Workers Remind Companies ‘It’s Better to Give Than to Receive’

Gone are the days of extravagant holiday office parties, gift exchanges, and bonuses. Employers are now turning to philanthropic giving during the holidays—a change that's driven by employees. 

Over the past several years, companies of varying sizes and industries are using the holiday season to engage their workforce in philanthropy through both giving and volunteering, James Starr, president and chief executive officer of America's Charities, told Bloomberg Law. 

In 2017, 87 percent of companies said they "understand there is an expectation to support causes and issues that are important to employees," according to the charity resource organization's snapshot of workplace philanthropy

Workplace philanthropy engagement programs account for more than $4 billion in charitable contributions each year, and employees who donate give on average five times more than traditional one-time donors, America's Charities found. 

Employees Value Philanthropy

Workers today expect their organizations to reflect company values and mission statements in their holiday events, Randstad U.S. found. A recent survey of employee workplace attitudes around the holidays found that a majority of employees (75 percent) say it's important that their companies participate in philanthropic initiatives, far more than the percentage of employees who say cookie swaps (11 percent) and gift exchanges (9 percent) top their list of favorite workplace traditions. 

"There are a number of philanthropic initiatives HR departments can explore during the holiday season," Jim Link, chief human resources officer for Randstad North America, told Bloomberg Law via email. For example, companies can coordinate outings to volunteer at soup kitchens, or donate to coat drives, food drives, or toy drives for children. 

"General fundraising efforts are also a great idea, like auctions, baking sales and even offering services to raise money—like Christmas tree disposal," Link added. However, "bringing some of these initiatives to fruition sometimes does require a reallocation of company holiday resources in terms of both time and money," he said. 

Employers should start the planning process for holiday philanthropy by surveying employees on what specific causes or events they feel most passionate about. "There will always be more engagement for causes in which employees feel personally invested," Link said. 

Organizations should strive to choose a charitable initiative that can be connected in some way to the work the company does, Link said. This strategy will likely tap into the enthusiasm employees already feel for the type of work they do, and it also gives companies the opportunity to demonstrate that they're serious about their values and mission statements, which does well for company branding, he said. 

"There's no one-size-fits-all for how employees want to volunteer," Starr said. To create a successful program, the event should be well-organized and have a defined scope, and ideally have real results for employees to see, he added. 

Avoid Pitfalls

Even when employers try to do the right thing, it’s possible to get tripped up by legal issues or rub some employees the wrong way. In this regard, the following tips and warnings came from Jason Branciforte, a shareholder with Littler Mendelson in Washington:

 Employers should avoid only endorsing one charity, because choosing one to the exclusion of others could be problematic if the charity only caters to one protected class, or one type of employee. There’s less chance of bias accusations if charitable and philanthropic activities are inclusive of employees’ backgrounds.

 Companies should also make sure these events are voluntary, not mandatory, in order to avoid legal pitfalls. Employees may feel that they don't have the physical abilities to participate, don't "identify" with the cause, or even have a personal opposition to the charity work.

 Be mindful about granting workplace access to outside groups. If holiday drives allow for non-work entities to be in the workplace, but other non-work entities—such as unions—are not granted access, that type of scenario "could lead to an unfair labor practice charge," Branciforte said. 

Overall, Branciforte suggested, employers should be encouraged to do charitable things during the holidays, but should keep programs voluntary and flexible for all employees. 

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