'Tis the holiday season, and for businesses that means considering how to indulge employees with vacation time, holiday parties and, the most loaded perk, holiday bonuses.

Holiday bonuses are a longtime tradition for industries like finance — think the big Wall Street firms that get Christmas bonuses the size of annual salaries — and the National Labor Relations Board has allowed unionized workers to make holiday bonuses a contractual obligation. But small businesses operate in a nebulous realm of personal discretion, where owners set their own precedent for holiday extras.

Owners can establish gifts around the holidays as an act of goodwill or as part of employees' pay package, says Harry Dannenberg, chairman of the New York City chapter of SCORE, a national nonprofit organization that offers small business counseling and advice. "It's such a personal issue that there's not a precedent for it," he says. "Different industries have different attitudes about it. If you're a mom-and-pop operation and you're part of a business family, you might have a more generous approach to the holidays than if you run a chain."

In a survey last December, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement consulting firm, found that 64 percent of employers planned to give holiday bonuses, up from 54 percent in 2008, when most industries were strained by a bad economy. Greater economic conditions certainly play into whether to give a holiday bonus, Dannenberg says, but it's good form to show employees appreciation for a successful year. "If I had a good year and people worked very hard for me, I might make a statement of how grateful we all are by presenting them with a nice gift," he says. "But it's very individual, especially with small businesses, and how you relate to the people who work for you."

This year's holiday bonus will set the precedent for subsequent years', so structuring bonuses to be affordable yet considerate is key.

How to Structure a Holiday Bonus: Decide its Purpose

What role will a holiday bonus play in your overall, yearlong pay scheme? Is it a substitute for a year-end bonus? Is it a substantial contribution to annual pay? Or is it a token of holiday spirit?

If a business already pays a year-end bonus, a holiday bonus becomes more of a gift of appreciation than part of employees' annual pay and benefits package, Dannenberg says. "If you're in a business where you get year-end bonuses, usually Christmas becomes far less of a significant issue," he says. "If you're a clerk in the store and the owner wants to spread a little cheer and give some money, give families turkeys, it becomes a small thank-you. A big thank-you is a raise or a year-end bonus."

    Ben Hemminger, CEO of Fashionphile, a Beverly Hills company that sells second-hand luxury handbags, says he gives a year-end bonus around the holidays. The family-owned business has 11 employees, mostly part-timers, and the full-time employees "are all related to me," he says. Full-timers get a $500 check — taxes deducted and all — around the last week of December, and part-timers receive a $100 cash card. "There's probably a more intriguing way to do it," he says, "but everybody would rather have the money than something worth the money."

Dannenberg agrees that token thank-yous like cash cards belong at the general employee level, not the management level. "It should be given to employees who provide a service in a business," he says. "In something like auto repair or retail, it becomes more of a gesture of recognition of service."

How to Structure a Holiday Bonus: Budgeting the Bonus

Holiday bonuses meant as tokens of appreciation don't belong in a business plan, Dannenberg says. Rather, he suggests looking at revenue from the first 10 months of the year to decide how to approach bonuses each holiday season. "Say it was a good year, I made money, therefore, on the strength of that performance, I can give 'x,'" he says. But use generosity in moderation, Dannenberg warned. Being too generous in a good year could make for an embarrassing downgrade in a bad year.

Six-year-old Fashionphile spends a few thousand dollars on year-end bonuses and year-end gifts for its part-time employees, but Hemminger says everyone understands the bonus is a small token. "No one gets paid a whole lot to begin with, so it's not like we have high expectations," he says.

Start-up businesses should do some footwork before deciding how to approach bonuses, Dannenberg says. "The issue becomes what is the precedent," he says. "If I were starting a new business, I would go around and chat with other similar merchants to see what they do. Get a feel for how other people make that evaluation and judgment."

How to Structure a Holiday Bonus: Cash versus Gift

If a holiday bonus isn't an established part of annual pay, a gift is just as meaningful as a little cash — sometimes more so if the cash gift is going to be small. "You give someone a really small amount, it's insulting," Dannenberg says. "But give them a nice bottle of wine and something that costs $10, it's nice. With a nice note, it's an expression of thanks, a matter of holiday spirit and cheer."

Hemminger says he's considering giving employees gift cards for the three restaurants they go to for lunch every day — a tax-free and useful gift, he says.

Blurb, a San Francisco publishing company where authors design their books online, during the holidays fields orders from businesses making books for their employees as holiday gifts. The employer designs the book from size and shape to content — photos or photos and text. Square books start at around $13.

When Dannenberg owned a chain of six retail stores, around the holidays he would give employees a big basket filled with fruit and a turkey. "They grew to look forward to it and enjoy it," he says, adding, "I would stay away from giving money at Christmas because of the potential cost.

 "I'd go with a nice box of candy and a bottle of wine, something that you can have uniformity that everyone can enjoy."

So as you decide how to handle the holidays, keep in mind that whether it's cash or wine, to employees, it's your appreciation for their service that counts.