Office gift-giving requires more thought than it used to

Sunday, December 3, 2006

As a new lawyer at a firm, Cynthia McKay shuddered when she opened a holiday gift from one of the attorneys: A set of Pyrex cookware and red lingerie, onto which he'd tied a little bell.

"Number one, I didn't cook. Number two, the lingerie was two sizes too big," McKay says. She's since left the firm, and not coincidentally, now runs her own gourmet gift basket business.

At best, an inappropriate office gift will make your colleague cringe. At worst, it could put your job in jeopardy. Gift-giving in the workplace requires more forethought now than it used to, especially as harassment, discrimination and corporate ethics policies come under increasing public scrutiny.

Fortunately, all it takes is compassion, common sense and a bit of research.

Nothing borrowed, blue

The two most common gift-giving mistakes are to spend too much, and to choose something tasteless in hopes of being funny. Colleagues don't give you second chances the same way friends and family do.

You don't want to go into debt buying gifts for your co-workers, and you certainly don't want to make others feel they must do so to keep up with you.

"Don't impose your tastes, your values, your monetary amount on others. And don't expect reciprocation," says Marjorie Brody, author of the book "Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?" and former etiquette columnist for BusinessWeek Online.

How do you avoid an awkward encounter?

First, have a discussion beforehand to decide whether you want to exchange gifts, and if so, what ballpark to aim for.

"It sounds kind of tacky, but it saves embarrassment and discomfort," Marjorie says.

Second, avoid anything that is remotely sexual or racist -- especially if you're the boss. This should be a no-brainer, but too many people have stories about, say, a white boss who gave a black employee a book on Africa; a boss who offered a female employee a Victoria's Secret gift certificate; or a boss who gave a Jewish employee a Christmas ornament. (All true stories, by the way.)

Ben Dattner, principal at Dattner Consulting and a New York University organizational psychology professor, says people often forget that the gifts they give will reflect on them: "Think mindfully, what sort of message am I trying to send?"

Third, do some research. Ask people about their hobbies, favorite music, favorite movies, favorite authors -- you'll get a better and more thoughtful gift, and as a bonus, get to know your coworkers better.

Do the right thing

When giving to clients, or receiving from them, be extra-careful to avoid ethical dilemmas.

"Impropriety makes its way around the world very quickly ... The activities of a few can put the whole company in a certain light," said Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, which provides governance, ethics and compliance management services to companies including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and Pfizer.

Could a shady gift cost you your job? It's possible. Just last year, the CEO of the student loan servicer First Marblehead, as well as several traders at the mutual fund company Fidelity Investments, left because of what the companies deemed unethical gift-giving.

Employers are getting stricter, and not just about dollar amounts. This year, schools including Stanford, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania began barring their doctors from accepting even the tiniest trinkets -- pens, key chains, you name it -- from drug companies.

"A $20 gift could be given with the wrong motives, and a $50 could not. And in this transparent world, these gifts are going to see the light of day," says Dov Seidman, pointing out that the mere mention of a shady gift on a blog or in an e-mail can spread around the world.

Don't just check your company policies for monetary limits. When sending or receiving a gift, ask yourself, am I doing it for the right reason (to acknowledge the work we've done together in the past)? Or the wrong reason (to try to ensure future dealings)?

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