Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gift giving at the office

Have fun with it, but be careful


Holiday gift giving in the workplace used to be a relatively simple process.

One of the most important rules was that you never gave to those ranking above you, such as your direct boss or vice president. The boss or the company's president perhaps gave gifts to the employees but expected nothing in return.

Times have changed, but there are still some guidelines that are helpful.

It is important to check your employer's policy about gift giving during the holidays, says etiquette authority Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas. "Make sure you are not breaching any gift giving rules."

Assuming gift giving is permitted, Gottsman recommends that a gift giving "standard" be set early so people will know what to expect and how to factor it into their budgets. "Decide as a group what would be most desirable," she says. "Definitely set a limit, and then send out the 2010 gift giving memo on festive paper and set a date and time for the exchange. It doesn't have to be expensive, just festive."

Another option is a "secret Santa," in which each person buys a gift for the co-worker whose name he or she draws. There is often a spending limit, and the gifts are exchanged at the holiday party.

"Drawings are fun, but make sure that they are not mandatory," says Holly Bohn, founder of See Jane Work. "Also, be considerate about the gift you submit. In a day and age of strict diets and struggles with addiction, alcohol and chocolate, these things are often off-limits. A fun umbrella or commuter mug is always welcome and says a little more about your gift giving efforts than 'I ran to the corner store and picked this up.' By giving something unique and thoughtful, you are also standing out at work in a positive way."

Some offices have eliminated gift giving and instead donate money to charity. Another option is to purchase gifts for underprivileged children through Angel Tree or a similar program.

"Find out whether there are any nonprofit organizations that deliver meals to needy families in your area," Bohn says. "Make a list of the items they require, and post it in the break room. People can sign up without feeling pressured. Going desk to desk to collect money is not acceptable, neither is sending out a mass e-mail specifying the people who still haven't anted up. Holiday drives and donations are great, but if they single people out who can't afford to participate, they are not in the holiday spirit."

Direct supervisors should try to do something for their employees, according to Bohn. But "don't overbuy," she warns. "An extravagant gift can be irritating to someone who would rather have the money. Likewise, if there is a significant salary gap between you and your staff, don't be cheap; they will notice."

Bohn also advises supervisors to treat all staff members fairly. "A $5 coffeehouse gift card, a gift set with whimsical office supplies—think highlighters or sticky notes—or even business card holders are useful and well-received by almost anyone," she says.

And if you feel compelled to buy for a boss, the same rules apply, Bohn says. "Extravagant gifts can make people uncomfortable. A lovely notebook or journal is useful and thoughtful."

Gottsman recommends baked goods as a possibility. "If you do give to the boss, give something like muffins wrapped in a basket or container with a ribbon. It shows that you cared enough to do something," she says.

Bohn stresses that you should not push your own ideals on others. "You may think your boss drinks too much coffee, but if she doesn't agree, then buy her a commuter mug," she says. "She may complain of neck pains, but unless she's a yoga enthusiast, it's not likely that your stretching DVD is going to be the turning point in her life."

Keep in mind that not everyone celebrates the same holidays. "Holiday giving is very tricky. No matter how you choose to celebrate, you should be sensitive and courteous," Bohn says. "For many, the holidays are a difficult time of year; personal, family or financial problems are magnified. In addition, people celebrate in many ways. There is Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, just to name a few. The last place you want to upset someone is at work."

One thing most people don't realize is that holiday gift giving can carry legal implications. Attorney Denise Wheeler works with employers and offers some advice: "You have to be sensitive to people's religious beliefs. It is a protected category under federal and state laws. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. If they feel pressured to go to the office Christmas party and exchange presents with co-workers, it could be used as a basis for a lawsuit against the employer. It could also potentially present a problem if they chose not to participate and feel pressure because the boss knows who didn't go."

Other problems can arise if a boss only gives a gift to one employee or if one employee gets a more expensive gift than the others.

"You have to consider how the gift will be perceived," Wheeler says.

Copyright 2010

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