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What do your employees really want for the holidays?

It's that time of year again when companies think about whatever it is they plan to do for their employees for the holidays. Most companies do something, some do a lot. But though they have the best intentions, many don't really look at their holiday plans from the employees' perspective. So, do you really know what your people want most, and is that driving your plans, or are you just thinking "Hey, everyone loves a party?"

Having worked for very big companies and very small ones, and as a business owner, here's my own ranking of four of the most common practices, from least to most employee-valued:

#4 Parties. Sure, they can be fun (some more than others), they can be good bonding events, and they can be integral to all-important company culture. But in my experience, more often than not, companies have parties just because it's the default, natural, festive thing to do. And that's perfectly fine -- I'm by no means a fun-sponge -- but it tends to be company-focused, not employee-focused. Some companies throw great parties that everyone loves, but many are just forced, go-through-the motions affairs that employees could just as soon take as leave. And I won't even get into the often-discussed matters of drinking, "party behavior" problems, and other pitfalls.

#3 Gifts. Everyone appreciates a gift, or at least the thought behind it. But if you go this route, give "real" gifts (or gift cards), not company logo tchotchkes or other swag. Don't be chintzty, and make it about them.

#2 Time off. Whether it's a half-day head start on the holiday or a couple of bonus "use whenever" vacation days, a little extra paid time off means a lot. Besides, we all know that productivity drops as the holidays get closer, so instead of just having people thinking about going home, let them.

#1: Money. If allowed to cast an anonymous vote for only one way to celebrate and be celebrated, I believe most people (being honest) would forego all of the above for money. It may seem banal and unimaginative, but there's nothing wrong with that preference. Now more than ever, nothing says "I love and appreciate you" to an employee more than a few extra samolians. I'm not talking about a Wall Street bonus -- for a small business it might just be a C-Note inside a handwritten card -- just handle it as is appropriate for your business. If your employees know you're genuinely thinking of them and doing what you can, whatever you can afford will be appreciated.

Employers often bring up the concern that giving bonuses or other tangible gifts sets a risky precedent or expectation, but really the same applies to anything special you do, during the holidays or any time. You can't prevent people from being disappointed if things change in subsequent years, but most have a good sense of their company's situation and their employer's sincerity. If you say "We've had a good year and I always want to do my best to thank you in some way" that's probably the best you can do to manage expectations. On the other hand, if you say "Sorry, tough year" then show up the next day in your new holiday sports car, that might not go over so well. Always try to do something, be forthright, and be as generous as you can afford to be.

If you can celebrate in more than one of these ways, or even all of them, that's wonderful; a good employer who wants to retain and motivate good people can never do too much for them. But if -- like most small businesses -- you can't do everything you might like to do, consider working from the bottom of this list up. Or get creative and resourceful with an affordable, "hybrid" approach: Have a nice, extended, catered lunch (on the clock, of course), send your gang home early (paid, of course), and hand them a holiday thank you note with some greenbacks in it. They will leave for the holiday (and return) with a smile, gratitude, and a good feeling about an employer who is truly thinking of them -- not about party hats and rubber chicken buffet stations -- this time of year.

I'd love to hear from employers about their holiday plans and traditions, and from employees about their experiences and preferences. Post your comments below!

Michael Hess

Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at

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