To give, or not, at the office

To give, or not, at the office

Globe and Mail

By: Randi Chapnik Myers

Working as an editor at a large media company, Moira Farr learned the ins and outs of office holiday gift swaps the hard way.

Participating in a Secret Santa exchange, Ms. Farr decided to let her creative juices flow. So she produced a Martha Stewart recipe-inspired cranberry liqueur, decanted it into a tinted bottle, then proudly bestowed the concoction on a shy junior editor.

Oops. "Quietly, my boss explained that my co-worker belonged to a strict religious sect that absolutely forbids alcohol, leaving me with visions of the poor girl walking home, secretly pouring my gift onto the snow," recalls Ms. Farr, now a freelance writer in Ottawa.

As the spirit of the season takes over workplaces, such gift-giving gaffes can become all too common. Indeed, more than half of 1,000 U.S. office workers recently polled gave thumbs down to gifts they had received at work, while 31 per cent actually tossed them in the trash, a Time Inc. Giftscriptions survey found.

No wonder the holiday season brings on all sorts of anxieties about who to buy for, whether to buy at all, how much to spend and what will be appropriate.

For many, it’s tempting to say, umm, Scrooge them all. And if that’s the direction you want to take, you shouldn’t feel like you deserve a lump of coal, career pros say.

"Giving holiday gifts, or not, is a personal choice," insists Eileen Chadnick, owner of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. "There are no shoulds. You give because you want to, not because you have to."

But when you operate in a community of people, such as a workplace, that choice is linked to what everyone around you is doing, contends Alan Kearns, Toronto-based founder and head coach of CareerJoy. "Each company has its own gifting culture," he says, and it’s best to find out, and go along with, whatever it is at your workplace.

If there’s an organized exchange, you’d be wise to opt in, he says. If you don’t, "you’ll send the message that you’re not a team player."

And you’ll miss out on a valuable opportunity to connect with co-workers, Ms. Chadnick adds.

The point is not the material gifts, but rather, getting into the company spirit, she says. So if you’re taking a pass on an organized swap – for religious, financial or other reasons – she suggests you still show spirit in some other way, as simply as bringing in a batch of home-baked cookies.

For those who will give and receive, a well-chosen present can go a long way toward boosting relationships with colleagues, Mr. Kearns says, showing appreciation, inspiring loyalty and, yes, spreading good will.

Choosing well, though is tricky. There are countless ways to mess up – from giving a Christmas wreath to your Jewish administrative assistant to unwrapping a silk tie from an office manager you’ve never even heard of, let alone bought a gift for.

Most employers will be digging into their pockets, according to an American Express survey, which found that 92 per cent of employers plan to give year-end gifts.

What’s popular under the office tree? Gift cards top the list, for 42 per cent of the more than 500 human resource managers polled by Amex. Next up: cash bonuses, for 37 per cent, followed by company products, 35 per cent, food or food baskets, 26 per cent, merchandise, 25 per cent, and time off, 24 per cent.

What would employees most like to receive? Cash comes first, for 44 per cent of more than 500 employees separately surveyed, followed by time off, for 17 per cent, and then gift cards, 15 per cent.

"From the employee perspective, cash is always king," says business coach Cheryl Sylvester, president of Beyond Success Leadership in Toronto.

But whatever the gift, she says, it should convey a clear message: You are an integral part of our team.

"One way to achieve this goal is to let your corporate brand values guide your gift choice," Ms. Sylvester suggests. An owner of a software development firm that values innovation, for instance, might reward staff with the latest-greatest thing. Or a recycling company might give an environmentally friendly gift.

What about the reverse direction? Should employees be giving the boss a gift? Opinion is down the middle, according to the Amex survey: 48 per cent of employees said it wasn’t a good idea but 47 per cent were in favour.

For the experts, boss buying is not a great idea: You want to avoid the appearance of bribery, self promotion or one-upmanship, says Karen Mallett, co-founder of the Winnipeg-based etiquette firm The Civility Group.

Instead, image adviser Gloria Starr, a Toronto native who founded Global Success Strategies, based in North Carolina, recommends a thoughtful handwritten note (signing a Hallmark card doesn’t count) that thanks the boss for the gift you receive and for the management skills you’ve benefited from all year.

And co-workers? Start by determining who is on, and off, your list, Ms. Mallett suggests. Unless a gift exchange forces you to buy for a relative stranger, she suggests you don’t. "You should only give to those with whom you have formed a real connection."

Picking and choosing gets cliquey. So use discretion. "When you were a kid, you didn’t hand out your birthday invitations in front of the whole class," she says. "The same applies here."

While she has noted a recent boost in what co-workers are willing to spend – $20 is the new $10, she says – don’t break the bank. "These are not family members you’ll know for life but people you may know just for a season," Mr. Kearns says.

Gifts you buy for office mates need to strike that elusive balance between the professional and the personal, he says.

"If you don’t know the person’s tastes, stick with safe choices, like books or plants," Ms. Starr suggests.

Inappropriate gifts are those that can be misconstrued, either in tone or in value, he says. That means sexy stuff – lingerie, cologne, massage certificates – are out, especially between the sexes.

Same goes for gag gifts, Ms. Mallett says. "Yes, the photo of your colleague naked in the hot tub was a howl on the ski trip," she says. "But at the office, it’s not so funny."

You should also avoid items so lavish they might make the recipient, or other people around you, squirm. "Why would you buy your colleague golf clubs when you haven’t even bought them for your husband?" Ms. Mallett says.

As far as alcohol, or gifts with a religious or political theme, they’re only risky if you are unfamiliar with your colleague’s background, Ms. Chadnick says. If, on the other hand, you know he’s an oenophile or she’s a diehard Liberal, then a bottle of Chardonnay or a Trudeau biography makes perfect sense.

What if you drew the new guy’s name in the company swap? One option is to give the newbie something safe – a movie certificate, a donation to charity, or a gift that keeps on giving, like a magazine subscription or flowering plant, Ms. Starr says.

If you get caught receiving from someone off your list, Ms. Mallett says a simple thank you will suffice. Or do like Mr. Kearns does, and keep extra gift cards in your pocket, just in case.

Your top shopping priority? Thoughtfulness, the experts say. "The best gift shows your colleague that you really know her," Ms. Mallett says. That could mean a new wallet to replace a tattered one, a holder for all the pens rolling around in her drawer, or a CD of that infernal song she keeps humming all day.

Even gift cards can be personal – if you know the person’s tastes. "Obviously, you don’t buy one to [a steak restaurant] for a vegetarian," she says.

And yet, Mr. Kearns says, those who are too politically correct just may miss out on the spirit of the season – good cheer. Ms. Mallett agrees. She once heard of a woman who o
pened a magnificent cheese and sausage tray, only to discover that it was past its best-before date.

"It may have been a thoughtless re-gift," she says. "But the laughs it sparked were downright priceless."


Gift dos and don’ts


A personal note expressing thanks

Gift certificates to movies or restaurants

Gifts that keep on giving – magazine subscriptions, flowering plants

Donations to a favourite charity

A bestseller book or CD

A goodies basket to share with the department.


Anything with a religious or political theme.

Lavish items – jewellery, golf clubs, art

Gag gifts of questionable taste or hilarity


Sexy stuff – lingerie, cologne, massage certificates

Foods that risk being past their best-before date.

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