How Arianna Huffington turned a simple sweater into the perfect holiday tradition

Like a hug from the boss.
Like a hug from the boss.
Image: Action Images / Craig Brough Livepic
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Arianna Huffington is known for many things—most recently her foray into the corporate wellness business—but the socialite-turned-media mogul is less known for her genius holiday gifting strategy. During her 11 years as co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, Huffington implemented a holiday tradition that managed to be elegant, practical, and team-building all at the same time. I’m talking, of course, about the Huffington Post’s yearly sweater giveaway.

Day 21 of Quartz’s 25 Days of Exchange
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From the company’s earliest days, Huffington Post employees have received a special sweater in December (employees received pajamas in 2014 and 2015 in keeping with Huffington’s transition to sleep evangelist). At first, Huffington herself handpicked the items, but eventually this became impossible as the company grew from a handful of employees to several thousand. So instead, Huffington and her staff would choose a selection of styles of sweater and order it in a variety of colors and sizes. On the designated day, each employee received a gift-wrapped box on his or her desk.

Huffington said the tradition began as a way to make her burgeoning media company feel like a family. And she made sure the ritual would survive, even when the Huffington Post was sold to AOL in 2011. “I didn’t want to be told that we couldn’t justify the expense,” Huffington said. “So it was actually part of the sale discussion, believe it or not.”

Over the years, sweater day became a company-wide event. And those who didn’t like the color or style in their box had the chance to swap with a neighbor. Because each year was associated with a distinctive style—2011, for example, included shawl-neck styles care of J. Crew and v-necks from White & Warren—employees could also measure their tenure at the company by their wardrobe.

“It was funny—we had people saying, ‘I’m a five-sweater’ person,” Huffington noted. “It was a way for people to mark how long they’d been there.”

I myself am a two-sweater person. One a lightweight, light-blue v-neck and the other an oversized, navy wool pullover (which I swapped with a male coworker) with a chunky knit pattern. Even though I no longer work at the media behemoth, I break out these sweaters every holiday season as a reminder of the often-stressful but always interesting time I spent working as a HuffPost Trends Editor.

Jodi RR Smith is president and owner of Mannersmith, a company that specializes in corporate etiquette. Not surprisingly, Smith said she gets a lot of questions this time of year about how and when to give presents in the workplace.

“The gift has to fit within the company’s professional structure,” Smith says. “So the ideal gift is something that fits within the culture, is appreciated by the majority of the employees and makes sense professionally.” In other words, a beautiful pen might not make much sense for members of an IT department, although it would be a thoughtful present for nurses and doctors who take handwritten notes all day.

While every office has different needs, Smith says she thinks Huffington’s sweater tradition was successful for a number of reasons. For one thing, Smith says the sweater festivities turned the concept of company loyalty into something fun. Both newcomers and veterans received visual confirmation every December that staying with the organization was valued by management.

At the same time, the one-size fits all approach (figuratively if not literally) achieved consistency without being dry or boring. No matter where you are in the corporate hierarchy, Smith explains, the practice proved everyone was part of the same team.

From an employer standpoint, this is a huge win. An abundance of research shows companies with low employee loyalty are likely to suffer from a loss of expertise and productivity. As Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron note in the Harvard Business Review, one of the best ways to maintain loyalty and increase engagement is by fostering a positive work culture.

The Huffington Post has received mixed reviews from its employees over the years, including high-profile pieces like this 2015 piece on Gawker. And yet, it has managed to retain a core of incredibly loyal writers and editors and in fact, I’ve known several HuffPosters who left only to return soon thereafter. (No word on whether they were lured back with free sleepwear.)

As someone who has spent plenty of time in the high-pressure world of media startups, I can attest to the power of camaraderie. Nap pods are nice and everybody loves a good cereal bar, but free snacks can only get you so far. Ultimately, the Huffington Post may not have always given me the warm and fuzzies, but Arianna’s sweaters have never let me down.