Holiday Bonuses: Great If You Get One, But Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Editor’s Note: The holiday season is here, and TLNT is celebrating with classic holiday posts from the past. Look for them through Christmas Eve.

In the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Chevy Chase’s character Clark Griswold puts a down payment on a swimming pool for his family based on an expected holiday bonus from his company. Instead of getting a bonus though, Griswold is enrolled in a “Jelly of the Month” club.

These days, getting enrolled in a “Jelly of the Month” club might be the best one can expect during the holiday season (a note: I’m a fan of boysenberry and strawberry myself). And certainly no one outside of a few industries and positions are putting a down payment on any major purchase based on an expected end-of-the-year bonus.

Most don’t expect a bonus

CNN posted a story last weekend about people’s expectations about holiday bonuses. Suffice to say, they are pretty moderate:

According to a recent survey by Parago, a company that provides consumer and corporate incentives, 81 percent of workers think end-of-year rewards are a nice thing to do for employees but should not be expected.

That doesn’t mean employees won’t appreciate any perks; 79 percent of employees said that receiving an end-of-year reward would mean that they had done a great job and worked hard or that their boss appreciates and/or values them. But workers don’t necessarily need a fat check to show the company cares. Eighty-four percent of employees surveyed said $100 or less would meet their expectations for a reward; 55 percent said it would take just $25 to make the holidays brighter.”

So four in five employees think a holiday bonus is nice but not expected, and almost the same amount say that even a token gift of $100 or less would meet their expectations.

Nobody is buying a pool with that money, unless it is one those plastic kiddie pools. Still, it is better than the alternative (nothing) or the worse alternative (no job), and that has left people content with a more limited bonus option than in years past.

A change in attitude (and some danger)

Call it the new normal or whatever fancy buzzword is being bandied about these days, but expectations have changed significantly.

When companies have been tight with cash, they’ve offered non-monetary rewards like flexible time and days off instead of cash money. And even in industries that are recovering, there is a continued hesitancy to push out big time rewards to employees who managed to stick it out through the recession.

Most employers are choosing to instead use that money to make capital investments, hire employees to fill demand or to put it into savings. Many employees haven’t noticed or don’t care. They’re happy to see positive results.

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Assuming a recovery trudges along, slowly but surely, that strategy is going to continue to be accepted. At least for a while.

The greater danger is that there might come a time where those expectations change and your company is the one doing the reacting and adjusting to meet your employees need. For company leadership, this can be a brutal change. If you’ve lived the last three years knowing that turnover was going to be low, you were in control of how much you paid for your employee’s services. Since replacing employees could be done with ease at below previous market rates, it won’t be fun shifting directions.

Making moves now

Maybe your company isn’t ready to put rewards and compensation back up to top priority at your company. Perhaps you’re still recovering and you have a lot of baggage from three years of crummy business.

If you can cut out a small portion to give to employees, it’s probably not a bad idea. Since the price to meet or beat employee expectations are so low, even a token gift (along with some genuine appreciation) could be enough for a lot of workers.

And while the idea of a big holiday bonus may be out the window permanently, a continual recognition approach (to recognize and reward employees year round) is probably a better approach anyway. Not too many people get bonuses in April or August, and spreading it out that way (and doing it in a way that recognizes achievement) makes sure you are rewarding at an appropriate time of year, not just because it is the end of the year or the holidays.

For some traditionalists, that might make you cringe. The holiday bonus is a nice tradition, a kind one rooted in the right idea. But when gifts go from four or five-figure checks to “Jelly of the Month” club, rethinking the holiday bonus might not be the worst idea for your management team.

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