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Office Gift Giving: What’s on Your List?

By Kate Zabriskie

Who among us doesn’t like to get a gift occasionally? It doesn’t have to be expensive or even something tangible. The act itself is one of the most longstanding practices all cultures engage in. Like a smile or a simple, “Hello,” it’s a way to acknowledge someone else and show some gratitude for that person.

During the holidays, or even the rest of the year, gift giving can have an impact on everything from morale to performance reviews. How so? Think of the new hire who is told about a forthcoming gift exchange, buys the coworker a bottle of wine, and finds out after the fact that the person getting the wine is a member of AA’s program. Even long-time employees make mistakes when it’s time to swap gifts.

Get Informed: The sooner you can find out what the procedure is in your workplace, the better. Be proactive if you’re a new hire and ask—early. If there are traditions, find out what they are from people who have worked long enough to have gone through the end-of-the-year hoopla. If there is an annual event such as a covered-dish lunch or after-hours dinner party where gifts will be exchanged, make sure you know the specifics. Also find out about the kinds of gifts that people usually give so that you will have some idea of how much you might have to spend to keep from looking like a tightwad.  Here are some examples of holiday gift policies:

The No-Gifts-Allowed Workplace/No Policy Workplace: If your workplace forbids employees from giving gifts to one another, abide by the policy or prepare to hear about it. Despite your best intentions, you’ll get yourself into trouble, and you’ll probably embarrass the recipient. If yours has no such policy in place but you find out it’s frowned upon, be discrete about when and where you choose to give a coworker a gift. Mail the item or give it after work and away from the office.

If your employer has no thoughts on this practice one way or another, give away. You won’t be in violation of any rules, and on the plus side, you can give to those you genuinely want to give to. Use some common sense, though. Elaborate gifts for your boss might be construed as sucking up. A gift to only one of your direct reports when you have 12 might be perceived as favoritism.

The Name-Drawing Workplace: In an effort to cut down on the expense of gift giving, many organizations have instituted the ritual of drawing names. The benefit of this is its economy. You only have to buy for one person. On the downside, the name you choose may be the person to whom you don’t want to give the time of day, much less a gift. That being said, there may be others to whom you’d like to give a present. Now you’ll end up spending on those you want to plus the person whose name you’ve picked. So much for the economy factor!

The Chinese Gift Exchange Workplace: Here’s how this works if you are unfamiliar with this little practice. Everyone brings a wrapped gift and puts it in a pile with others. Instead of names, each person draws a number, and that determines the order in which people will choose any of the gifts. The only catch is that after you’ve drawn a number and picked a gift, the people who choose after you have the option to either take one of the unopened gifts or they may appropriate yours. If they take yours, they give you one of the unopened ones.

Obviously the success of this relies on the participants’ ability to bring gifts that would be generic enough to satisfy everyone’s tastes and clear guidelines on the price range and nature of the gifts. If everyone gets a coffee mug except for the one person who is holding a pair of Superbowl tickets, you can expect bloodshed.

Who’s on the Receiving End? If you are a supervisor or manager, here are some tips that you might find useful:

  • Avoid items that carry a subtly critical message (e.g. a clock for someone who is frequently late, a pen and note pad for another who comes to meetings empty handed, etc.).

  • Think useful. Nothin’ says lovin’ like a bonus check if you are in a position to bestow one, but if that’s out of the question, consider gift cards from malls, restaurants, or theaters.

  • Forego anything frivolous. If you can’t or won’t give them money, don’t let them think you’ve wasted the money.

  • Don’t give them things they will know you got for free from some vendor unless you’re a doctor who has a bunch of cool stuff from drug reps!

  • Know the pecking order of those you plan to give to, and follow this rule of thumb: for those who work for you, give items that are of equal or greater value than those they might give to you; to those for whom you work, give items of equal or lesser value than what they might give you.

If you have coworkers and a supervisor, here are some guidelines.

  • Give what you can comfortably afford to give, and stick to the amount you set.

  • Avoid calling in sick on the designated gift-giving day. People will notice your absence.

  • Be creative. Instead of thinking you will have to take out a loan or mortgage your house to make it through the season, go to the kitchen and make something (bread, brownies, preserves).

  • Be really creative. Can’t cook? No ingredients? No time? Consider giving yourself by making up coupons for various tasks such as phone coverage at lunch for someone who has to do this all the time or going on mail runs, etc.

  • Re-gift unused items. A word of caution about this: make sure the person who originally gave the item to you didn’t hide a gift card in the package somewhere. Even more important, make sure the person who gave it to you won’t see you giving it away to someone else.

  • Resist the temptation to give a deliberately worthless or cruel gift to anyone with whom you work, even if you think it’s funny and well deserved. The last laugh will be on you.

Just Lighten Up Already!  Having such activities in the workplace is intended to make it a more congenial environment. Too many look on the holidays with fear and loathing because of unrealistic expectations. I suspect that many are still secretly seething over not getting that pony they requested decades ago.

One Last Thing: As the recipient of workplace gifts, you have some responsibility too. Regardless of a gift’s value, cost, or the effort that went into its selection and delivery, accept it graciously. Say “thank you” to the giver. If it’s the tackiest thing you’ve ever seen, say “thank you.”  If it’s the exact thing you wanted, but you have nothing to give in return, say “thank you.”  Don’t you dare make up some lame excuse about forgetting the gift you had for that person if you haven’t got one. Just get something and give it without explanation or apology. Chances are the recipient will say “thank you.”

Leave anxiety out of workplace giving. Figuring out what to give your family and friends will create more than enough. You’re an employee, not a miracle worker. No one’s expecting a pony, but a pleasant surprise sure wouldn’t hurt.

Read other articles and learn more about Kate Zabriskie.

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