07/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Best $73 I Ever Spent

Close your eyes for a moment and consider the collection of bosses you've had since you joined the workforce. I remember my first boss, Mac, when I suffered through six week at the fries and shake work station of McDonald's. He helped me understand that "boss" was a four-letter word and spelled backward it's what I felt like doing when I came home from work each day (SOB also defines how I described Mac to my friends). But, I also remember Larry Keating, who mentored me with great patience and wisdom in my summer internship between college and business school. Larry helped me realize I had more ability than I thought I did so I could accomplish more than I thought I would. He helped me realize I could jump much higher than I ever imagined.

My hotel company, Joie de Vivre, has a more than ten-year tradition of celebrating "employee recognition week" just as we're going into our busy summer season. We started this tradition as a means of helping our maids, bellmen, bartenders, and managers realize that we truly appreciated how much life they gave to our enterprise. While we initially were thrifty with our expenditures during this week by just having a companywide BBQ, with time our generosity grew such that we were offering employees the opportunity for their families to go to local theme parks or for cruises on the San Francisco Bay or tickets to see the SF Giants or Oakland A's. More recently, we spent nearly $100,000 on these various recognition week activities which may sound lavish, but when you realize that this is only about $35 per employee (or about $1 per hour that each of our employees worked that week), you come to realize that the good feelings about our company culture that are generated from these activities are probably worth it. Heck, you could spend $100k in legal fees in California just settling one wrongful termination suit of an employee who didn't feel properly recognized.

While employee recognition week may be a wise investment, this year we don't have the cash to invest so we've had to make substantial cutbacks in some of the more expensive activities. Sound familiar? Does that mean we can't recognize our people? Why don't we go back to the roots of what recognition means? Compensation is a right, but recognition is a gift. What gift could I give my staff that would be as meaningful as what Larry Keating gave me that summer 27 years ago? Yesterday, I decided to write each of the 80 people who work in our headquarters a handwritten, heart-felt thank you card. For less than a dollar per card and about six hours of my time, I could give the ultimate gift that we all are looking for. Cancel your round of golf this weekend and plant your self in your favorite chair watching the NBA finals and pen some thankful prose to those who work for you. As William James once wrote, "The deepest hunger in humans is the desire to be appreciated." I don't know about you, but I've saved cards that old high school flames wrote me as well as those that employees have written me over the years. The power of genuine, customized appreciation will never lose its value, even in a gloomy fact, it's probably what we're all thirsty for in this desert of a depression.

The Gallup organization found that the single most important variable in employee productivity and loyalty is not the pay, the perks, or the benefits. It's the quality of the relationship between employees and their supervisors. Isn't it ironic that pay, perks, and benefits all cost your company at the bottom line, but authentic recognition, especially when it's most unexpected, costs very little and gives the most impressive return on investment. I believe the $73 I spent on those cards was the best investment I'll make in 2009!

Chip Conley is the Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.