To some, gift-giving can be the hardest part of the holidays--and not only for the Scrooges that are tight-fisted with cash. The challenge is often deciding what to give and what to spend on your employees, especially if you don't want to give the same gift across the board to everyone. Different personalities, positions and relationships come into play, in addition to the cost of buying for tens or hundreds of employees.

While every employee enjoys a cash gift, business owners say creative gifts earn more bang for the buck. Cost can be mitigated because it's not obvious how much you spent on a clever object or experience. Uniformity is less of an issue because creativity is flexible. And thinking beyond — or in addition to — the checkbook lets staff members know they're appreciated. "We work hard, we play hard," says Paul Vagadori, senior human resources director for San Francisco-based, an online dating community. "Our group is very hardworking in a fast-paced environment. We want to show we care, we appreciate, we value the above-and-beyond they go to, and we want to show them we're willing to invest time and money for what they do."

Here are some ideas to get the right gift at the right price to send the desired message to your staff.

How to Choose a Holiday Gift for Your Staff: Involving the Group

Business owners say involving the group in a gift boosts worker morale, and the most all-inclusive gift is a holiday party. throws several holiday parties, starting with a Thanksgiving potluck where the company provides the main dishes and its 70 employees brings a special dish. "It's a family gathering of sorts, especially for the international folks," Vagadori says. "We wrap some tradition into it as well so they can see how we celebrate here in the States."

In the middle of December, the company throws a casual, beer-and-chips party for employees, followed up by a more formal event at a posh location at the end of the month. Employees can bring dates and the company stocks the venue with TVs, Wii games and gambling tables. A professional photographer captures everyone at the party, and on the way out, everyone gets a photo in a brushed-nickel frame. "It's little things, but it's little things that make the big deal," Vagadori says.

Marc Braunstein, founder and CEO of the Denver-based cash back and coupon website, says his holiday party is one of many in a yearlong cycle of parties for his 75 employees. "We try to make this the best company to work for all year round. We have parties, we encourage the silliness," he says. "Our employees are the reason we've been able to double in size two years in a row."

The holiday party is "major league," Braunstein says. Last year's was at the Denver Zoo. Employees and their dates or families could walk through the zoo, which was lit with Christmas lights. "We saw lions, giraffes — it was gold," he says. "A gorgeous experience." The company sponsors a gift exchange at the party — a good way to control costs as employees are tasked with bringing a gift that meets certain criteria. "And there's some entertainment as to who ended up with what gift," he says. "Not everybody got the same thing. There was some creativity around it."

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How to Choose a Holiday Gift for Your Staff: Gift of Freedom

Another meaningful gift is time off — extra free days around the holidays, or as an excursion gift.
Blurb, a San Francisco-based online platform for self-publishing books, surprises its 80 employees each winter with a unique holiday gift, says Pete Wheelan, Blurb COO. One year employees were given a day off with cash for one of several themed day trips — a day skiing in the mountains, a day at the spa, a day at the movies. "We're a consumer-driven business and incredibly busy around the holidays, so it was a chance for staff to take off and recharge," he said.

Vagadori says gives generous time off around the holidays so employees don't have to take personal days to enjoy the holidays. Additionally, the company gives employees merit-based year-end bonuses that aren't associated with the holidays, but conveniently come around the gift-giving period.

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How to Choose a Holiday Gift for Your Staff: Token Gifts

Token gifts — items that don't cost much but are useful, not clutter — supplement the intangible gift of a fun time at a company party.

This year's token gift will probably be an insulated travel mug with the company logo. "It's not meant to be a huge dollar amount, but it's nice, not cheap and tinny. It's worthwhile to invest and get a nice one for everybody," Vagadori says. "And it has a dual purpose — it's environmentally friendly so we're not burning through cups for water and coffee."

Fibrebond, a Webster, Louisiana-based company that manufactures concrete structures for telecommunications, education and corrections industries, this year will give employees a holiday book it made through Blurb. "We're a family-owned business in a relatively small town, so there's more of a homegrown feel," says Stephanie Jordan, an executive there. "We're the largest employer in the parish, and sometimes that family feel gets lost in the everyday shuffle of trying to get the job done. We thought a book would be good for morale and build that family feeling."

Employees were asked to share a holiday story, recipe, vacation, or anything else interesting to add to the book — essentially a corporate yearbook. In its first year, 80 of 300 employees participated — some with group pictures or stories from their departments — for an 80-page book that was be gifted to employees and customers. Blurb was fast and affordable, Jordan says, and the quality the company was looking for. "We wanted it to be a keepsake item, something they'd hold onto."

Aside from the corporate yearbook theme, Wheelan says businesses use Blurb to make company history books for their employees to mark a milestone or celebrate the end of a major project, and then distribute the book as a holiday gift to staff members.

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How to Choose a Holiday Gift for Your Staff: Giving by Giving Back

Giving gifts of parties, corporate yearbooks or special time off are appreciated, business owners say, but add that giving employees an avenue to donate food and gifts to charities during the holiday is another morale-boosting gift. has done holiday fundraisers for breast cancer and military veterans organizations. "We give [employees] the ability to make a difference in their jobs and beyond, in the community," Braunstein says.

"It helps with morale on another end," Vagadori says. does a giving tree where employees buy gifts for a needy family. The company also collects food for a food bank, "with a healthy competition over who can bring in the most weight in food," he says. "This way, individuals who work in a nice environment, and who are happy to have jobs can give back. It's nice to be on the giving end."

As you choose your staff's holiday gifts, use creativity — it saves money, keeps uniformity, and adds an element of fun to cap the work year.

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