Letters to work Santa

Some festive rewards can go down like a lump of coal. So when it comes to gifts perhaps its time you read your employees' Christmas lists

The news that sleigh bells are ringing and Santa is on his way makes some people brim over with excitement, while others are struck with a sense of impending doom. This ambivalence extends to the workplace, with the festive season presenting both an opportunity and threat to staff morale, depending on how insightfully HR approaches the Christmas question.

One thing is for sure this year: with diversity a hot topic on business agendas, a blanket strategy of handing out cheap plonk and naff Christmas chocolates is not going to cut the mustard. This tactic smacks of laziness and thoughtlessness, not least because many employees don’t drink alcohol for religious and/or health reasons, many are dieting or cutting down on their sugar intake, and many don’t celebrate Christmas at all.

For Virgin Money’s people director Matt Elliott Christmas serves as an effective calendar marker for reflecting. It brings the year to a close and recognises achievement, regardless of whether all employees celebrate it or not. The firm holds community days to support local charities, hosts staff parties, and lays on family entertainment for employees’ kids as ways of connecting work and home life.

“The festive period is more about togetherness than receiving a gift or reward,” he says. “[It] provides an important opportunity to reflect on the year and truly appreciate the efforts of all our people.”

When it comes to giving Christmas gifts or perks though, the best advice seems to be: don’t assume you know what your employees want. Instead ask them and give them choices. That’s one reason Virgin Money holds its annual flexible benefits elections this time of year; so employees can make use of benefits that matter to them like buying more leave to spend with their families.

It’s the thought that counts most, not necessarily how much you spend on incentives, Elliott believes, adding that the company favours ‘thank you’ gifts that are “thoughtful and relevant to our brand” such as the Virgin Money Monopoly board game.

Giving employees choice is a sentiment LinkedIn also embodies – and not just at Christmas. Its PerkUp programme allows employees to select incentives relevant to them up to a total annual value of £1,200.

But while rewarding staff all year round, LinkedIn acknowledges that the festive season is a great time to go that extra mile, says director of EMEA HR business partners Bridget Gisby. The social media platform “goes beyond the usual perks during the festive season” and offers what it calls a “December InDay”, which again centres around personalisation.

“This is a monthly investment day we give back to employees to focus on themselves and the world,” says Gisby. “We encourage employees to consider all they’ve accomplished throughout the year and what they want to achieve in the year ahead.”

Each of the 12 days of Christmas has a different InDay theme, such as learning or family, so employees can do something that matters to them. Some choose to volunteer at a food bank while others learn a new skill, for instance.

In the spirit of banning assumptive gifts this year, HR magazine asked employees what they hope to get in their stockings from their ‘work Santa’. The message was simple: a welcome present or perk for one employee isn’t the same as for another. But there are some recurring wishes cropping up on employee lists, according to exclusive research HR magazine commissioned from Toluna Research.

Requests for money were most common, with the research highlighting the financial pressures many workers feel at this time of year and in the current economic climate. Vouchers also rated highly because of their versatility, as did time off to spend with loved ones. However, often respondents weren’t asking for much (apart from the obligatory few Christmas wishes for a holiday to the Bahamas!) except recognition and appreciation.

And for HR leaders what’s top of the Christmas list this year? For Virgin Money’s Elliott nothing flash and fancy, but highly practical: “A long time ago Northern Rock [bought by Virgin Money in 2011] provided all staff with a turkey. The longer-serving colleagues still remember it fondly. So Santa I’d like a turkey please, like the old days!”

What employees want for Christmas

Dear work Santa,

I’d really appreciate hampers of Christmas goodies being given to the office this festive season. The number of guests who visit the office always goes up during this period, so it’s nice for employers to help by providing something everyone can snack on. But please note: I do not like getting Quality Street chocolates. That’s a horrible gift. Thoughtless and such a waste.

Yours, James

Technical director at a leather consultancy


Dear work Santa,

I’d like a shopping centre gift voucher or an experience voucher. It would show that you want to thank me but allows me the freedom to select my own gift. I don’t care that it isn’t personalised for me – you’re my employer not my friend.

Yours, Anonymous



Dear work Santa,

For Christmas I’d love an extra day off to go Christmas shopping. It’s also nice to have a few boxes of chocolates dotted around the office. And a card and bottle of wine from my boss. It’s important to me that it’s thoughtful, not necessarily extravagant.

Yours, Julie

Finance director at a sports brand


Dear work Santa,

I think what you do at Christmas is pretty cool: treating us to a November ski weekend. Leaving on a Thursday and back on a Saturday means we get two days off work. I also like that we do a secret Santa and a couple of festive dinners together.

Yours, Julia

Technical writer for a software company


Dear work Santa,

Flexibility is a huge thing for me. I believe we employees should enjoy our jobs but they shouldn’t take over our lives, so it’s great if we can start and finish a little earlier or later.

Yours, Philippa

Marketing executive at a marketing company


Dear work Santa,

I liked what a previous employer did when they ran a Christmas raffle. Everyone would collect a ticket, which would win a gift like whisky or wine from the table. I’m not sure if the gambling and booze were welcomed by all, but everyone appreciated the unwritten rule of an early finish to the working day.

I’d also love a wellbeing allowance for a gym membership or massage in January to counter those inevitable post-Christmas blues. (It might stop all that job searching people tend to do in January too.)

Oh, and please keep closing our department for St Andrew’s Day in November. It’s a good Christmas shopping day when the kids are still at school!

Yours, April

Project manager at a Scottish government agency


Dear work Santa,

Our workforce is made up mainly of Millennials and we value experience above anything. The type of things we’d love for Christmas are company experiences such as a sleepover at the Natural History Museum, a team cooking class, a murder mystery evening, volunteering at a local homeless charity soup kitchen, or the chance to put on our own company Christmas play. We love to do things that differ from the usual Christmas drinks after work.

Yours, Anonymous

Employee at a creative PR agency


Dear work Santa,

I’m a real foodie so would love to be treated to some organic steaks and a box of wine; maybe some handmade chocolates too. In fact just get me a MasterChef gift card, which can get me all that!

Yours, Stephanie

Commercial manager at a plastic recycling firm