10 Affordable Employee Appreciation Day Ideas (and 3 to Avoid)


Since 1995, the first Friday in March has been celebrated as Employee Appreciation Day. Unlike Labor Day, Employee Appreciation Day is specifically for employers to honor their employees.  Studies have shown that showing appreciation increases the employer’s retention rates, which then increases productivity rates and saves the company money. It also keeps employees happy and engaged in their work. Of course, it’s not the only way to retain employees, but it’s a good annual reminder. Making your employees feel valued improves productivity, improves morale, helps build brand loyalty, and is ultimately good for the company’s bottom line.

But Isn’t Employee Appreciation Day Expensive?

Not at all! Employees don’t want gifts, so it’s actually one of the few holidays that’s easiest to celebrate on a budget. The Motivating by Appreciation (MBA) Inventory () did an online assessment that was given to 100,000 employees. They were given choices of how they’d prefer to be shown appreciation in the workplace. Their options were:

  1. Words of affirmation, either verbally or in writing
  2. Ability to have quality time with coworkers or supervisor
  3. Acts of service, such as help from a supervisor
  4. Tangible gifts (not raises or money, but small gifts like a mug)
  5. A workplace-appropriate way of touch to show celebration, such as a high-five, fist bump, or handshake

Of all the possible options, 90% of employees didn’t want gifts. 47% preferred to have words of affirmation (nearly half!), and in last place with just under 6% was tangible gifts.

There was very little difference when broken down by gender:

Gifts 05.6% 05.5%
Services 26.1% 20.8%
Time 23.2% 25.5%
Words 45.1% 48.2%

This means that the most wanted form of appreciation from your employees might be just acknowledging what they do every day. Genuine appreciation could come in the form of just celebrating each person’s small wins on a regular basis, either verbally or in a company-wide email with a quick compliment on their hard work. That being said, here are some splashier ways to show appreciation for employees:


10 Affordable Ways to Celebrate Employee Appreciation Day

It’s important to thank people for the job they do. Now more than ever, everyone has options on where and what they can do to pay their bills. Here are some affordable ways to show you appreciate your team’s efforts without spending a ton of money:


  • If you already have a system in place to publicly acknowledge small wins, Employee Appreciation Day is a great time to highlight a year’s worth of success!
  • Food all around! Treating everyone to lunch is one of the most popular ways to acknowledge Employee Appreciation Day.
  • Make it personal! Personalized thank-you notes are particularly useful if you’re in charge of a small office. Don’t forget the people who keep the place going when you’re not there such as maintenance staff or a nighttime shift. Let everyone know that they’re needed.
  • Let everyone leave early!
  • Movie time! Schedule everyone in groups to visit a conference room and treat them to a few movie shorts and some popcorn or candy. Depending on the shorts, it may only take 15-30 minutes per group. Popcorn is cheap and movies are both a break and a group activity.
  • Send mail! For people working virtually, send a gift package to each ahead of time and have a planned group video chat.
  • Make them internet famous! Post a meaningful ‘thank you’ message on social media!

  • Gift snack subscriptions are always an easy win because then you can show you really do appreciate everyone year-round.
  • Offer an off-site day, where employees can go visit a client or just a change of scenery to recharge, like a library or cafe. This also shows that you trust them to get their work done without anyone watching their every move.
  • Have an employee Wall of Fame to highlight wins, include fun pictures, and show off your company culture! (They’re also fun for new people to look at.)


Three Things That Ruin Employee Appreciation Day Efforts

For this list, we researched and saw what people complained about after Employee Appreciation Day. These are all based on real examples, written by real people. Please don’t do any of these:


1. Make a Show of Appreciation Without Backing it Up

Doing something just for show not only immediately sours everyone’s mood, but also your long-term reputation. A few ways that employers have actually done this:

Example: Ordering food, but not paying for it.

This requires employees to pay for their own “gift”. You wouldn’t ask anyone to pay for their own birthday or holiday gift, so don’t ask them to do it for this. They will remember this because you’ve ruined both the expectation and the show of appreciation. Any “thank you” from the company now feels phony.

Example: Giving a coupon for store merchandise

Likewise, don’t give a coupon for anything the company sells, which essentially is keeping the money from the employee’s paycheck within the store. Either give it out for free or don’t use company merchandise at all. If you can’t afford to give them something for free, then write a thank you note for everyone.


2. Give Gifts Without Acknowledging What Employees Want or Need

Giving a gift means it is for them. Ignoring their needs or wants in favor of the bottom line will backfire in both the short term when the team realizes what you’ve done and the long term when they consider leaving. Here are some ways that employers tried to spend money and show appreciation, but didn’t take the employees’ situation into account.


Example: A donation to a charity in the employee’s name

If employees aren’t being paid enough to take the issue of money off the table, then making a donation to a charity feels like a slap in the face. We guarantee that every single underpaid employee would prefer to have the money given to them, not a charity. Raising money for a charity can absolutely happen in the workplace, but not when you’re trying to show the current employees your appreciation. If you don’t have the time or system set up to acknowledge people’s individual efforts and prefer a monetary gift, please just give out money in a form you’re comfortable with.

Example: Gift cards that are overly specific or won’t cover the cost

A gift card that won’t cover the cost of an actual item. For instance, a $5.00 gift card for a Papa Murphy’s pizza won’t cover the cost of an actual pizza. The employee only has two options now, to either pay for the rest themselves or not use it. This doesn’t work because of three assumptions:

  1. You assume that they enjoy the product in general and that specific brand.
  2. That they have the spare money to spend on the rest of the cost for this product. This is particularly insulting if any employees are near the poverty line and living paycheck-to-paycheck because they can’t afford to use this “gift”.
  3. This is equal to how much you appreciate them doing this job.  We guarantee that a partial present is terrible. Do you only partially appreciate their work? Of course not!

Likewise, giving a gift card that covers the entire cost for a store or product they won’t use is also a waste of your money and shows how little interest you have in the group. If gift cards are what you’d prefer to do, a basic Visa gift card or an E-gift card, they can choose what they’d like online. You have spent the money, given them a physical thing, and without any worry of them not liking the end result.


3. Throw a Group Event and Make it Mandatory

The worst employee appreciation decision is the “mandatory party”. It can come in the form of a team-building exercise, a weekend away, etc. The required socializing with people you see 40 hours a week doesn’t always go as planned and can drive people further apart. As the workload usually isn’t reduced, people have to scramble to cover all of their work before also going to this event.

No matter what the event is and what good intentions someone has, some people will still not want to attend. Not everyone is a social animal and insisting on having them pretend to be is uncomfortable. That’s okay! Some people just aren’t built that way. You can’t please everyone.

Alison Green, the author of the book “Ask a Manager” and the phenomenal website of the same name, addressed the issue of getting out of Staff Appreciation Day: if you’re a department head or manager, you probably have to make an appearance. If you’re non-exempt, you must be paid for the time unless the party is really optional. It is legal to mandate that employees attend an event outside of the usual work hours. That doesn’t mean it’s popular.


In Conclusion

Most of all, what employers can do is give employees a living wage, health benefits, and a healthy work-life balance. Showing your employees how much they mean to you on Employee Appreciation Day reduces turnover, increases productivity, strengthens loyalty, and improves your bottom line. It’s easy to do, can be done for very little time and money, and is more than worthwhile. We wish you and your staff a very happy Employee Appreciation Day!


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