Red Envelope

By User:Jpquidores (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Jpquidores (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, is a huge holiday in China. People have at least a week off of work and they travel all over to be with family. A tradition is to give red envelopes or Hong Bao with money in them to pass on best wishes. They’re generally given to children, retirees and employees.

I recently got back on WeChat to try to better understand the app that half a billion people are actively using, Add me on WeChatand get back in contact with some people I met when I did some work for a client in China. One friend shared an article  on how much to give your cleaning lady and driver to make sure you keep them happy and don’t go poor. Keep in mind, in China having servants is pretty normal, so this isn’t advice for the Rockefellers. If you had a full time, live in ayi who cooked, cleaned and took care of your kids, and might even speak English, the cost probably wouldn’t go over $765/month. The cost goes down as the days they come go down.

Hong Bao isn’t an Annual Bonus

What we learn from the article is Hong Bao isn’t the same as an annual bonus. “It is one of the many times during the year to show closeness and care for the relationships around you.”

Now that is interesting. Hong Bao is to “…care for the relationships around you.” This care helps encourage the growth of relationships between families and Ayis (cleaning ladies) and Drivers. It moves the employers concerns up higher in the minds of the ayis and drivers, so that they go beyond the expected and help out like elders in the family.

One of the guidelines given is, if you have an ayi come once a week, but you never talk to her, you have no relationship, and no need to give more, even if she’s worked for you for 2 years. If you talk and share with her when she comes, you do have a relationship and you give.

The Hong Bao Reinforces the Relationship in Appropriate Proportions

The relationship isn’t just built on money. It takes more than that to build a rapport and show mutual caring. The money is really just a gesture, but it shows you value this person, and you would appreciate them caring and going beyond the basics. You can’t just expect that level of caring, you have to put an effort and some money into it. Just to give you an idea of how much money we’re talking about, in the guidelines given if you have a live in ayi or full time driver that’s worked for you for over a year, the Hong Bao would still only be about $300. Particularly if you’re in China earning a salary comparable to what you’d get in the west, it’s really not about the money.

The article goes on to say that gifts can be even more thoughtful. Clearly, you have to know someone to give them something other than cash. And there are warnings about paying too much. It can send the wrong signal, too. Maybe you’re trying to butter them up for something bad, or you’ll make them feel indebted to you. It’s important to have appropriate interactions in the development of the relationship.

Lessons from Hong Bao

Foreign culture is a fascinating subject, and China, in particular, has such a rich, old and often subtle culture it’s very interesting to learn about it. But beyond that, there are likely interesting lessons to learn elsewhere about relationship building. Relationships are the foundation of modern sales, and of having great employees. If you took the concept of the Hong Bao to these relationships, what would you consider?


What you do to build relationships must be appropriate for your relationship with partners, customers, vendors, influencers and the community. Big gifts might seem like bribery, or they might imply you’re superior in a relationship, when the other party doesn’t think you are.


Too much or too little of anything put into a relationship will send the wrong messages.

More than money

Relationships are not built on financial rewards alone. Relationships require communication and learning. You might get a lot more loyalty from employees by getting to know them than by paying them a lot more.

Not a bonus

A bonus is dispassionate, and financial. Gifts are about relationships. They show you care about more than just the work.


developer, writer, speaker

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