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How to handle workplace gift giving during the holidays

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By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times

After the Great Recession, many companies tightened their wallets when it came to holiday gifts and parties. But the changes weren’t just about dollars and cents. Federal regulations, ethical concerns and the value of an employees’ personal time also played a part.

That’s not to say that gifts and parties aren’t important. In a survey by Knack, an online gifting company, 60 percent of the respondents said gifts from business partners could impact their opinion of the giver, and 20 percent of the people who received a “very memorable” gift felt more loyal to the giver.

As for parties, employees facing stagnant wages and rising health-care costs need to feel appreciated. “In the past, parties were seen by employees as recognition for a job well done,” said Laura Handrick, the human resources analyst for FitSmallBusiness.com, an online publication for small business owners.

The trick is to navigate any legal and ethical issues while still meeting- and possibly-exceeding expectations.

Ugly sweater contests

Giving gifts to clients

In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, many companies implemented policies to prevent kickbacks, backdoor dealing or the appearance thereof.

Offer a client super bowl tickets today and they will likely turn them down, said Chris Barton of Barton Career Advisors, who was previously head of HR strategies for MBNA. Barton once received a polite “no” when he asked a client to dine with him and an associate and attend trumpeter Chris Botti’s show. “It exceeded the level of gift permitted by company policy,” he said.

The price of an acceptable gift may differ according to where you live, said Laura Jennings, founder of Knack. The survey found that respondents spent $125 in the Northeast, while Southerners spent $75. You may need to lower that rate depending on the industry. (Most experts agree that $25 is a safe amount.)

Jennings prefers giving items that tell a story, such as a slate cheeseboard from a family-owned quarry in upstate New York. Include personal notes with the gifts, she said. They need not be handwritten, but they should address someone by name. (Knack will handle that for you.)

Harry’s Savoy Grill has been making memories for years. The North Wilmington restaurant gives complimentary tree ornaments to customers around the holidays. This year is different. The ornaments have an American Red Cross logo. “We are selling them for $3 and will give 100 percent of the proceeds to the Red Cross for hurricane relief and the fire relief efforts in California,” said owner Xavier Teixido.

When in doubt, give food that a department can share. Wilmington-based CSC’s marketing department, for instance, sends gift baskets with cookies or brownies.

Knack’s survey found that a food basket is more memorable with a tangible item in it, such as tea towel or wine opener. Leave the company logo off, Jennings said. It’s fine on a trade show giveaway
but not on a gift.

Holiday bake-offs

Employee gift-giving

Last year, Accountemps conducted a survey that found that employees and employers favored gift-giving around the holidays, said Jeanie Sharp, regional vice president for Robert Half, which manages the Accountemps and OfficeTeam divisions in Wilmington. Sixty-three percent of the human resources managers who were surveyed said it’s appropriate for managers to give their staff a holiday gift, and 58 percent said it’s appropriate for workers to give their boss a gift.

Policies and procedures, however, vary. Donna May, of Wilmington-based Resiliency Coaching & HR Consulting, said some small companies let employees draw names from a hat. Then each participant spends $25 on a gift. Or, they pool $25 gifts on a white elephant table, and each
person randomly selects one.

CSC lets the departments determine if they want to do a gift exchanges. That way, employees don’t feel obligated to participate in a company-wide practice. “We advocate an open policy regarding gift-giving among peers, supervisors and employees,” said Jackie Smetana, executive vice president of CSC’s global service operations and human resources.

For 20 years, CSC has also held Gift Day, during which employees receive a certain number of tickets based on the number of years they’ve been with the company, Tickets are randomly drawn throughout the day for prizes ranging from gift cards to flat-screen TVs.

If a company or department head wants to give a gift to everyone, make it the same item, said May, who has more than 30 years of experience in human resources. She recalls one friend who received a designer purse from a boss while some of her colleagues got zilch. Such an approach could lead to cries of favoritism.

Cheeseboard – client gift

Hosting the holiday party

The holiday party has also undergone a transformation. “We’ve seen interest in the big holiday party drop every year,” said Nick Gianoulis, the “godfather of fun” for The Fun Department, a Wilmington-based consulting firm founded in 2005 to improve company cultures.

In part, that’s because workers don’t want to give up their personal time to attend a weekend or evening event. But they still want to feel appreciated. “The holiday season is a time to celebrate and reward employees,” Sharp said. “The focus should be on the staff and showing gratitude for their contributions.”

Consequently, many organizations have events on site during the day. The Fun Department has been hired to create team-building activities such as a gingerbread house competition and a contest to see which team can untangle strings of holiday lights first.

The Grand Opera House holds a bake-off during its potluck luncheon, said Mark Fields, the executive director. A cook himself, he and his team came up with the idea because so many people brought desserts to the potluck. (They now sign up for a dish category in advance.) Up to five people, including Fields, regularly enter the contest, which has a judge who’s not on staff. Amy Watson Bish, whose pies regularly win blue ribbons in regional contests, is a repeat winner. It’s all in fun. “It’s our tradition. We share food and fellowship,” Field said.

Because The Grand is enmeshed in holiday programming and end-of-year fundraising in December, the event is in January. That’s also the case for many restaurants. At Harry’s Savoy Grill, the management team cooks dinner, serves, bartends and cleans up, Teixido said. “There’s dancing and door prizes, and each employee receives a restaurant gift card. A few weeks later we have a reception for the managers with a guest chef in either the restaurant or my house.”

Buckley’s Tavern holds a holiday party New Year’s Day afternoon because the restaurant is closed. Owners cook, serve and wash dishes while Chuck Lewis, the general manager, bartends. “That way all of our employees can talk, relax and unwind,” said Lewis, who acknowledges that it’s easier for hospitality groups to throw a fete since they’re not experiencing a food-and-beverage markup.

Having an event in the New Year nixes the worry about offending people of different faiths. Even better, Sharp and Gianoulis agree, hold recognition events and activities throughout the year.

In the end, know your team and what they want, May said. “If you know your staff, you’ll know what’s best for them. One size does not fit all.”

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