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updated 11/22/2012 4:45:52 PM ET 2012-11-22T21:45:52

As the holiday season approaches, you may be thinking about employee gifts. While everyone appreciates a holiday treat, Cindy Ventrice, author of Make Their Day! Employee Recognition that Works (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009) says holiday gifts and bonuses are now considered an entitlement in many organizations rather than a reward for hard work. "People bank on [their holiday bonuses]," she says.

"They plan their vacations, their gift giving, some plan it right into their income in terms of paying their bills. So, there is no appreciation element in many cases. They’re not seeing it as the reward. They see it as a piece of their compensation," says Ventrice.

While Ventrice is clear that companies shouldn’t do away with the holiday bonus, she argues that true recognition is not given through a one-time bonus check. Here are four things to consider when deciding how to thank your employees.

Related: How Praising Employees Can Help Your Business Thrive

1. Include a personal message. “We often overlook the strength of written praise,” says Ventrice. She gives the example of an employee who kept handwritten notes of praise for years, pulling them out when they needed a confidence boost. “When you take a little bit of extra effort to put it in writing, it pays you back many times over. People read that over and over again,” she says.

Messages should include specifics about the employee’s work and what was appreciated. They can be included in employee’s bonus envelopes or made into a group experience, such as a message board handwritten notes highlighting at least one thing that you value about each employee.

2. Know your audience. Ventrice says it’s difficult to come up with best practices when it comes to employee gifts because rewards will mean different things to different groups. Understanding what will make your staff enthusiastic is the first step in determining appropriate rewards.

"Know your staff -- who they are and what they’re going to value," says Ventrice. While a white water rafting adventure may be the perfect team-building reward for a young, fun office, a formal dinner at a fancy restaurant may be more suitable for a serious work culture.

Related: 10 Gifts Entrepreneurs Can Give to Staffers

3. Offer non-monetary compensation. Ventrice surveyed over 200 employees from 98 companies to find out what rewards they valued the most. “Across all ages and cultures, time off was absolutely number one,” she says. Flex time given for a specific accomplishment in the form of a longer lunch hour or going home early is a great way to show appreciation for a job well done.

The study confirmed that the cost of recognition awards has only minimal impact on employee perception of appreciation. Fifty-seven percent reported that the most meaningful recognition was free.

Other forms of recognition that scored high included opportunities to learn from senior staff or take a course that wasn’t offered to everyone, and being given challenging assignments. "Programs run by managers who know what makes recognition meaningful and know how to provide it translate into higher engagement, retention, loyalty and productivity," says Ventrice.

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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