Has anyone else been hearing about 20% being the new normal when it comes to tipping at restaurants?  It can be hard to keep track of the rules of social etiquette – particularly for executives who are wondering how to treat their direct reports. Acting appropriately toward staff when it comes to special occasions, milestones and the like can pose a real challenge. Here are some tips to steer you in the right direction.
Find a way to do avoid perceptions of favoritism when some deserve more than others.  It will be hard to get away with giving one administrative assistant flowers for her birthday and nothing for your other one. The problem is that there are going to be employees who you feel closer to or more grateful towards. And to you, these staff deserve more special attention. In this case, you can give them a more significant gift as long as you can pull it off more covertly. 
This is a bit of a gamble, so don’t be buying an employee the front row seats at the Leafs game or the Hermes scarf unless you’re certain that he or she will be able to keep it quiet. Naturally, having the rest of your staff resent you and/or loathe the favoured direct report will undo any good you can do by buying that preferred employee a better gift.
Don’t do this year what you will not be able to do the next. To a certain extent employees are forgiving when it comes to understanding that some years are financially better for companies than others. Sometimes, they may even accept that salary increases can happen one fiscal year and perhaps not the next. But this level of understanding is conveniently absent when it comes to perks that are not related to compensation – it’s surprising how quickly special perks can be coloured with the entitlement brush. 
If an employee mentions it’s his 10th wedding anniversary and he’s told you where he’s going for dinner with his wife, suffice it to say that sending a bottle of wine is a thoughtful gesture which he will not expect for a non milestone event like his 11th anniversary. However, if you take an employee out for lunch for her 38th birthday and then totally overlook her 39th, you might as well have just done nothing for both. Remember, there is a flipside to every kind, over-the-top gesture. They set an expectation which when unmet, can be worse than when there is no expectation at all. 
Don’t underestimate the value of an occasional premium gift. Executives are often commiserating about the talent wars – how do you attract and keep the best people? There are so many elements to this including total compensation, culture, management relationships, etc. If on top of all that, you can throw in a $2500 long weekend in the Bahamas for your VP Operations and her husband after an especially successful quarter or a $500 sports watch for your Director of IT to wear up at his cottage after a very busy, stressful month, it goes a long way. 
Many executives know this, but don’t do it because they fear that others will be upset if they don’t get the same, or because they don’t see the value of spending in this way on their staff. First off, even when giving something to a select individual, the key is to remember tip #1: if it’s not something that you can do, or at least do a version of for everyone at the same level, then at least keep it quiet. Don’t feel guilty though, especially when you know the lucky staff member deserves the special gift. In organizational life, not everyone is equal – some contribute more than others and your thoughtfulness can send that message. Secondly, even if you spend the $2500 on your VP, you will get it back ten fold. 
Remember that small talk can be huge. Monday morning small talk can be seen by executives as too personal or as a waste of time. If you engage in the obligatory small talk every single Monday, it may in fact come across as phony, and may feel so as well. But, when one of your directors tells you they are competing in a mountain bike race for the first time, asking them about it on can show the kind of thoughtfulness that staff will remember for a long time. Taking note of special circumstances in an employee’s life – a special vacation, an ill relative, or a milestone of some kind – really should be noticed verbally by executives. To say nothing when you are aware of such circumstances would be a mistake. Your employees will notice, but will never tell you.

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