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Don't Be a Cheap Boss

Several years ago I woke up during the first day of winter break in a funk. Whereas I should have been excited for a two-week work vacation, something was nagging at my conscience.

My concern focused around gift-giving. The previous day our administrative team gave our secretarial staff their holiday “gift" - which consisted of placing juice and donuts in the conference room. Next to those items was a card that read:

Happy Holidays

The Admin Team

"They work so hard for us," I thought to myself, struggling to get over how impersonal - and cheap - our present was. "Shouldn't we have put a little more effort into their gift?"

Let's be honest - who really likes coconut-flavored donuts?

Here’s the kicker. The juice and donuts were bought using the school credit card. That’s right . . . we didn’t spend a dollar on our secretaries. From that day forward I vowed to never again be so stingy with office staff. I committed to giving not just secretaries—but every direct report—a small gift and a handwritten note of gratitude for the holidays.

Although the cost of these gifts were modest, those who received gifts were surprised - if not shocked - to receive this type of appreciation. Their reactions led me to do some digging. Assuming they regularly received gifts of gratitude, I asked what they were normally given from school leadership.

"You are the first person who has ever given me anything," was a common response I got from many of the secretaries, counselors, instructional coaches, and support staff I directly supervised.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not limited to one school. Having heard from staff in many school districts, it appears that school leaders have a reputation for being inconsiderate and cheap when it comes to gift-giving.


Before we go any further, let's clear up a few ideas about gifts.

Recall that praise is most effective when delivered in the context of a positive, healthy relationship. One of the worst things a boss can do is give an employee a holiday present while disregarding the relationship the other 364 days of the year.

Furthermore, according to the Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, receiving gifts isn't high on employees' lists of most impactful types of recognition. Not only do tangible gifts rank fourth out of five types of appreciation (behind words of affirmation, quality time, and acts of service), only 6% of employees identify tangible gifts as their primary language of appreciation.

But just because gifts aren't tops on employees' lists doesn't mean they should be ignored. Well-timed gifts have the ability to make a person's day. Thoughtful bosses who purchase tokens of appreciation matching employee interest areas can take relationships to extraordinary levels.

In short, gifts should be viewed as a small - yet potent - type of ammo in the leader's employee appreciation arsenal.


Here are five more ideas to consider when it comes to gift-giving in schools:

Mindset: When individuals move into supervisory roles they must assume a portion of their salary will go back to the school - to employees, organizations, or fundraisers. While it's hard to put a number on this contribution, anything between 1 and 3 percent is a good rule of thumb to follow.

Simple: We all know that some of the best gifts are minimal in value. Leaders should learn the interests of the people they oversee. Something as basic as surprising employees with their favorite snack or drink is simple yet effective.

Secretaries: Secretaries - especially highly effective secretaries - are worth their weight in gold. Show them how much they are valued. Most administrators make three, four, or even five times as much as secretaries. If there is one person to spend some cash on, it's your assistant.

Custodians: Let's be honest - without custodians schools would fall apart. Motivated, dependable custodians are indispensable so school leaders must do everything they can to recognize these hard-working employees throughout the year. And for crying out loud . . . don’t forget the custodian who cleans your office!

Delegate: Expecting the school leader to assume sole responsibility for gift-giving is not financially feasible. To ensure all employees are properly acknowledged, leaders must model and encourage other building and department leaders to invest in occasional gift-giving.


Last year I received a message from a secretary who I supervised several years ago. The message read as follows: "I remember when you used to write us cards and give us a lottery ticket for Christmas. I want you to know that I always looked forward to that." I don't know if she ever received anything from other leaders. From the sound of it, probably not.

It's a shame, because I know how much she did for our office.

School leaders - please stop being so inconsiderate and cheap. You are giving the rest of us a bad name.


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