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November 25, 2009

Six Simple Rules for Gift-giving at Work

Filed under: General HR Buzz3:43 pm

Navigating the social and professional landscape can be difficult, but there are ways to avoid alienating colleagues with embarrassment or hurt feelings, career experts say. Co-workers who are also friends can exchange gifts off site, for example, and those who want to get the boss a present can go in as a group to be as inclusive as possible.

The first order of business for those looking to play Santa is to check the company handbook or consult its human-resources manager to see if there’s a policy on office gift-giving.

Many employers are erring on the side of caution these days in anything that could be construed as fodder for a lawsuit, and some may extend limits on gifts to and from business associates to the interoffice realm as well, said Deborah Brown-Volkman, a career coach in East Moriches, N.Y., and author of the forthcoming book “How to Feel Great at Work Everyday.”

Mellissa Boggs, vice president of consulting with Professional Staff Management, a human-resources and consulting firm in Indianapolis, said employers also are trying to head off morale problems that can arise inadvertently.

“A lot of employers are going to very narrow policies,” she said. “They’re trying to do more holiday celebrations as whole groups, departments or, if the office is small, the whole office so it kind of takes away from the one-on-one gifting…They don’t want employees to feel bad if they can’t afford to do it.”

Still, larger companies are more likely to have a written policy than smaller ones, she said.

“There are more companies without policies on these issues than there are with policies,” Boggs said. “If there is a policy, it’s probably pretty informal and only discussed when there’s an issue.”

And issues do arise, particularly when workers and employers forget that some don’t celebrate a holiday of any kind during December.

“We have a more diverse work force than we’ve ever had, not only from an ethnicity standpoint but from an age standpoint,” she said. “There are just so many views and viewpoints in the workplace that things just are not the same as they were in years past.”

People who are new to a company especially need to check out what’s customary before springing for well-intentioned gifts, Brown-Volkman said.

“If there’s no policy go by tradition, what’s been done in the past, or go in with others,” she said. “You could be the person who spearheads it.”

Navigating office traditions

Of course, some companies have rituals such as Secret Santa, where workers choose the name of a fellow employee randomly and buy that person a low-cost gift. Other employers throw parties or host departmental lunches meant to reward workers for a productive year, with no expectation of additional gift-giving.

Only 38% of 110 midsize and large companies say their celebrations will include gift-giving this year, according to a survey from Battalia Winston International, an executive search firm based in New York. That’s down significantly from the booming late 1990s, when 51% gave gifts in 1998 and 49% did so in 1999.

“Since 2001, there’s been a different atmosphere both in terms of celebrations and I think in terms of gift-giving and other lavish kinds of behaviors,” said Jo Bennett, a partner with Battalia Winston.

Companies have moved away from giving workers holiday turkeys, Christmas bonuses or fancy pen-and-pencil sets, she said. Now they’re more likely to bestow company-branded promotional items on workers or to forego party gifts altogether.

But in one corner of professional life, at least in New York, a tradition endures, she said. “Over the years it was always common for bosses to have more of a personal relationship with the executive assistants than with other people. It’s something that sort of stuck from the old days.”

Bennett said she and another partner chipped in for a spa day for the assistant they share.

Overall, though, many workers prefer to sit out what can become a gift-giving guessing game.

“It is a problem because you don’t want to get something that’s rinky-dink,” she said. “You don’t want to get something too extravagant either.”

Six tips

Here are six suggestions for gift-giving at work without putting people on the spot or breaking team camaraderie:

  1. Keep it voluntary. Opting out of office gift-giving games should be free of consequences, Boggs said. “You have to be cognizant of people’s feelings and the holidays they celebrate and be respectful of that. If someone doesn’t want to be involved you shouldn’t make them feel horrible about not being involved.”
  2. Weigh a gift to the boss carefully, since others may perceive it as inappropriate or an attempt to curry favor. “A way around that is to chip in and give a group gift,” Brown-Volkman said. “If it’s a department gift it has to come from the department. It’s an entire group so no one’s left out.” The objective is to strive always to be seen as fair, she said. “From a company standpoint it’s OK for the boss or employer to give you something. But if it’s the other way around, you don’t know how you will be seen. The group covers you and also makes you look good.”
  3. Be mindful of income differences and financial pressures when soliciting group gifts. Let everyone in the working group sign the card, regardless of their ability to contribute to the cost of the gift, Boggs said. “You have to be careful not to be exclusive of the people who can’t afford it,” she said. “It turns a good thing into something potentially bad.” Some in the office may be struggling to pay off student loans or credit-card debt, or may have greater family responsibilities than others. “People who live paycheck to paycheck or feel like people are pitying them or doing it for reasons other than what they’re doing it for, that’s when the issues come up.”
  4. Don’t present a gift to someone you don’t know well just because it’s the holiday season. “Don’t wait until that day or it may come across the wrong way,” Brown-Volkman said. “It’s a celebration of the great working relationship all year.
  5. Gifts among peers are best exchanged off site and after hours to avoid anyone feeling excluded. “Go to lunch with them, have a cup of coffee in the morning with them before work starts,” Boggs said. “Take it off site. Make it a nonwork issue.”
  6. What if you receive an unforeseen gift? Do you reciprocate? “I think you could,” Brown-Volkman said. “It’s OK for your peers. It’s just when you go to the boss — sometimes that could be construed as favoritism.” Also consider power and gender differences, Boggs said. “When you have a female supervisor and a male employee or a male supervisor and a female employee, you always run the risk of things being taken out of context or taken wrong. You have to be really careful.”

Source: Kristen Gerencher MarketWatch

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