Office Gift-Giving: The Do’s and Don’ts

One of my few quirky neuroses is my incessant planning. So, it should be no wonder that I’ve already begun my holiday shopping. I’m happy to report that my 5-month old niece, Paisley, has already accumulated three gifts of her own, and I’ve only just begun. Shopping comes naturally to me, and shopping for a bubbly, wonderful, headband-loving newborn is easy. Unfortunately, we all have those hard-to-shop-for gift recipients— uncles, neighbors, and the obligatory acquaintances like the lady who collects your mail when you’re out of town— but no one is harder to shop for than a coworker.

The true extent of ‘oh, well isn’t this awkward’ isn’t fully realized until you’re attending an office holiday party, gender-neutral fuzzy socks in tow for the annual Secret Santa debacle.

Photo Credit: DanielleT, Flickr

There are some general tips one should follow when shopping for those at the office, offered by Vincent Hyman:

  • Model good manners. Manners are not about rules, but rather fundamental human values: respect for the intrinsic value of other people; consideration of their feelings; integrity, or staying truthful to personal (and company) values; graciousness, or putting other folks at ease; and humility, or seeing the wisdom of deferring to others.
  • Keep it simple, low-cost and public. If you are going to hold a white elephant or secret Santa event, set a price limit affordable to the lowest-paid employee and tell everyone the rules. Let them know that breaking them (e.g., overspending, competing, belittling gifts) can make others feel bad.
  • In work groups, keep it private. If work groups are going to exchange gifts, they should do so in private and away from others, so no one feels excluded. If at all possible, carry gifts home and open them in private. Work groups can have greater flexibility in gifting when they’ve been together a while and share team norms openly.
  • Don’t give a private gift to the boss. It can be seen as currying favor. (But if you are the boss, receive graciously and quietly.)
  • Receive gracefully, no matter what. Ingratitude is always ugly.
  • Never give gifts that might be perceived as intimate. Stick to things that can’t be misinterpreted; at the office, bland beats grand.

All fairly obvious, right? But then there’s the struggle of just what to get. Hyman offers the following as ideas of good gifts:

  • The gift of giving back. Some workplaces have foregone gift-giving but taken up collections to give to a local charity, such as a food shelf. Some adopt a family in need and provide food and presents for children. Some join in volunteer groups to help people during this time. All are good, provided expectations of donations of time or money are kept low and respect staff’s limited resources.
  • The gift of thoughtfulness. Staffers especially like it when the boss thinks hard about what they might like. For example, Whitney C. runs a nonprofit environmental group. “I started giving a book — mostly environmental classics — when we were a small group. We’ve grown to 17, but I’ve kept it up; I have to keep a list of who’s gotten what. I also gift wrap each book myself. It has become a major undertaking each year, but I enjoy it, and the staff appreciates my personal approach.”
  • The gift of utility. A little creativity can quickly lead you to an enormous number of gifts that are not expensive, not specific to a religion and not overly personal: plants, work-related books, subscriptions, cooking items, candy, desk gadgets, fruit, restaurant certificates, online gift certificates — all have been well-received and most fall in the $5 to $20 range.

What Do You Think: What is the most awkward or memorable gift you received from a coworker? What rules should colleagues follow when purchasing gifts for those at the office?
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Source: The Do’s and Don’ts of Office Gift-Giving, Vincent Hyman

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