by Alex Palmer | February 25, 2019
With Employee Appreciation Day taking place on Friday, March 1, it's an opportunity for managers to find impactful ways to recognize workers. Whether seeking to create a formal acknowledgement of the day or simply offering up a small on-the-spot gesture to show employees' efforts are noticed, managers can celebrate the day in a wide range of ways -- and using gift cards is one of the most effective ways to do so.
 
Deborah Merkin, CEO and founder of GiftCard Partners, which helps companies leverage gift cards for employee recognition, motivation and sales incentives, spoke with Incentive about worthwhile ways to get such cards into the mix on Employee Appreciation Day.
 
What makes gift cards an effective reward for employees?
 Managers might think recognition is as easy as giving a verbal thank you, but they shouldn't underestimate the trophy value of tangible rewards. Gift cards are a prevalent, noncash reward that managers can use due to their flexibility and the variety of brands to choose from.
 
The effectiveness of a reward depends on how memorable it is to the employee. Because this reward choice can be tailored to fit what your employees care about most - such as dinner at a restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory or even supplies for a home-improvement project from a hardware store like Home Depot - it is the perfect way to show your appreciation.
 
How can managers best use gift cards on Employee Appreciation Day?

Effective recognition depends on your audience: their age, stage in life and personal preferences. Taking the time to personalize the reward, even in a small way, can make all the difference between a reward that's remembered  and one that sits in the bottom of a drawer.
 
Add a personalized note with the gift card to nail down what you appreciate about the employee's contribution to the team or company as a whole. Be specific about what you think is great about that employee. You'll be surprised how going into detail makes a big impact.
 
Also, pay attention to presentation. How you present the reward and give recognition is sometimes more important than the actual monetary amount or brand of the card. It's up to the manager to know the best method of presenting the reward to each employee so it's meaningful to him or her.
 
What are common missteps that managers make with gift cards that should be avoided?

One misstep is assuming that generic prepaid gift cards are more effective. With the countless brands that offer physical and digital gift cards, it's easier than ever to choose specific cards that can make an impact on the employee. Branded gift cards don't just harbor value; they create an entire experience for employees that they will remember and associate with being appreciated at work.
 
For larger groups, something to avoid is buying gift cards in bulk at the store. The Incentive Research Foundation reported last year that 69 percent of companies do some of their gift-card sourcing at the local retail level, not knowing there are gift-card agencies offering that service. When you source your cards through a professional agency, they can help match the most effective gift cards for your program and audience demographic, while saving you money with bulk discounts.
 
Also, though it might seem counterintuitive, it can be a misstep having too many gift-card choices or options. When there's a targeted selection of gift cards that are in line with your program's goal, it's easier for the recipient to choose which one applies best to him/her. For example, if you're running a health and wellness incentive program, you'll want the gift card rewards to relate to wellness.
 
For those looking at using gift cards more long term -- beyond Employee Appreciation Day -- what are best practices they should keep in mind?

Excellence starts with management. In a recent survey we conducted with the IRF, only 48 percent of managers felt they had enough training to deliver results and meaningfully impact employees. If the manager is responsible for giving employees rewards, it's vital to make sure the manager is trained by HR on what to do and best practices.
 
Also, find knowledgeable professionals who can provide your company with the expertise to make your program as effective as possible. Gift-card consultancies can help your company make the best choices for successful implementation and engagement, while providing discounts for purchasing in bulk.