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Sturt and Nordstrom: The down side of glitzy holiday office parties

It may be too late to revamp your party this year. However, with budget planning around the corner, this is the perfect time to start drafting an appreciation game plan for next year that makes recognition a priority all year.
It may be too late to revamp your party this year. However, with budget planning around the corner, this is the perfect time to start drafting an appreciation game plan for next year that makes recognition a priority all year.
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This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

Once November hits, companies around the nation start planning their annual awards luncheon, fancy dinner event or holiday retreat.

Entire departments might take a Friday off or stay late to decorate the office to glow with seasonal charm. The mood this time of year is undeniably festive — at least, as festive as work can be.

But there’s something lurking under those jolly traditions: a feeling that despite the invitations, celebrations and great intentions to annually celebrate a year’s worth of effort, strategy and accomplishment, something feels off. In fact, many employees report feeling a pit-in-the-stomach feeling this time of year. Why?

“It’s already a busy and stressful time of year,” an employee who works at a call center in Arizona said. “Our company party is kind of a mix of holiday celebration and an awards banquet.”

When the employee mentioned this, it seemed as if that person was simply sharing a recognition practice inside the company. Until the employee said this: “It’s kind of strange though, because we’re required to attend.”

Apparently, the employee and many coworkers don’t get too excited for the event, and don’t always feel appreciated at the event.

“They always get everyone a gift and say how much we’re appreciated,” the person said. “I don’t want to complain but I just wonder if it’s sincere. Do I really matter to my team, my boss and my company?”

This employee's struggle is no surprise. Employees report that appreciation is one of their top needs and wants at work. There’s also a real lack of purposeful, sincere solutions that allow employees to recognize greatness in their peers — not just during the holidays, but all year.

One luncheon a year, a party and some dazzling decorations doesn’t cut it when it comes to appreciation. In fact, if an employer doesn’t make a peep about appreciation all year long, and then throws just one big extravaganza to celebrate a whole year of work, a whole company of people and three major holidays, all in the same party, of course something is going to feel off. Here’s what employers are missing with their big once-a-year celebrations:

Recognition is most effective when it’s timely. Everyone knows that if an employee pulls a big win in August but no one celebrates the success until December, the opportunity to deliver a sincere thank you for the work is lost. You must say thank you when you see something great. Don’t even wait a week. Appreciate immediately. That’s how someone knows that they’ve really wowed or made a difference — and that’s what a once-a-year occasion lacks.

A one-size-fits-all occasion doesn’t make sense. Certainly, not for large organizations where teams have different roles and responsibilities, and not even in small startups. Every team has different priorities, initiatives and goals. They’re all necessary for the company’s success. But when the holiday luncheon only recognizes overall growth instead of separate team contributions, team wins are overlooked — and opportunities to develop closer relationships and cooperative strategies fade.

Personalization is key. Some people prefer to be recognized in groups — others, with a personal letter. Some occasions demand a bigger to-do, and others just require a verbal affirmation — a simple vocal thank you. When you’re trying to recognize great work big and small for multiple people all at once, you miss opportunities for personalization that really convey your sincere gratitude. This is why the holiday luncheon feels disingenuous if it’s not supported by recognition efforts all year.

Be clear on the "why." Ask any kid whose birthday falls on December 24, 25, or 26 if they want to move their birthday celebration and you’ll hear a resounding, "Yes!" Why? Because they don’t feel like they get the spotlight they deserve. Now mix a recognition moment with a holiday party where everyone gets gifts. Wait … is it an award for hard work or a gift because it’s a holiday? It falls flat all the way around. Try celebrating the holidays for the holidays and moving your awards banquet to January when we’re all bored and cold and can’t think of anything to look forward to.

It may be too late to revamp your party this year. However, with budget planning around the corner, this is the perfect time to start drafting an appreciation game plan for next year that makes recognition a priority all year.

When someone has a birthday, sign a team card to say their contributions matter. For significant work anniversaries, get together a crew to celebrate your coworker. And when your team pulls off a feat of greatness, memorialize the date by snapping a picture, framing it and using it as great work inspiration all year long.

Research shows there’s no better way to encourage innovation, elevate teamwork and influence greatness. Make recognition a priority every day. And since it is already November, party on.

David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom work with the O.C. Tanner Institute. Learn more about The New York Times bestseller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill) at www.greatwork.com.