At Ask a Manager today, there's a question from an admin who feels slighted by the milestone gift she got from her employer (question #2 at the link). And it's no wonder: for all other employees, regardless of hierarchical level, the gifts involve significant time and expense, from half-days at the spa to lunches with friends to a cash gift. Our OP got a teddy bear - something she doesn't even like - and that's it.
Of course OP would be insulted! There's no other way to interpret that (tho Alison does point out several ways it might have slipped through the cracks, that certainly doesn't make OP feel more appreciated).
It's worth knowing that, in many cases, offering a perk and then taking it away is worse than never offering it at all (BTW, that link is worth clicking on just for the outrage of the $15,000 umbrella stand that looks like a dog). Once you start offering perks, you need to be really thoughtful and deliberate about how you execute them.
And that's what tends to trip employers up. Someone high up thinks "we should bring in a cake on employee's birthdays" and pats themselves on the back, proud that they're authorizing a (small) outlay of cash to celebrate their employees. Often, its the managers at the front lines who are left to deal with the various issues that arise (what happens if an employee is on vacation during their birthday? Do you order the cake when they get back? What if you forget? or what if an employee doesn't like their birthday acknowledged publicly at all, as many don't?).
It doesn't take long for a "perk" to be a source or stress or, worse, inequity. When the Chief of Staff's birthday gets some really fancy cinnamon rolls from the local bakery because the CEO knows they love cinnamon rolls, but the next week the secretary gets a Safeway sheet cake even though they're gluten intolerant because their busy supervisor never cared to ask, people notice.
And if the goal of a perk is to improve morale and show appreciation, that CEO just did the opposite (at least, did the opposite for the secretary, the person who already makes a lot less money and has a lot less autonomy and decision-making power than the CoS does). If that seems like an extreme example, I'm just gonna assume you didn't even click on the AAM link above.
I've also seen this play out personally. At an old job, department management gave $50 Amazon gift cards as a wedding gift when employees got married. It's a fine gesture as far as it goes, I guess. The trickiness popped up when one longtime staffer, who was well-known and well-loved by leadership, was married. My manager thought $50 was way too little and insisted we do $100. I told her, OK, as long as that means that all employee wedding gifts are now $100. My manager breezily agreed, as there were perhaps a half-dozen weddings a year. I bought the card happily, but knew exactly what was going to happen.
And sure enough, the very next wedding that popped up, a few months later, it did. I sent my standard email to my manager confirming I was buying the $100 gift card, and she immediately balked at how much we were giving the employee. I wasn't having it, and just reminded her that we'd increased the amount when the other employee got married, and that we definitely couldn't just immediately lower it again.
It turned out fine, with the other employee getting $100. But it wouldn't have if someone on their team (me) hadn't specifically been looking out for that. Left to their own devices, they absolutely would have given the staffers they knew best (with all the inequities that brings) better gifts than they gave newer/more junior staffers.
In the grand scheme of things, this seems (and may be!) minor. And you might be thinking that of course more senior staffers get better perks, that's just how it works. But, of course, "how it works" for the past entire history of capitalism has been specifically and devastatingly inequitable. If you're a progressive company, or, like, a good person, you should be constantly questioning whether "How It Works" is really getting you the world you want to live in.
I chose to make this a sticking point because I'd seen perk after perk go to folks at my company who, while generally good people in stressful jobs, were high-up, friends with leadership (or leadership themselves), and most importantly, made enough freaking money to afford their own perks. Every massage I ever saw bought for someone who'd had a rough week went to people who made more than $100K a year (I didn't have access to payroll records, but I knew enough to know that, and I'm being very conservative in that benchmark). Meanwhile, we had front-line staffers working all hours, making a low wage, and getting no massages regardless of how bad their week was. They got cookies, sometimes.
It's not simply that companies reward folks that are higher up the ladder. It's that they're more likely see and understand the stress that their fellow high-earning, high-position friends are in, and want to do something about it, then they are to see or understand the stress that the folks at the bottom are under.
That's the part of leadership at a big-ish company that is so classically difficult: how do you maintain an understanding of what's happening at the bottom when you're at the top?
TBH, usually the answer is that people barely even try. One member of that company's leadership (a not-infrequent receiver of such perks as massages and other "gifts" from other higher-ups at the company that were paid for with company money) once made me help her redecorate a conference room because, and I can't emphasize how much I'm not making this us, morale seemed low lately and she thought sprucing up the room would pep people up.
And, of course, the following year when leadership announced that belts would be tightening, budgets would be cut, and (many assumed, it turned out correctly) layoffs would be coming, the CEO acted aggrieved and offended when a (part time!) employee asked if he would be personally taking a pay cut.
So, yeah. Perks seem tricky, but they're not really. They boost morale and make folks feel appreciated, but only when applied thoughtfully and equitably. If you're not willing to put in the (basic level of) work to ensure that you'll execute a perk well each and every time, then you should consider not doing it. Because I about guarantee that the first time you forget or phone it in, it's gonna be your hard-working, low-paid admin that you hurt, not your fellow VP.