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Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: The hazards of seasonal giving

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Christmas Present
Unintended consequences are an occupational hazard for anyone managing reward at the best of times, but all the more so in the season of goodwill as the employer who presented wine as a performance award to a Muslim worker found out when he ended up being sued.



This story, reported by the Times last week demonstrates the hazards associated with reward giving in the festive season. It is a time of year when many employers will want to show their goodwill by offering gifts and parties as a thank you for the hardwork completed in the course of the year.

Bonus payments tend to be paid out in December and January and it is at this time of year that the party season kicks-off too.

It seems an unfortunate fact therefore that such Christmas rituals tend to fuel rather ambiguous sentiments in workers. Even after twenty Christmases in an HR role, I am still searching for the killer reward policy guaranteed to hit the spot and leave employees toasting the health of their bosses over the resting turkey.

People are, alas, more likely to grumble that the food hamper is stingier than last year, that the Christmas party would have been so much better if employees’ partners were invited (or that employee partners were not invited – you can’t win on that one!), that the bonus payments are unfair, not enough or just an insult.

Perhaps my experience is unusual and the majority of people find tears of gratitude in the eyes of their colleagues at this time of year, but, somehow, I doubt it.

The rules of the game at Christmas are, of course, the same as at any other time of year, but perhaps more so. Here are some tips to help the festive season go with a swing and not an ET1 count:

  • Deliver the unexpected: don’t be predictable. If you send out a hamper every year to employees then they will inevitably compare one year’s offering to another. A marked reduction in size or quality is an eloquent – although wholly undesirable message. Try to keep them guessing. Consider giving theatre vouchers one year, a meal out with colleagues the next and a family fun day the year after … and so on.
  • Think about the bonus: There are many organisations that like to give a bonus at Christmas. I used to work for a German company that had a ‘thirteenth month’ for all employees, paid with December’s salary. As an incentive, however, this was of limited impact: people regarded it as a right rather than a privilege but, far worse, it did not differentiate on the grounds of corporate or individual performance so there was no celebration of profitable success or a message that things needed to improve.

    That crucial element of alignment so dear to reward managers’ hearts was simply not there. A number of organisations that used to pay an annual bonus of this nature have therefore used the cash to fund a recognition programme paying out ad hoc bonuses to reinforce desired behaviours or outcomes throughout the year. This type of approach probably delivers a better return on investment even if it does leave employees a bit reliant on plastic to take them through to the new year.
  • Communicate carefully! Communication is a two-way process. Make sure you know what people want from, for example, a Christmas party. And be careful what you communicate at this time of year: is it really a good time to announce the redundancy programme? You may laugh, but plenty of organisations have fired large numbers of staff in December.

    Even routine communication should probably be shelved until after Christmas. I remember sending out a notice to all employees in a particular category notifying them of a small change to their terms and conditions of employment. The notices were distributed on 23 December. After a couple of hours I received a sack by return, carried by the works’ Santa, containing all the notices – shredded! ‘Merry Christmas,’ I think he said.
  • Be consistent with your values: coming across as an emotional and caring employer at Christmas won’t wash if the opposite is true for the rest of the year. Any special arrangements over the yuletide break therefore need to be underpinned by the same values and culture that the organisation stands for at all other times of the year.

As with most reward advice, common sense is the underpinning principle. As you sip your port, hopefully under the mistletoe this year, try to remember the old cliche (being careful not to slip up on all those claims for sexual harassment, banana skins littering any office party floor), common sense just isn’t that common.

Season’s Greetings everyone!

Mark Thompson is the Head of Reward Management at the HayGroup.

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One Response

  1. The Most Powerful Reward
    There has never been a system of physical rewards that actually achieved it objective.

    Creating a reward structure is normally the result of a desire to change the behavior of the workforce.

    Unfortunately people don’t change their behaviour because they are rewarded. What they change is the way that their current behaviour is perceived such that they achieve the reward without changing what they do.

    It sounds devious but I am afraid that is the way that we all react when we are told what to do.

    Have we all stopped speeding since the introduction of speed cameras?

    No, we slow down when we see them then speed up when we are past.

    The most powerful reward is the reward that costs nothing.

    It is the provision of a working environment in which people are respected, supported and proud of what they do.

    The people in this environment will buy each other christmas gifts and will organise their own christmas party to which they will be proud to invite the management.

    If that is not happening now then we need to ask, why not?

    What is it that we are not doing?

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