Even Santa is feeling the pinch of tough economic times. He won't likely get hired for your office holiday party this year. Companies have tighter budgets and holiday bonuses are fewer and smaller than they once were.

So how can employers motivate staff and make their workers feel appreciated? Think creatively and give inexpensive gifts that mean something.

Bring Cheer to Employees

Employees appreciate a gift that's well thought out," says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and writer of the Human Resources site at About.com.

"They like getting a bonus in the holiday season, but honestly, that's just money. They spend it. It's nothing they remember."

The goal for companies who want to increase employee motivation, Heathfield says, should be to involve them in the process of selecting the gift.

Heathfield's own company TechSmith, a screen capture software company located in Okemos, Mich., has a standing committee that chooses holiday presents as well as hosting monthly events such as holiday parties, picnics, movie outings and paintball. The committee has a rotating membership that includes representatives from across the company.

Heathfield also recommends that managers take the time to include a handwritten card with their gifts, even if the holiday sentiment is the same to every employee.

Employee Recognition that Resonates

Sara Usilton, director of human resources for Boston-based non-profit recruitment firm Isaacson, Miller Inc., agrees.

For the past few years, her company has issued employee recognition gift cards during the holidays and when the company has experienced significant success .

The gift cards, which are generally worth $75 - $100, come with a letter from the CEO, thanking them for their hard work and advising them to spend the cards on "something flashy and useless."

Usilton says the cards were well-received by employees. "People were thrilled to get it," she says. "It wasn't expected. We were fortunate to retain a lot of our staff in a difficult economy. I think my company has a lot of respect for the work people do and do what they can to honor it."

Make Clients Part of the Celebration

Rob Rohena, founder and chief executive of Goshen, Indiana-based interactive marketing company DIR Incorporated, has also had success with gift cards -- with a twist.

Rohena rewards his employees at the holidays with custom gift certificates from the company's clients. The company works with a number of small businesses; their certificate program with manufacturers and service providers has found the most success.

This type of programs won't work with the local insurance guy, Rohena says. But the company keeps a list of its clients that make relevant gift products and helps them create employee gift cards. DIR Incorporated then deducts the cost of the gift card from the client's bill.

The result rewards e with a present they can actually use at the local grocery store or gas station. Plus clients get more exposure and a discount on their bill.

"It's a win-win all the way around," Rohena says. "And instead of just giving your employee a company t-shirt or something that they really don't want, you're kind of giving them something they can use. But it also helps our clients sell their products."

No Coal in Their Stockings

T-shirts and logoed stuff are the worst things you can get employees, Susan Heathfield agrees. "Those are not holiday gifts," she says. So skip the mugs, pens, and shirts and go straight to things people will actually use and enjoy.

Keep Gifts Small and Meaningful

In addition to organizing parties and meals for employees, she suggests small gifts in the $50 - $100 range -- the more personal they are, the better.

Heathfield has several suggestions for employee gifts, including:

  • Nice pens- Priced in the $50 to $100 dollar range, perhaps engraved with employees' names.

  • Luggage - She recommends monogramming the luggage with employees' names.

  • Notebooks - Leather notebooks to take notes in meetings.

"With holiday gifts for employees, you can be as creative as you want," Heathfield says. "Just be sure to involve the employees so that you know it's something they're going to really like."


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