Rewarding your workers when you don’t have extra cash

As the old song goes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Other companies are throwing parties, passing out swag, and stuffing purses and wallets with options and bonuses. But what if you’ve had a tough year, are struggling to collect on accounts receivable, and can barely meet payroll? Or what if you’re a former high-flying startup with investors who are now putting on the squeeze?

As a boss, you’re feeling guilty, frustrated, and stressed—hardly the seemingly all-powerful wolf of Wall Street handing out golden fist bumps. While it’s not as bad as announcing layoffs, facing employees with the bad news that you’re unable to give a year-end check to recognize a job well done is a collective blow.

But remember that bonuses come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Most people are motivated by being needed, respected, and valued; they want to be given the opportunity to grow professionally and be surrounded by people they like and respect.

So instead, try non-conventional ways to give year-end props to a hard-working team, and develop a menu of bonuses that hit a range of these chords, like the one we’ve got below. Because if you make it all about the money, your employees will too.

Don’t send the company-wide email. I was on the receiving end of those communiqués earlier in my career, and it always struck me as cold and duplicitous, sent by higher-ups that were most likely themselves benefitting from a year-end boost.

Don’t blow money on a holiday party. Your co-workers will quickly do the math, and come to the conclusion that the catering, event space, and even the coat rack was an out of their pocket expense.

Don’t buy expensive gifts for customers. Although corporations might proclaim that their people are their biggest asset, lavishing year-end gifts on customers says otherwise and can drive co-workers into an understandable jealous fit.

Don’t bring on new high-priced executive. Similar reasoning: the contradiction of cutting back here and adding on there has a one foot on the break and one foot on the gas kind of hypocrisy that is detected instantly.

Don’t make it into a morale boosting exercise. It’s tempting, but a temptation you need to ignore. As General Eisenhower once said, “The best morale exists when you never hear the word mentioned. When you hear a lot of talk about it, it’s usually lousy.”

Instead, when I was having a difficult year a few years back, I took employees out to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant and handed out high fives, recounting specifics of jobs well done, rather than passing around envelopes with checks.

Here’s what else you can do:

Acknowledge that it sucks. Whether at a company town hall, or better yet in small groups or during one-on-one meetings, share the fact that we’re all disappointed, but have good reason to believe that it’s a temporary setback.

Show your sacrifice. Bonuses are a form of profit sharing, and if there are little to no profits, the leader of the organization should show they are feeling the pain more than anyone.

Focus on individual growth. Taking someone you’re managing to coffee at Starbucks, checking in on them, and listening to them share what’s working and what’s not can work wonders.

Arrange for something fun. Even if it’s a cheap outing of bowling and beers, cut out of work early, and blow off work to blow off steam.

Give them something tangible. If it’s not a big check, think of extra perks that can help make a difference. Over the last year, we rewarded different employees with the following perks: a gym membership, a new cell phone plan, ordering up free lunches, working remotely, gift certificates to favorite stores, new business commissions, or even new responsibilities and title.

Award acts of greatness. I once ran an offsite in which we created awards for all our employees in an Academy Awards-type spoof. A bit corny, but a good example of creating a culture that celebrates and rewards achievement.

Share the dream for a better future, together. Growth is not linear. Show perspective that it comes in fits and starts, and get concrete about why next year will be better.

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