled by Snappy included bookmarks, stale candy in used mugs and stress balls.

Now, contrast that with the efforts of Robert Glazer, founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners. Glazer also has written a book titled “Elevate” in which he shares his advice for elevating leaders and those around them. Count Glazer among the executives who don’t give monetary gifts to employees during the holidays. That’s because he prefers instead to grant wishes. Sort of like the genie of the lamp.

Over the years, Glazer has granted such elaborate wishes as international trips to see relatives and hiring a private investigator to track down a long-lost brother. He arranged for an employee to present a guest lecture at MIT and hired a personal trainer to coach a group of employees who wanted to compete in a marathon or triathlon. He’s also granted such less extravagant wishes as guitar and skydiving lessons.

The 130 employees at the Boston-based marketing agency are invited each year to submit requests involving goals they want to achieve or relationships they want to strengthen. Glazer and the company’s head of culture then select 10 wishes to grant each year.

Glazer says the program not only makes the recipients happy, but also has brought the entire staff closer together. The goal, he says, has been to find out what’s most important to employees. The fact the company cares enough to do so is also important to employees.

That’s the morale of the story as well as the happiest medium between giving horrifying gifts and granting extravagant wishes.

What do employees want for the holidays?

Most of them say money, whether that’s in the form of cash or gift cards to favorite stores or restaurants. Employees also want learning, training and career development opportunities. Paid time off doesn’t hurt, either.

In addition, though, employees also value gifts that make them feel valued. Gifts doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. But they should reflect appreciation for what employees do and the contributions they make to the success of the operation. Not generic or some trinket branded with a company logo. Here’s one more research statistic to consider: More than 80 percent of employees value a personalized note of recognition.

What will be the most popular gifts this holiday season? Who cares? What will make employees feel appreciated? Now that’s what matters.