Can Gift Cards Beat Gratitude?

By now, we’ve certainly established the importance of proper recognition and its impact on employee engagement. The fact that top performers deserve to be rewarded in some form isn’t just a matter of common decency, but common sense. A simple “thank you” – given immediately after an achievement – is more effective than money or products. Meghan M. Biro of Forbes describes it as “reflexive praise for doing the right thing.” It should be a knee-jerk reaction, given immediately following great performance.

But let’s look at one type of material reward: gift cards. These handy items are great for all occasions. They’re easily accessible and can be applied to virtually any major commercial business. That being said, it’s no surprise that employers embrace them.

So how do gift cards stack up against a simple pat on the back? That all depends on how you distribute them.

Flexibility
When large organizations decide to give out gift cards, they often choose a set of pre-approved ones and offer a very limited choice. While this certainly makes logistical sense – and may even provide appealing options to some – this approach can stop a worker’s pride right in its tracks.
Thanking the employee is the critical first step. But if you follow it up by handing them a $25.00 gift card that other high-performers have received (potentially multiple times), it sends the wrong message. You may be trying to say “good job.” However, they hear “good job. Here’s your generic prize that we automatically assign without any thought or effort.”
In other words, if you’re going to follow up a sincere “thank you” with a generic gift card, then it’s best to skip the second part and just say “good job.”

Appropriate Rewards
They say that when it comes to negative consequences, the punishment should fit the crime. The same can be said for rewards. Contributions come in all sizes, from small achievements to massive, company-changing successes.
Naturally, it’s great to thank those responsible for helping the organization grow, even in the smallest ways. But if you’re going to add some punch with a gift card, make sure its value matches the achievement. If you hand someone a $25.00 card after landing a multi-million dollar client, expect to get a perplexed look.
There’s no set formula when it comes to value. Just use common sense and, of course, work the “thank you” into the mix.

Can Cards Stand Alone?
No. Rewarding employees with a gift card, no matter how small or large, simply isn’t enough to get the message across. A sincere verbal congratulation carries more meaning than any material reward. As a manager, it’s a way for you to show your appreciation. It sends the message that you took the time out of your busy day to sit down with a staff member and tell them how valued they truly are.
A gift card will never stack up to a sincere gesture of verbal gratitude. If you’re truly grateful, you want the employee to leave for the day thinking “my boss was so happy with me. They really like me there.” A card alone will generate something along the lines of “wow, I got a gift card for my hard work.” But when that card is spent (if the person even has a use for it), the sense of accomplishment dies when the final dollar is gone.

The important difference is that gift cards are a bonus – the icing on the cake. True gratitude is about letting the employee know that he or she is a vital member of the team. Take this out of the equation and all you have is a piece of plastic with a number assigned to it. There’s nothing human about plastic, even if money is behind it.