Showing appreciation for employees during the holidays, whether with gifts or parties, is a delicate art. Here are some tips for successful employee recognition during the holidays.

1. DON’T recognize based strictly on tenure

While most companies have some sort of recognition program for employees, many are still based on tenure, writes Thrive Global contributor Harvey Deutschendorf.

“People are rewarded simply on the amount of time they have stuck around, regardless of whether they contributed greatly or simply put in time and kept a chair warm,” Deutschendorf writes. “Not only do many recognition programs have little or no impact, if not carried out well, they can actually have a negative impact and act as a disincentive. To do employee recognition well in a way that has real and lasting impact demands that an organization take the time and make the effort to find out what makes their people feel appreciated.”

2. DON’T give cash bonuses only

HRMorning’s Tim McElgunn writes about a Wharton School study that found relying solely on cash rewards encourages resentment from hard-working staffers who wind up earning less than workers who cut corners. The study also found that recognizing employees with only cash bonuses fosters a lack of unity within the workforce, as most employees are only interested in taking part in activities that directly contribute to them earning more.

The study found organizations get better results when they provide more autonomy to employees who’ve proven they can manage themselves; offer the opportunity to earn certifications or attend seminars, trade shows and/or conferences, and hold public recognition ceremonies.

“The research is clear – employee recognition appears consistently near the top of things that motivate employees to do their best work,” McElgunn writes. “For many workers, it means more than even a financial reward. And research indicates that cash rewards can actually be counter-productive if they aren’t combined with other ways of recognizing hard work.”

3. DON’T play favorites

“While few workplaces escape charges of favoritism from those that work there, steps can be taken to minimize this when it comes to who receives recognition,” writes Thrive Global contributor Harvey Deutschendorf. “One way is to allow coworkers to decide who gets to receive special recognition within the group rather than leaving it to management.

If possible, expand this to customers, suppliers or anyone else that interacts with the group on a regular basis. This avoids the resentment that can come from members of the group when they perceive that others in the group are sucking up in order to get special favors, attention or promotions.”

4. DON’T give any of these gifts

Some of the worst gifts given at holiday parties, according to an employee survey by Snappy, a corporate giving platform that allows employees to choose their recognition gifts: Company logo junk; a book on how to be better at your job; season tickets to the CEO's son's little league games; quail from a boss's hunting trip; a plaque; old stale cookies; deli meat; a quart of milk; melted chocolate coin; a tourniquet.

“The survey answers reveal that many companies don't have a firm grasp on what gifts their team members would really appreciate: 84 percent of employees say they've received a gift they didn't want, and nearly 90 percent have faked a positive reaction to a bad gift,” says Hani Goldstein, Snappy’s co-founder and CEO. “These stats show there is a need to adopt a different approach that would help companies provide choice and flexibility to their recipients, allowing them to choose something that would make them feel happy and appreciated.”

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5. DON’T create the potential for mishaps at holiday parties

To ensure that company parties are both fun and safe, employers may want to take steps to limit the amount of alcohol attendees are allowed to consume and make arrangements for ride services to be available for their employees to make sure they make it home safely, attorney Mary Moffatt writes in Morristown, Tenn.’s The Citizen Tribune.

It’s also important to remind workers that not all employees share the same religious beliefs and practices, Moffatt writes.

“This season is ripe for acts of religious discrimination and retaliation,” she writes. “As a preventative measure, the time before the holiday season is a good time to have employee training on discrimination in the workplace in order to avoid complaints of religious discrimination during what should be the happiest time of the year. If any complaints should arise, employers need to take them seriously and address the complaints appropriately.”

6. DO recognize specific employee behaviors or results

Appreciation that paints everyone with the same brush, such as the traditional staff appreciation day totally miss the mark when it comes to making anyone feel rewarded, writes Thrive Global contributor Harvey Deutschendorf.

“The person who has put in extra effort and achieved massive results is lumped together with the one who did just enough to avoid getting fired,” Deutschendorf writes. “The staff member who put in extra effort will likely feel resentful that the slacker is being rewarded to the same degree that they are. This sends the message that staff appreciation is merely a function that organizational management has to carry out in order to satisfy some criteria handed down from above, rather than a sincere effort to acknowledge staff.”

7. DO give a gift employees want

Some of the best gifts given at holiday parties, according to an employee survey by Snappy:an espresso machine; a trip to Paris; an iPad; a Bluetooth speaker; and a television set. However, just the ability to choose of gift from many items also ranks highly.

“The list of best liked items teaches us that even small tokens of appreciation can go a long way and add so much to your company culture,” says Hani Goldstein, Snappy’s co-founder and CEO. “With very little resources you can create a lot of impact and generate buzz throughout your organization. It’s key to invest time and effort in these acts of kindness – they will actually create the results you are striving to achieve.”

8. DO grant wishes or paying it forward

Instead of giving gifts at holiday parties, Robert Glazer, CEO of Boston marketing agency Acceleration Partners grants employee wishes–including international trips to see relatives and hiring a private investigator to track down a long-lost brother, writes The Business Times contributor Phil Castle. “Glazer says the program not only makes the recipients happy, but also has brought the entire staff closer together,” Castle writes. “The goal, he says, has been to find out what’s most important to employees. The fact the company cares enough to do so is also important to employees.”

Another alternative is showing appreciation by donating to employees’ favorite charities or giving them a paid volunteer day, writes Forbes contributor Kristen Wessel, senior director of PR and operations at ChicExecs, a PR firm in San Diego, Calif.

9. DO show appreciation through communal experiences or thoughtful gestures

Heidi Collins, vice president of people operations at 15Five, a San Francisco-based provider of performance management software, likes the idea of showing appreciation through communal experiences or thoughtful gestures. For example, getting everyone together to do a volunteer event, or maybe gifting everyone an extra, surprise half day off, or even a full day off.

"Holiday parties aren’t an occasion to get together to celebrate one or two specific holidays, but more come together as a social gathering to get employees to know each other and socialize in a more casual setting,” Collins says. “A small win to celebrate the work everyone is doing is by coordinating some kind of mass recognition campaign where each employee picks a name out of a hat and write an end-of year gratitude message to the person they picked is a way to keep employees feeling happy and motivated wrapping up the year.”

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10. DO recognize employees throughout the year

Talin Andonians, chief people officer at Cupertino Electric Inc. in San Jose, Calif. tells HRDive that when it comes to employee recognition, employers need to focus on repeated engagement. “Make sure that it's not just about a party,” Andonians says. “There's a lot of things that need to happen throughout the year.”

When planning appreciation events, employers should survey employees, says Vivian Chaves, community director at San Francisco-based event management company Eventbrite: “Instead of thinking about ‘what do I like to do?,’ think about ‘what does my team need right now?’”

Recognition doesn’t even have to be a formal affair, according to HRDive. Indeed, 85 percent employees surveyed by Deloitte say they would prefer to be recognized for day-to-day accomplishments with either a written or verbal thank-you.

The holiday season is officially in full swing (and office productivity is no doubt down, while Amazon sales are up). We now have less than a month to shop, plan and prepare!

For companies, ’tis also the season for planning and preparing for office holiday parties. The office holiday party tradition dates back to the Great Depression when workers needed a little more motivation to look forward to the holiday season. The concept has evolved over the decades, but the key theme is the same: recognize employees for their hard work.

But just how do employees want to be recognized?

There are definitely some right ways and wrong ways, or at least ways that might actually be counterproductive to employee morale and ultimately their productivity, experts say. Cash is always a safe bet (right?), and taking a day off to eat, drink (but not too much!) and be merry together does have its appeal.

Showing appreciation for employees during the holidays, whether with gifts or parties, is a delicate art. It needs to be done in a way that is fair to everyone and doesn’t run afoul of any company policies. Moreover, showing appreciation shouldn’t just happen at holiday parties — experts also discuss how employers can honor their workforce throughout the entire year.

Check out 5 dos and 5 don’ts for celebrating the holidays with employees in the slideshow above.

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