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It sneaks up on us every year — that special time called the holiday season, when cheap gifts flow like beads at Mardi Gras. And, whether we work in a company of five or 500 employees, most of us can relate to the awkwardness and uncertainty that surrounds the office gift exchange. Take these real-life cases, for starters.
- The Ingrate. “One Christmas, the woman next to me got a Santa T-shirt as her secret Santa gift,” says Toni B. “She hated it — and all she did was complain to me, loudly, about it. What she didn’t know was that the guy on the other side of me had been her secret Santa and had confided in me about how he’d found the perfect gift. He could hear her whining, and he knew that I knew.”
- Creepy Santa. Shortly after his coworkers drew secret Santa names, Glenn T. started getting bizarre messages: Things like, “Santa’s looking forward to some tire-slashing.” He started to worry and went to his supervisor. “My boss figured out the culprit right away — a woman on the staff known for her offbeat sense of humor.” A quick intervention cooled things off. “It was weird, but I’m kind of glad it happened. That woman hated the secret Santa thing. We started checking around and found out most staff didn’t really like the whole forced gifting thing either.”
- Rogue Elephant. “Don’t even get me started on the White Elephant deal,” says Ray H. “The gifts are stupid, and then people compete and trade them in front of everyone. I’ve never liked the idea of taking a gift from someone else, or seeing that someone wanted to get rid of a gift I'd brought in.”
A Few Gifting Guidelines
Most people have a stocking full of office-gift horror stories. Yet many do like some sort of office celebration — and they even appreciate the idea of gifting, provided it stays within the means of today’s tight economy. Still, employers and department heads need to think carefully about how they manage holiday gifts. Here are some things you can do to make the season better for everyone.
- 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.
What’s a “Good Gift”?
As diverse as U.S. culture has become, it’s hard to know what constitutes a good gift. But the following categories are universally welcomed.
- 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.
Vincent Hyman is a St. Paul, Minn.-based business writer and editor.
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