Solving the Quandary of Giving Gifts at the Office

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Rule No. 1: Check to see if your company has a policy on gifts. Rule No. 2: Follow it.

It sounds simple enough, but some smaller companies don't outline the rules, leaving employees confused as to whether they should give presents to a boss or colleague. And what type of gift would be appropriate?

"If there's no policy go by tradition, what's been done in the past, or go in with others. You could be the person who spearheads it,” Deborah Brown-Volkman, a career coach in East Moriches, N.Y., told The Wall Street Journal.

Gannett News Service reported that a recent study shows workers may need a primer on holiday gift-giving at the office. The Creative Group asked 250 U.S. advertising and marketing executives the question: "What is the most unusual or unique gift item you've ever heard of an employee giving a colleague?"

Their responses ranged from this head-scratcher—sea monkeys—to an over-the-top gift of a new car from a CEO to his assistant.

The Creative Group's Smith McClure suggests that gifts from employees to managers, and vice versa, be $20 or less. Expensive presents do more harm than good, making the recipient feel obligated to reciprocate. He said a handwritten note can suffice. Thanking an employee for extra help or hard work on a special project can go a long way. “People want to be recognized for who they are.”

Buying gifts for clients can be another minefield. Again, check your company's policies first. Also, be aware that some companies bar their employees from accepting gifts over a certain value.

Etiquette experts say “pay-it-forward” type gifts, such as donations to charities, are becoming increasingly popular, but first make sure the client has no objection to the cause.

Kenn Allen, president of the Southfield, MI-based Meadowbrook Insurance Agency, told the Detroit Free Press that he sends donations to charities in the name of his clients. Meadowbrook clients receive a greeting card saying a donation has been made on their behalf to a local charity.

"Rather than sending candy gift baskets to our clients or flowers, what we do is choose a charity that we think will serve our community,” Allen said. “We check their track record, how the money they receive is spent, and then we donate money directly to that charity."

Peter Post, who writes the nationally syndicated column "Etiquette at Work," suggests that management must set the tone that the holidays should not add stress to the work environment.

Managers should gather employees together in October to decide how they're going to celebrate Christmas that year. Opting out of any gift-giving games should be considered OK. Workers must respect that some people don't celebrate Christmas or Hannukkah; others can't afford it or just feel uncomfortable.

"They can exchange cards, give gifts or hold a luncheon and not give gifts at all," Post said. "It should be pleasant and comfortable for the office."

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