DebtofGratitude_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Why was there no one to answer the phones at Windsor Resources the other day? Instead of a proverbial “Gone Fishin’” sign up on the front door, it would have been more apt had it said, “Tennis, anyone?”


More like tennis everyone: All 30 employees of the New York and Stamford, Connecticut, staffing and recruiting firm spent the day in Flushing Meadows at the National Tennis Center, checking out the action at the U.S. Open. It was a measure of thanks from Windsor chief executive and founder John Schapiro to his staffers, who he says have stuck by him through the ups and downs of running a small business.   


“Everyone’s given their all to make this opportunity for me and I want to give back,” Schapiro says. “I think everyone works with me and not for me. When you have a staff that shows such ethics, loyalty, and appreciation, you want to do something nice for them.”


DebtofGratitude_PQ.jpgWith Labor Day having just passed by on the calendar, it’s time to reflect on a holiday that pays homage to Americans’ work ethic and honors the effort that built this country and its giant economy.


It can also prompt small business owners to think about how they can show gratitude to their employees. While times have been tough at many companies recently, it’s still important to remember the long-term value of having employees who feel appreciated. “The costs associated with thanking our employees are minimal compared to the costs we incur when we have to replace them,” notes David Handmaker, president of Next Day Flyers, a Rancho Dominguez, California-based online printing company. “Letting employees know they are valued is a message which should be continually conveyed.”


So how can you give back without breaking the bank, while still giving employees something of genuine value? 


Start by thinking of what you can afford, says Jerry Ross, a longtime entrepreneur and now executive director of the National Entrepreneurial Center, a small business development group in Orlando, Florida. “A raise of a dollar an hour is nice, but after the first paycheck it may not mean much to them. It’s something that will cost you every week after that.”


Ross recalls taking his teams on brewery tours, go-kart racing outings, and pizza and beer nights—all focusing on building camaraderie, boosting morale, and making for fun memories. Over the years, he’d negotiate with clients to build up a stockpile of freebies and gift certificates, which he’d in turn offer to staffers deserving of a thank you. “People don’t usually leave companies because of money,” he says. “They leave because they have bad bosses.”


But what works? A few ideas from other small business people:


Know your staff.  Make it a general practice to chat throughout the year, to learn the names of significant others, kids, grandchildren, pets, activities, and challenges, too—the things that matter most to them. A small donation to a favorite charity or even a Bring Your Pet to Work Day will be long remembered.


Blow off steam together.  When significant goals or deadlines are reached, why not recognize hard work with a bit of a blowout? When employees can bond on other levels it can be good for your business, too. Shawn Farner, a web communications and marketing specialist in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, says he fondly remembers his time in the insurance industry, when his company would pick up the tab for a quarterly day out with co-workers. “A bean counter might see that as a day of lost productivity and a couple of hundred dollars the company didn't need to spend, but I saw it as a great way to show appreciation,” says Farner. “A bonus is nice, but a good time is even better.”


Don’t forget significant others. If your staffers are putting in long hours, it’s likely affecting their personal lives, too. So aim your special rewards at not only your employees, but their loved ones, too. “I believe people appreciate stuff that’s done for people they love even more than stuff that’s done for them,” says Tolulope Akinola, founder of AppHere, a five-person app development company in Palo Alto, California. As someone running a startup on a tight budget, he says he still does his best to find opportunities to show his appreciation, such as gifts of dinner for two at a nice restaurant or spa gift certificates to spouses or partners who deal with his employees’ longer-than-usual absences.


Low-cost rewards don’t have to feel cheap. Consider a monthly drawing with inexpensive prizes, like a later start on a Friday or a Starbucks card. Celebrate an employee of the month and let the staff make the decision. A tower of cupcakes to celebrate when an employee passes a certification exam or achieves a periodic safety record is also a good idea. While financial incentives are always welcome by employees, smaller tokens of appreciation often have a more lasting effect in showing employees their hard work is not going unnoticed.


Think big, even with small actions. As much as running a small business may have its tough moments, it’s an unimaginable achievement for many people. One way to inject a dose of humility into the workplace: Open a running group donation to children in poverty, through groups like the Save the Children Foundation, or microloans to struggling entrepreneurs in the developing world, through sites like Kiva. Marlene Caroselli, author, speaker, and corporate trainer, suggests appointing one staffer to be the collector of loose change. On Friday afternoons, as people are prepping for their weekends, ask for donations of small coins. Many programs accept as little as $5 a week to sponsor a child who is living in impoverished conditions. Annual progress reports and other correspondence give new meaning to the word “grateful.”


Behold the power of food. Whatever you do, don’t forget birthday cakes. People bond over food—dining together helps break down barriers. From bringing pizzas or bagels on a Friday to even tomatoes from your home garden, engaging your staffers with a treat can build relationships and help you connect on more than a business level. Ross says he recalls at a job earlier in his career where all members of the sales team got a big box of Omaha Steaks as a reward for meeting a goal. Even though he was a newbie, his boss told him “Even though you’re on the bench, you’re still part of the team.” But more impressed, even months later, was his wife, keeper of the refrigerator freezer.


Heading out to their grill, Ross says his wife would always pause to note: “That’s a great company!”