Holiday Gift-Giving at Work: What’s Hot, What’s Not


By Tamara Lytle December 3, 2015

When it comes to holiday gifts for employees, the days of the dot-com boom, when some employers gave away neatly wrapped iPads, are gone. But then again, so are the Scrooge days of the recession.

Some companies give nonperformance-based bonuses and gifts, but they are in the minority.

According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study of year-end holiday activities, 74 percent of companies plan to give no gifts, up from 65 percent in 2013. Additionally, 69 percent said they won’t give nonperformance-based bonuses, up from the two-thirds of companies that skipped them in 2012.

“Pay for performance is what it’s all about today,” said John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Now, he said, companies tend to tie bonuses to both personal and company performance levels. (That’s what his company does for its employees.)

Brad Karsh, CEO and founder of JB Training Solutions in Chicago, a workplace training company, said his company bucks the trend and still picks out gifts for its 12 staff members, as well as for regular contractors. The gifts are larger for those with more seniority, and he keeps the choices similar within each tenure and seniority level. Though after buying for his longest-tenured employee—at 11 years—he said he’s running out of gift ideas.

But his employees don’t have to scratch their heads about what to get him. He’s made it clear he won’t accept gifts. “Their gift to me is all the amazing work they do throughout the year.”

Making sure employees don’t feel obligated to buy gifts for their bosses is one of several tips that experts offered for holiday gift-giving. A few others include:

  • Consider the culture and religion of each employee to ensure the gift doesn’t have negative associations for them, Challenger said. For instance, alcohol wouldn’t be a good choice for a Muslim.
  • Skip overly personal items like clothing and jewelry, as well as gag gifts.
  • Think about gifts that reflect the mission of the company. Consumer products firms, for instance, often give out bags of their items. Challenger said motivational books, holiday food packages and gift cards are also popular. 
  •  If employees receive alcohol from clients or vendors, make sure they take it home immediately, said Jason Storipan, an attorney with the labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips in New Jersey.
  • Make sure holiday bonuses are truly nonperformance-based. If they’re tied to some metric—like not having many absences—the bonus can be considered “earned,” which could push some nonexempt employees into overtime qualification, Storipan said.
  • Put a low limit on Secret Santa gift exchanges so lower-earning employees won’t feel pressured to spend too much. (More than half of companies do gift exchanges, according to the SHRM survey.)

Challenger’s firm puts a $20 limit on Secret Santa gifts and makes gift-giving voluntary. The day of the gift exchange, he invites workers to bring their children and then gives employees what may be the best of gifts—the rest of the day off.

At Morningside Ministries, a senior living nonprofit organization based in San Antonio, workers are given cash bonuses based on their seniority. The amount typically ranges from $50 to $125.

“They are very appreciative,” said Christina Minor, vice president of human resources. “We’re a nonprofit so they understand that dollar amounts can vary.”

But Minor said the amounts are the same for everyone with the same seniority—that is, the same number of years at the company—so the system is considered very fair.

Basing bonuses on seniority, she pointed out, helps encourage longevity at the organization. The CEO includes a letter of thanks with the bonuses, which are hand-delivered to the 700 employees by the directors of each campus. “It helps personalize it,” Minor said.

At Minor’s previous employer, also a senior living organization, each building had its own set of gifts for employees, supplemented by employee appreciation funds and donations from residents. The gifts ranged from potholders to PlayStation gaming systems and were allotted by raffle. “Those that got the potholders weren’t quite as excited,” she acknowledged.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.


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