Unique Perks and Gift Ideas for Employees (Episode 3)

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello from SmartLinx Solutions. In today's podcast we'll talk about the unique perks and gift ideas for employees. Our guest is Carol Looney, principal and co-founder of Signature HR Solutions, which provides human resources solutions for small and mid-sized businesses. Carol, before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about your background in long-term care?

Carol Looney: Sure, Darcy. I'm glad to be a guest today. Thank you for having me. For the past seven years I have been a director of human resources in long-term care. I love the long-term care industry because it's wonderful to see people giving back using the skills and talents they have. I love to use HR as a platform to keep employees engaged, keep the employer/employee relationship moving forward, and to continue the good work that everyone does for the health and benefit of residents in our communities. Currently, I am an HR consultant, as you said, for Signature HR Solutions. I am based out of Massachusetts.

DG: Great! The topic of employee perks and gifts, I think, is particularly timely with the holidays approaching. It's also important, as we know, to recognize employees throughout the year. Carol, I know the policy of a local long-term care facility. They prohibit residents from giving gifts to staffers. I understand the reasoning behind it. Although I think in some cases it might improve patient care. In any case, it certainly points to the need for employers to reward their staff. Is that typical in the industry for such a policy, and what's your take on it?

CL: Sure. In my experience it is very typical to have that type of policy or a practice if it's not a formal policy in a handbook or written down. Most of the time, it is in place to discourage giving the impression of preferential care or treatment by a staff member to a resident over another. Honestly, at holiday time it becomes a little challenging to police, as you can imagine. I'm sure that most family members or residents want to do it out of the generosity of their heart to reward someone who's taken extra special care of them during the year or gone above and beyond, or they've built a nice relationship with. It becomes hard to want to hold that as a negative against someone.

Honestly, usually in my experience they're very small token gifts that are being given, and maybe not necessarily a large issue for an administrator or management to deal with because it can easily backfire if you have a zero-tolerance policy. Again, because it's just seen as such a nice gesture during the time of year, usually I guide administrators to try to get in front of that early if possible via a communication with your staff. Just reiterate what your policy or practice has been about not accepting gifts. If it's a small token that may be part of your policy or practice, and that should be communicated.

I also think for staff members when the gift is something shareable such as a fruit basket or a box of candy, something along those lines, it's always nice to encourage employees to put that into the break room when possible or the nurses' station. Some place where a number of employees can have access to it because it is a team that takes care of loved ones, and usually not just an individual. Again, something that I think is a nice reminder for employees to fight that perception of favoritism, but not necessarily a big issue that probably most employers would want to make into a major issue at holiday time.

DG: Thanks, Carol. Those are all good points. Let's move on to the next question. Why is it important to recognize employees with tokens of appreciation?

CL: I think it's always a great gesture, whether you have a formal process in place or an informal plan for recognizing employees at all times of year and certainly especially during significant holiday times. I think it creates an environment where you as a manager are seen as a human. You're recognized for wanting to do good deeds and allows for some meaningful interaction of staff of all levels. It creates a value for your organization that goes beyond compensation that someone receives in a paycheck which can definitely be leveraged as a recruitment tool or a retention tool.

Sometimes it's great to leverage your marketing team to use those as reminders when you're doing any promotional mailings to homes. Just remind folks that we do give out certain gifts during the year, or there are incentives, or ways that we can thank people above and beyond the dollar amount that is received in a paycheck. I also think it allows you to be close to the community if you're leveraging local vendors that you have a standing relationship with. You can recognize where employees like to spend their free time or spend their dollars; use that as a way to turn that into a token of appreciation especially at holiday time. A nice thing that it also allows a manager to do is to be spontaneous in the workplace.

Sometimes we have to fight, unfortunately, the stigma in long-term care that it's depressing or a sad place to work. Anything that can add to some levity in the workplace, some spontaneity, and is just a sincere thank you, a token of appreciation, I think is fantastic. At the end of the day, who doesn't like to get a small token, or a gesture, or a perk, or a thank you from someone that they work with every day? It's just a nice program to have all year long but especially during the holiday time.


DG: That's true. Especially, you mentioned retention. Turnover is such a big issue in the industry that anything, even a little recognition like this throughout the year, I think can help to improve that.

CL: Absolutely.

DG: What would you say are some creative ideas for gifts? I think nobody needs one more sports bottle. I think you'll agree.

CL: I absolutely agree with that. Those are all fantastic, but more often than not they fall out of my cupboard at home because we've collected so many of them throughout the years. I always say look to see what is new in the marketplace, new in your community. Leverage your marketing team to do that. I think anything to do with electronics is always trendy and big right now. Whether it's a case for a smartphone with a company logo on it, some of them have a nice slot in the back for a credit card holder or photo ID, which is great to give people that dual functionality, a logo charger, earbud case is also a nice gesture.

A lunch box, especially if you have a number of employees that do pack their lunches. That's something that can create a little ease of use for an employee. A cell phone stand for their desk is great for someone that does have a desk position. Where they can listen to music during the day and prop it up on their desk, and have easy access to it. You may, again, leverage some local vendors that would be willing to do free massage chair for the day with a signup sheet. Some discounts to local coffee shops, maybe an on-site car wash with discounted prices for employee, or a vendor that would be willing to do some dry-cleaning pickup. If you have hair salons in the area, they may be willing to offer a special discounted service or a day of appreciation in recognition.

Also, I think it's great to look at your local uniform shops because that's where employees are going to go to buy their uniforms. You always want to have an established relationship with them, and make sure that they know. Again, that's a great recruitment tool. Perhaps in exchange for a discount, would they be willing to put a flyer or your business card at their front desk, or have a special day where they make an announcement that they're getting in a new supply of uniforms. They send you an email so you can blast that out to your staff and let them know that they've got some new colors or patterns. Anything to establish that local relationship would be great.

Movie tickets, something for the family is always a nice give back. If you have local zoos, amusement parks, water parks, oftentimes they have discounted programs if you buy in bulk. If you have a good number of employees, usually that threshold maybe very low; could be low as 25 tickets or 50 tickets. You could get a discounted price that employees could use throughout the year. I also think it's important to check with some of your national vendors to see if you have a discount program through them. Usually that's something your marketing department can very quickly help you publicize. Most of the time you just need a pay stub or an employer code, and you can get 10% off or 15% or whatever that vendor is willing to provide to you. Again, that's a significant savings on something that most people have, which is usually a cell phone right now. That's a great perk as well.

One of my favorites is we have a local vendor that was a flower shop. From time to time, for whatever reason, they would have an overflow of seasonal flowers. That may have been ordered, and they had too many. They couldn't use them. They certainly knew that they would go to waste. They had an established relationship with us that when that occurred, they would drop off a bucket of flowers for free at the front reception desk. The receptionist would just send a message out or maybe give a quick announcement over the intercom system. Employees could stop by on their way home and take a handful of flowers.

What a great, special surprise that was that they could take something home from work. Flowers are so bright and cheery. They were just going to go to waste, so it was a wonderful way for employees to pick up something on the way home, and walk in the door with a bouquet of flowers for someone special at their home. What a nice surprise that was. It was free, and we didn't know until we asked about it. It just turned into a wonderful perk.

DG: That's very nice. On another note, how would a manager know what employees would like?

CL: I think this goes back to just some real simple communication about asking. Find out where your employees are shopping. Where do they spend their free time? What are they interested in? What small gestures can save then time, money, or convenience? I think you could certainly take a quick survey. Whether it's a paper survey, dropping it in a ballot box, an email survey, just anything to ask people what they're interested in. I bet you'll get a lot of answers.

I would also encourage any administrator or manager, talk to others. When you're at a professional development seminar or workshop, sometimes that can be a great conversation starter to talk about what are something you're doing to recognize employees? Gosh, retention is such an issue for us in our industry. I'd like to come up with something different. I feel like I've tried it all. Ask others. Ask your peer group. I bet they'll come up with some great suggestions that you might not have thought of.

DG: That's a great idea as well. I know that cost is definitely an issue especially when you're buying gifts for multiple employees. How can an employer make it meaningful but not look cheap?

CL: I think you do have to be careful that you don't want to look like you're being so cost effective that the gift is really of such a small value. I think if you work with a variety of vendors and shop around, sometimes ask for a better deal. You never know until you do ask. Some vendors may want to do a price match, or be very competitive, or give you a bulk discount on something.

I think if you're looking to have an impact but perhaps can't afford to get a gift for every employee, maybe you look at something very simple like a punch card system for entry into a drawing for a larger gift. I know electronics are very popular. You could look at any number of electronics that are out right now in the marketplace. The reward would be getting a larger gift but going into a drawing by a punch card system or a raffle system which makes it fun to see whose name is going to get drawn.

I think you can also look at some meaningful ways to give value and appreciation for a job well done that's not necessarily a take-home item but more of a good feeling. That may be to ask if you have local comedians, magicians, performers, dance troupes, high school musical groups; any number of folks that would be willing to come in and practice in front of a live audience and perfect their craft, that's always a nice break for employees. It's certainly a morale boost and can be something they go home and talk excitedly about. Whether it's a cultural dance troupe or a local community event that would be a great thing to see in front of employees, that's just a nice surprise; something that is a meaningful gesture without having to necessarily be a gift.

Sometimes you can leverage guest speakers also, in front of nurses, or other professionals, or really any employees in your workforce. They can talk about their experiences. I think that also becomes a great way to boost morale without having to necessarily have it be a token of a takeaway. One the best perks that I saw was a location that used this for both administrators and staff. They held a series of workshops. Each of the staff members was a subject matter expert. They had a variety of topics they talked about. They would change them. It was a lecture series format. It was given across a couple shifts, couple different days. It was accessible to everybody.

It really was how they could impart their wisdom from their years of experience in long-term care to employees at all levels and help with their professional and personal development. Some examples were the director of nursing gave a presentation on how to prepare for state survey. We had our nutritionist talk about the importance of proper nutrition for residents. Others talked about how to deal with difficult family members; maybe it's a HIPAA refresher, or navigating a difficult diagnosis such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. HR could always be a part of that too by talking about how to leverage social media or interviewing skills to get an internal promotion. These were all free because we were the onsite subject matter experts and could give a talk. It helped develop the relationship between staff and employers.

It was a very cost-effective way to have some light refreshments, spend some time connecting, and be seen as a resource for questions or concerns about professional growth and development. I love that you can leverage social media for those types of events. Put it on your Facebook page, use your website to promote that type of event, and create that energy and excitement. Use it as a recruitment tool. The nice thing is you can make it free for employees or a very small cost of a donation of a canned good toward a local food bank or a family in need if there is one within your community. It's really a win-win and a great interaction for some professional development and a way to say thank you; have that morale boost for employees and staff at all levels.

DG: I love that idea of bringing a canned good for a local charity. That gets the staff involved with the local community as well.

CL: Absolutely. That's a very small ask. It's about receiving information but also feeling good about giving back at the same time.

DG: Right. Lastly, how can we translate the idea for perks for employees to continue all year round, not just at the holidays?

CL: I think you've got to see what works, and keep it going. Keep trying to repeat that. Keep that energy and enthusiasm up all year long. I think that your marketing department could be a great resource to find out what special days there are during the year. One thing you can do during the summer is have an ice cream truck come on site and give out free ice cream. Again, look for things that are fun like National Cupcake Day and maybe your dining services could create some cupcakes for staff, or National Pancake Day. Anything that's kind of a fun, energy-producing idea that can keep employees going and not just focus on holiday time.

Also, again, look for your local vendors that might be willing to donate a small gift card. I know a national doughnut chain, for us in one particular location did have a logo that they co-branded a very small amount gift card for us. That was a great caught-in-the-act tool that could be used.

Also, take a look at your employee break room. Remember, it's great to give staff a chance to take that 10- or 15-minute break, or half hour, or longer depending on what their shift is. What's the environment in your break room? Are your magazines or newspapers current? Do you have free coffee that can be provided? Do you have a docking station or a charging station for an electronic device that they're using that maybe they just need an extra boost for a few minutes while they're taking a break? Do you have some comfy chairs and blankets that maybe they could relax, not get too comfortable, but put their feet up and just take a load off from working on their feet all day?

Are there healthy snacks in your vending machine? Could your dining services have some standing snacks that they can grab that are health conscious and not necessarily candy or pop? Just take a look at your employee break room. It's very important that you create a nice atmosphere so employees can take that time; rest, refresh during the day.

One thing you may want to look at is with ride-sharing services becoming so popular, if you can make your location as a standing pickup or drop-off point. Again, publicize that so employees know. If you can't get to work, then that creates a number of challenges. Anything you can do as an employer to help that process along would be great. If they're willing to make that a standing location, maybe that just makes it a little bit easier for those who don't have reliable transportation or public access to transportation is not on the route that your facility is on. Again, I think those are just some creative ideas to keep that energy going all during the year, and make sure that you have a rotating calendar of giveaways and events, something to look forward to, something that your managers can plan on to keep that energy going all throughout the year.

DG: Thank you so much, Carol, for sharing your insights with us today. I think you had some really great ideas, and thanks to all of you who took the time to listen to the podcast. If you'd like to learn more about SmartLinx Solutions and our fully integrated suite of workforce management solutions, visit us online at SmartLinxSolutions.com. Thanks and goodbye.

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