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Stop giving horrible gifts to your team

Giving gifts to your team can tricky, writes Jason Wolfe, who offers suggestions on finding ones that will be appreciated.

7 min read



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Gifting goes back to the beginning of humanity, the first time a nervous, hopeful Cro-Magnon guy picked up a little rock, shined it up and gave it to a Cro-Magnon girl. It’s an expression, a concrete manifestation of affection. Gifts hold significance in our meaningful relationships and mark life’s most important occasions, so it stands to reason that giving gifts should also be part of professional life. 

Jason Wolfe

After all, these are the people you spend the majority of every weekday with, whether you’re working digitally or in the office. Well-chosen gifts can mark and celebrate the years you’ve dedicated towards a common goal. However, gifting in an office is difficult because gifting used to be simple. Still, as workplaces have become increasingly complicated, it’s become impossible to give a gift that doesn’t send social ripples around the office. So what can you do? 

Slow your scroll

Giving your employees an overly personal gift — say a shirt that says “Pura Vida” you bought based on the third picture in a photo dump your employee shared two years ago that showed their trip to Costa Rica — can be an intrusion into an employee’s personal life. If Costa Rica is a happy memory they shared with close family or friends, your employee will find it very uncomfortable to receive a gift drawing on that memory from someone in their professional life. 

Instead of drawing ideas from your employee’s personal lives and connections, forge professional relationships with them. Engage them in conversations, and their likes and dislikes are bound to come up, except now they’ll be sharing what they feel comfortable sharing in a work context. For instance, if a team member likes to work in a musical environment, you could get them a pair of headphones. Alternatively, if you know one of your team members who wants to develop their skills, you could cover an online training course or a LinkedIn premium subscription. You could also draw an idea from nothing more substantial than an inside joke: say an employee jokes about never being able to keep houseplants alive — you could get them a hardy plant that doesn’t need to be planted by a green thumb. You can pull ideas from any old work conversation without being intrusive, and you might even learn something new about your team along the way. 

Mark the occasion

Giving professional gifts doesn’t mean you should default to giving out company swag or bland knickknacks. It’s still possible to make your gifts thoughtful. You just have to tailor them to your team’s professional lives. I find that most workplaces don’t celebrate milestones nearly enough, even though they’re one of the few times that any gift gains a special significance and meaning that most employees will treasure and none will begrudge. 

Companies give out watches on their employees’ retirement, and what makes those watches special isn’t the design of the timepiece but the event. And if you need proof that employees valued them, think about the fact that we all know about those watches, and many of us have never even seen one.  

Milestone gifts should be more standardized than everyday office gifts — at least in form. Just as everyone gets a watch at retirement, so too should your team get the same item to celebrate a certain amount of time with the company or a specific KPI reached. But you can still customize things that look the same. Tailor plaques, trophies, medals and rings with a custom inscription to match the employee receiving it. In this zone between unity and personalization, I find milestone gifts genuinely make an impact. 

Don’t create responsibilities

Another reason retirement watches make a good gift is that they fit into any life without causing too much disturbance, which is good. Other gifts don’t. Some leaders give paid vacations to their teams. Sounds great, right? Unless the company only covers flights and hotels and doesn’t include expenses like food, activities or child care back at home. And if the team member who receives the vacation has kids with a big game coming up or relatives to care for, they will not be able to abdicate their responsibilities. Not only that, but you, as a leader, will become known as someone whose gifts have hidden price tags, which defeats the point. 

On the other hand, small things can mean a lot but don’t become responsibilities once they’re received. Trips and restaurant vouchers are probably out. But there are many options for unobtrusive gifts that you can give a personal twist. For instance, when we sold our company, I gave each executive team member a portrait featuring our team rendered as cartoons. These things give people joy and ask nothing in return, and they make the best kinds of gifts that a leader can buy. Custom gift cards are another excellent option. It’s easy to add the company logo or a personalized image to the card and load it with funds your employees can use. But it’s better to avoid generic bulk gift cards (Starbucks, anyone?), which don’t indicate that much thought or care went into the gift. 

Give cashless gifts

Many startups don’t have the cash to give gifts to mark every professional occasion, but they still have options. Restricted stock units (RSUs) are a form of equity that a company can issue to its employees that promises stock units to an employee later. They are similar to company-issued stock options, but employees don’t have to buy them. They are issued at a specific price and increase in value following the company’s growth and become available to the employee when the restriction ends. 

RSUs let employees own part of the company (quite literally giving them a vested interest), and leaders can give them out any time they want. So, if you don’t have cash, you do have currency. You can also use a system such as Carta to let employees actively track their RSUs. Who wouldn’t have a smile watching their company increase in value? 

Show off at your own risk

Another impulse leaders have is to announce whenever they give an employee a gift. After all, you don’t want to seem like you’re secretly giving presents to select employees. But it’s all too easy to seem self-aggrandizing when you tell the whole office that you’ve given a gift to a team member. It comes off as self-serving, and you don’t want to be stingy and looking for praise. 

Instead, be transparent but not showy. Approach gift-giving as you would any other professional interaction — with poise, directness and integrity. This way, your team will understand that nothing is out of the ordinary and that gifts of acknowledgment and appreciation are part of the workplace environment. And once it’s common knowledge that gift-giving is a part of your team culture, people will know that you go out of your way to celebrate your employees without you having to proclaim it.

Driving down the highway, we never look at little green mile markers. But, if you pay attention to the little events in your employees’ professional lives and give thoughtful gifts to celebrate their steps up their career ladder, you’ll give them a gift they will treasure for a long time. 


Jason Wolfe is the founder and CEO of Wolfe, LLC. He is a serial entrepreneur and a community leader serving on several boards, including nonprofit and for-profit public company trusts. Wolfe’s vision of the “perfect gift” that focuses on the recipient is the company’s purpose. He fosters a core culture of caring, teamwork, drive and integrity.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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