Gift Gridlock

Of Frozen Meat,
Flying Fists and
and Other Joys
of the Season

Filip Miroz / Unsplash

By Emerson Schwartzkopf

In the past two years, I’ve written in this column about serious topics. Silicosis. OSHA. Brand identity. And tariffs, tariffs and yet more tariffs.

However, let’s leave all that behind and wander into an area so treacherous, so precarious that it brings the clenched teeth, the moaning sigh, the feeling of dread that only passes with the certain passing of days and changing of the calendar.

To face the danger boldly: What are you doing for the company at year’s end?

Notice that I didn’t include “holidays,” “Christmas,” “Boxing Day,” “yuletide” or any other description that seem to be rife with problems. (More on that later.) Nor do I invoke “Thanksgiving,” given the Canadian preference to celebrate earlier, partly for reasons too shocking for most U.S. sensibilities. ¹

The intent is to share good cheer and, hopefully, the good fortune of the year before facing new challenges. The result isn’t exactly paving a road to ruin, but the effort often seems like laying in a giant Rest Area Plaza of Exasperation.

In my business career, I’ve seen an evolution of this year-end dilemma, starting with ….

1. Frozen Hunks of Meat

In days of old – that bygone era before selfies, Starbucks and more bottled water than beer on store shelves – the direct approach was a Christmas gift, usually doled out with a supermarket gift certificate or a large frozen turkey/ham/roast. The latter didn’t play as well with single people and boozehounds who viewed grocery stores as a convenient place to buy a sack of ice cubes, but things generally worked out.

Somewhere along the line, more people began complaining about associating Christmas with this kind of gift-giving, for a variety of reasons that occupy enough Facebook debate that they need not be repeated here. It’s also true that, given the option of the gift certificate or a large frozen mass of meat, more people chose the certificate and the late arrivers to the pay window kept getting the bird (or swine or whatever).

Ultimately, business began getting stuck with large amounts of rock-hard and heavy remnants of unwanted gifts, compounded with several awful discoveries after New Years’ Day of turkeys rotting in a storage closet.

This led, in many places, to ….

2. The Holiday Party

Admittedly, the unofficial sharing of holiday spirit developed through time. For white-collar workers, it was the stop at the local watering hole on the eves of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which often began at lunch and effectively ended work for the day. For blue-collar workers, such as my father, the tradition was the magical and anonymous appearance of “The Bottle,” usually of brandy or a blended whiskey, at the worksite on those days, coinciding with a general and amicable work stoppage.

These joyous celebrations (at least, until someone took a swing at someone else) were promptly usurped by employers and, as organized business often manages to do, had the fun strained out.

The menu, for example, went from a high-grade entrée (like steak or lobster) into an ever-lengthening multiple-choice quiz in an attempt to satiate more dietetic regulations and whims than a metropolitan hospital kitchen. Lawsuit-fearing legal counsel and personnel managers found new ways (tickets, punchcards, etc.) to limit alcohol consumption. Bland, non-offensive entertainment became part of the fare. And many companies then tortured some employees by asking so-called volunteer committees to pull this all together.

Invariably, the end result was an OK time for some and an exercise in staying long enough to be polite (or political) for others. And, more often than not, friction between company rivals got heated enough that a showering of drink tickets wouldn’t dampen the flames (not to mention the revelations on assorted mischief, like at-work affairs).

A variation of this limits the damage to some kind of cookie-and-undoctored-punch reception at work. The gift-giving devolves into shared gifts for higher-ups and the esteem-busting private hell of Secret Santa exchanges.

This kind of interaction led to ….

3. The Gift Card

In a way, this returns to the grocery chit/frozen edible concept, but in a friendly-yet-utilitarian way. Here’s a showing of appreciation that’s neat, cost-effective and needs no further involvement or attendance. It doesn’t need to thaw, either.

Gifts, like much in life, have unintended consequences. Many of them, for gift cards, turn out to be objections, such as stores few people visit; large retailers that destroy local merchants; too small of amounts to make a purchase; or unspoken insinuations. (“Three months free membership at the gym? Is that lame-brain of a boss calling me fat?”)

Even when accepted without comment and used without reservation, gift cards often seem too clean. It’s a piece of plastic hanging right next to the chewing gum and tabloids at the supermarket checkout, bought as a convenience as its main intent.

To be fair, plenty of employers use one of these three strategies and survive with minimal cuts and abrasions. Depending on the company environment, the holiday party or the gift certificate route works without a hitch and everyone’s happy. I applaud them.

So what’s my good idea of a year-end gift for everyone in the company? That’s easy: time.

Any employee, at any level, contributes to success when they give more attention – really, more time – to sell or repair something or help someone. It’s effort that’s hard to measure, and it accumulates bit-by-bit during the year. You can’t put it on a spreadsheet and evaluate it.

Time is valuable, so why not give it back? Make Christmas Eve and, if possible, for a full day or half-day before that, paid time off. Refigure and stagger schedules to give a paid day or two (at least) off between Christmas and New Year.

Whatever the plan, give more paid leave than what’s usual. There’s nothing more valuable than free time to spend.

Best wishes to all of you to wrap up the year, and here’s to a prosperous – in all ways – 2020.

¹ The October date is connected to traditional harvest festivals, but Thanksgiving (for some) was celebrated earlier in the year to acknowledge the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1838, which is not to be confused with the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837-1838. Yes, there were two attempts to overthrow British colonial rule, and both failed. Pass the turkey and poutine, please.