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How To Give Thoughtful Employee Gifts This Holiday Season

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Dr. Paul White

One of the more anxiety-inducing activities around the holiday season is trying to determine if you should give a gift to those with whom you work—colleagues, supervisors, managers, and direct reports. If you do decide that you want to give an employee gift, the practical issue becomes: “What should I give them?” 

While some may think giving employees’ gifts isn’t valued in the workplace, many find these small tokens of appreciation go a long way. Businesses spend billions of dollars on recognition rewards every year in hopes of creating a better employee experience and even increasing their bottom line, but is it truly moving the needle? 

We recently conducted research with individuals who claim to prefer being shown appreciation through gifts in contrast to other appreciation languages such as Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Quality Time, etc. Responses from 500 employees who were randomly selected out of a group of 8,000 share valuable tips to help you ensure your gifts and intentions are well-received.

Commonly desired employee gifts

Unsurprisingly, food items are typically the most frequent type of gift given in acts of personal appreciation. Going out of your way to bring in a person’s favorite coffee, buying donuts or bagels, grabbing the check for lunch, baking treats, or offering gift cards are identified as the most desired type of employee gift.

Tip: if you choose this route, challenge yourself to go the extra mile and hand-make something on your own. If your employee or colleague knows you put time and energy into creating something special for them, they will appreciate it even more.

If you choose to offer gift cards instead of food, participants from the study report preferring gift cards specific to a store more favorably than just a generic gift card. But the caveat is that there is still a large minority who enjoy the more generic gift card. In fact, gift cards from Visa, for example, allow people the freedom to purchase whatever they want.

While many people do enjoy choosing their own gift with a voucher, don’t focus on giving an employee gift that offers more “bang for their buck.” People are often more interested in experiential gifts such as tickets to concerts, movies, or sporting events than a generic gift card.

Most of us don’t need another mug or meaningless trinket to put on our desk, but almost everyone appreciates being able to go out to eat at a more upscale restaurant.

Various types of flex time or “comp time” (paid time off, flexible hours, working remotely) are also highly desired by more and more employees, especially younger ones. Since personal time is a valued resource for many of us, being able to take some time off to run errands, exercise, go to doctor’s appointments, or even sleep-in is typically received gratefully.

Offer employee gifts with good intentions

If you do buy something for a colleague, be cautious about company-branded items. While receiving an occasional item with the company logo or tagline is acceptable, many employees indicate they resent receiving “logo wear” repeatedly, feeling that the gift is more for the company’s benefit than truly a gift for them. No one wants to feel like a “walking billboard.”

Moreso, employees who don’t feel they are being treated well in the workplace prioritize being treated respectfully over receiving a gift. So don’t expect a nice gift will cover a pattern of disrespectful interactions to clear the air. A gift is something that should be given altruistically, and for many, it’s easy to identify when selfish intentions are attached. 

Tips for Successful Gift-Giving

No matter what employee gift you choose, there are things to keep in mind when searching for the right fit. Here are three tips to help you on your journey to finding the perfect employee gift:

The best gift requires a little thoughtfulness

Thoughtless gifts, which are those bought hastily in response to tradition or a feeling of obligation with no real personal investment of time or reflection, not only misses the mark but also communicates a negative message. These gifts are a perfunctory act and lack a real expression of appreciation.

Take the time to get to know the receiver

The key to successful gift-giving is getting to know the person. Over time, take note of those activities that your co-workers like to do in their spare time. This will give you a good indication of their interests and places they like to go for fun.

Find out if they have a favorite sports team, what their hobbies are, and what stores they enjoy. You can even ask them directly where their favorite dinner spots are. With this information, you are far more likely to give a gift that your co-worker will appreciate.

Want to begin strengthening your relationship with your employees in minutes? Try 15Five’s Weekly Check-ins.

Don’t skimp on a personalized card

Pairing your gift with a thoughtful note can further personalize your appreciation and deepen its impact. A hand-written note shows that you took a moment to reflect upon what you value about the person, what unique contribution they make to your team, and that you care enough to communicate this to them.

Timing is Important

Once you find the right employee gift, your job isn’t complete. We all know that timing is everything, and this advice is especially applicable to gift-giving. Find the right moment to present your gift by choosing from these three categories:

1. Surprise!

Find a random time to surprise them. As a “pick-me-up” during a challenging time, or to show appreciation for a consistent character quality or particular skill they bring to the team, surprise gifts have been shown to be far more impactful than receiving a gift “when you are supposed to.”

2. Significant personal or work accomplishments and milestones

Take some time to celebrate new babies, new homes, promotions, the completion of a degree, or acknowledge the expertise and effort involved to achieve goals and make meaningful contributions to furthering the mission.   

3. Important dates

You can’t go wrong by giving a gift on someone’s birthday, work anniversary, special holiday or appreciation days (Administrative Professionals’ Day, Boss’ Day, etc.). Being celebrated on these days with a thoughtful gift, even if it is inexpensive, can help make people feel seen and valued.

Overall, make sure you are giving a gift that the recipient values. While you might really appreciate certain items, such as tickets to a sports event, that doesn’t mean everyone else will want that as well. The receiver of your gift may not be a sports fan, and may not even use your gift. This would certainly not qualify as a thoughtful employee gift.

The item you give doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. Learning what people will enjoy requires an effort from you, but this level of thoughtfulness will always pay off in the end. The return on your investment will multiply in its positive impact on your relationship with the colleague and a more positive workplace.

Dr. Paul White is a Psychologist, Speaker, and Consultant who “makes work relationships work.” Dr. White is the co-author of three books including, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Visit for online training resources and the Motivating by Appreciation Inventory to create a positive workplace culture.

Natalie Hamrick, Ph.D., is a research psychologist with expertise in stress, coping and health. She serves as a project specialist at Appreciation at Work.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash