12/12/2012 09:20 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

4 Ways to Be a Good Santa / Bad Santa at the Office

It is that mythical time of the year where businesses start trying to spread holiday cheer. Offices are decorated, cookies and candies abound and people are figuring out which holiday luncheon to attend. Corporate executives walk the halls spreading good wishes and, yes, the holiday attire invades the dress codes.

In many cases, this is a pretty picture replete with one-time bonuses and upbeat messages to kick off the New Year like no other. In other cases, this is another wonderful example of corporate hype as organizations contemplate continued "rightsizing" and try to gloss over the ills of the previous year with insulting bonuses.

It is a question of "Good Santa / Bad Santa" and how much good or harm is done through the messages received, the actions taken and the actual culture enacted. Unfortunately, organizations often enact holiday hypocrisy, placing an undue emphasis on "goodness" during this time of the year despite negative actions taken throughout the rest of the year.

Let us consider the positives and negatives of actions taken during the holiday season:

Good Santa or Bad Santa

1. The Christmas Bonus - Good or Bad.

Many organizations use this as a time to issue a "Christmas" bonus and thank employees for their excellent service, productivity and results during the year. For organizations that have had consistent results, this type of bonus can be effective -- particularly if the bonus is meaningful. My rule -- if it is less than 10 percent of salary, you don't change focus or behavior, so only expect a thank you (maybe). On the other hand, a bonus given this time of year when layoffs have been rampant and corporate executives' excesses have been exposed can be treated as a slap in the face and regarded as a lame attempt to regain the trust and confidence of employees. Let's face it -- employees are not stupid. They can pierce the transparent veil as well as customers and shareholders.

2. The Party - Good or Bad.

A gathering of the clan is a good idea, provided that the clan knows how to behave, is grounded in the appropriate values -- and the company is responsible with its creation of the party environment. On the other hand, once alcohol is introduced into the scenario, all bets are off and we can envision, "Employees Gone Wild" as the next You Tube phenomena. In a culture where the values are conflicted (i.e. the perceived culture and the real culture are like night and day), the risk of parties gone badly is much higher.

3. The Thank You for a Job Well Done - Good or Bad.

One of our clients' CEO's used to ritualistically go on the shop floor and shake the hands of each employee (over 1000 in multiple locations) during the holiday period and thank them for their contributions. The fact that this CEO thought enough of the people that worked for the company was well received. And, a check was not part of the thank you! When expressed with sincerity and consistency throughout the year, a thank you can often be the best reward for work well done. On the other hand, when the messages given during the year are demeaning, when employees are inappropriately chastised for their efforts, the thank you is greeted with a "PC" smile and a sneer when the message deliverer has left. In fact, this gratuitous attempt to win the respect of employees can lead to high turnover as soon as the New Year comes.

4. The Next Year "Go Team" Speech - Good or Bad.

Whether the outcome has been good or bad during the year, executives often use the holiday season to rally their troops for the following year. These messages, when properly and truthfully delivered, can be an excellent way to leverage positive results, generate excitement, and boost morale. They can serve to help people recognize the gifts each individual brings to the collective of an organization. On the other hand, these speeches, when they do not speak the truth, often plant the seeds of discontent and can be perceived as yet another part of corporate hype -- which is rejected ultimately by employees and perhaps even customers and other stakeholders as well. Again, the smiles in the audience are only masking the under-the-breath comments of "are you kidding?"

Pick the Right Lambs To Follow

There is no single answer to effective morale building, no "best practice" that fits all. Each company is unique in the evolution of its culture, its relationship with its employees and the methodologies that it employs to win the game. But if you are compelled to follow the practices of others and prefer to flock like sheep (or should we say lambs), you better pick the right ones to follow! Think through the ramifications of your actions -- are you a Good Santa or a Bad Santa? -- and adjust accordingly. At this time of the year, truthful conversations and actions are particularly appreciated!