The holiday bonus: more than just another cheque

The holiday bonus: more than just another cheque
As law firms prepare to close out 2012, many will pause to thank employees for their efforts and contribution throughout the year.  Employees will graciously accept these gestures of gratitude, especially when the outreach is accompanied by an envelope that contains a bonus cheque.

Many firms have the tradition of sharing the wealth by rewarding their loyal staff with some additional remuneration during the holidays. Although I hate to sully the simple cheer and goodwill the season engenders, there can and should be more to this process than a simple exchange of dollars. The holiday bonus is a time-honoured tradition that can create good tidings, lasting loyalty, and improved morale. However, even the best of intentions can be lost if the effort is poorly executed or miscommunicated.

Long after the money is spent, employees will remember the sentiment behind the gifts you give them. Delivering a cheque makes an impact. Using the moment to connect and share true appreciation can help create a bigger impression, lasting memories, and happier employees.

If you’re going to make the effort to thank people, it’s best not to screw it up. It’s amazing how many companies spend time and money to their detriment around the holidays. One year my wife’s previous employer announced that all employees would receive a turkey for the holidays.  I’m sure management envisioned a Norman Rockwell moment with their employee’s families gathered together to celebrate a holiday tradition, enjoying a wonderful meal thoughtfully provided by their benevolent, beloved employer. This employer had a reputation for being cheap so to me it seemed a bit like the redeemed Scrooge buying the Cratchits the largest goose in the window. The initial thought was very nice.

When the logistics of distributing hundreds of frozen turkeys seemed daunting they decided to give each employee a gift certificate for a turkey, redeemable at a specific retailer. In our case the specific retailer was located in a less-than-desirable neighbourhood, situated a few blocks past a string of sketchy liquor stores, but a block before the dodgy adult cinema with the rear alley entrance. To make matters worse, the gift certificate turned out to be not quite enough to cover the cost of an entire turkey. At the dinner table as we gave thanks, we couldn’t help but mock the gesture by telling everyone that we were thankful for the 45 per cent of the turkey provided by her employer.

Are employees ungrateful? I imagine some will say employees should be thankful for anything they receive. It is a gift, right? In one sense law firm bonuses have become an expected entitlement. The holiday bonus tradition stretches so far back for some firms their people can’t imagine a year without a bonus. The bonus itself in now expected and it’s merely the amount of the bonus that may create true appreciation.

The expectation is magnified because we operate in an industry associated with well-paying jobs. There is power in the message behind the bonus and that is often unclear. I’ve known people who were very happy with their bonus until they assumed that someone else received a larger bonus than they did. In a vacuum of information employees have no choice but to draw their own conclusions.

Years ago, I had an employee who seemed generally disappointed with her bonus. We talked and she said she knew we had just concluded a multi-million dollar deal and she assumed we should share the wealth. I explained to her the value of the deal was the announced price of a client’s investment, not a windfall payment to us. In an instant she realized we hadn’t just collected millions of extra dollars and suddenly we didn’t look so cheap. She told me later she felt so much better about her bonus and was very glad that we spoke. The amount of the bonus never changed. Her perception did.

At bonus time I once told an employee how much I appreciated her staying late to help others, as she often did. Being humble, she said she only stayed for 10 or 15 minutes occasionally and it wasn’t a big deal. I told her I knew she took the train and that a 15-minute delay might mean an extra 20-minute wait at the station if she missed her normal train. I told her I had seen her literally sprint to the station in an attempt to avoid that delay so she could get home to her kids on time. Despite the burdens of her commute she always stayed to help others when needed.

It’s hard to buy that kind of dedication. It’s easy to reward though. Taking a few moments to acknowledge the specific points of appreciation made that year’s bonus even nicer. She told me that no one had ever acknowledged her arduous commute before. I’m certain most people knew about it but not one person had ever thanked her for the extra effort and great attitude. That extra step means a great deal.

In a recent online survey I asked people what they really wanted from their employers at year-end. While everyone wants money, most people wished for something more. A common request was for more communication and feedback.  Employees crave feedback. There’s no better place to start than the bonus. While these employees acknowledged receipt of a year-end bonus, most could not define the message behind the bonus. Did it mean the firm did well, or the employee did well, or both? They weren’t sure because the message accompanying their bonus was generic.

This is not a form letter moment. Simply delivering a cheque might make employees feel good about the money, but in the end they can get money anywhere. Motivated, efficient, and effective employees feel good about their jobs and the contributions they make. A few words of sincere appreciation and holiday cheer from the boss can make a good thing even better.

Charles Gillis is the executive director of the law firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr PC in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at

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