Company Gifts That Workers Hate

Employees frequently get gifts they dislike but fake their appreciation, survey finds 

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie November 14, 2019
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​Coffee mugs and water bottles emblazoned with the company's logo. Gift cards to stores that employees rarely visit.

These are among the gifts that companies give to workers—and that workers hate, that make them feel unappreciated, and that leave the impression that their employers are thoughtless.

So says a new survey by Snappy, the New York City-based employee engagement company, which found that more than 8 in 10 U.S. employees have received a workplace gift—mostly from managers—that they didn't want.

As the winter holidays approach, and as companies bestow gifts to show they appreciate their employees, the survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers demonstrates that leaders may want to give more thought to workplace gift-giving. 

No Logos, Please

Almost 3 in 4 workers would prefer to get a gift without their company logo on it, according to the survey, which Snappy conducted in September.

"Some employees have reported to me that they don't mind some gifts with logos, but they resent feeling like a 'walking billboard' for the company," said Paul White, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (Northfield Publishing, 2019). "Others state that when they are given gifts that have the company's logo, the item immediately is disqualified as a gift—because the focus of the item is the company, not the recipient."

White's research into how more than 100,000 employees feel about the workplace found that only 6 percent identified gifts as the primary way they want a company to show appreciation—far below getting words of affirmation (46 percent), quality time with a supervisor or co-workers (26 percent) and getting help from supervisors or colleagues on a project (22 percent).

"Employees are not saying they do not want tangible rewards … for doing good work," White wrote. "But what the data show is that when choosing comparatively between words of affirmation, quality time or an act of service—receiving a gift is far less meaningful than appreciation communicated through these actions. For example, employees often comment, 'If I receive some gift but I never hear any praise, no one stops to see how I'm doing, or I never get any help—the gift feels superficial.' "

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Are Companies Catching On?

One would think, given research and books like White's that demonstrate how people feel about workplace gifts, that companies would adjust their gift-giving practices. Often, they don't because no one asks employees what they thought about the present. Workers are in a tight spot: If they complain or don't seem enthused, they may be seen as ungrateful or demanding, White said.

In fact, the Snappy survey found that of those workers who got a gift they didn't like, 9 in 10 pretended they liked the gift anyway.

"The leader needs to be interested in what the meaning or message of the gift is, [but] most often, it is a rather thoughtless process," White said. "In work relationships, it is the thought that counts. For employees who value gifts, either giving everyone the same item or giving them a generic gift with no thought or personal meaning is actually offensive."   

Cord Himelstein is vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition, an employee rewards and incentives company based in Long Island City, N.Y. He said he thinks companies are paying attention to their gift-giving practices. He noted recent data from WorldatWork showed that about 44 percent of recognition programs get updated or changed every year.

"If management isn't actively listening and applying feedback in a systematic way, then there's no point in offering gifts at all," he said. "Nailing down the right balance of rewards that employees really love takes time and effort."

Best and Worst Gifts

Respondents said that some of the "worst" gifts employers ever gave them included a pin, a plaque, and a gift card to a store they'd never visited.

In fact, more than 3 in 4 said a gift card is less meaningful than an actual gift, and almost 9 in 10 admitted that they'd lost the gift card or forgotten that it had a balance on it.

"Gift cards feel transactional and impersonal," said Hani Goldstein, co-founder and CEO of Snappy. "Employers fail to realize that gift cards put a price tag on the recipient's value and make them feel like they're worth $25. Our research points to one key insight: The most appreciated gifts aren't impactful because of their actual monetary value. What matters most is what the gifts are and how they are given."

Employers should remember that things like pins and plaques, Himelstein said, "are commemorative add-ons, not whole gifts, and should always be supplemented with more substantial and appropriate rewards."

Employees also described some of the "best" gifts employers gave them, which included an espresso machine, a trip to Paris, an iPad and a television.

White noted that such expensive gifts can be impractical for a company. They may be appropriate in rare situations, White said, such as rewarding a worker who reached an exceptional goal or recognizing someone who's served long and well.

"Generally, meaningful gifts between employees and supervisors are more impactful when they are personal and thoughtful rather than pricey," he said.

Himelstein said more expensive gifts—at least those more expensive than mugs or pins—"aren't only practical, it's a best practice."

"Nobody wants a cheap gift for their hard work, and employees can always tell when the company isn't trying," he said. "Also, don't lose sight of the fact that you don't need to constantly shower employees with expensive gifts to make them feel appreciated." 

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