Gift-giving In The Workplace – How To Navigate Those Gray Areas

Getting through another season of gift-giving in the workplace can create a whole new kind of holiday stress. Shopping for friends and family can already be a struggle for some, so the thought of finding a gift for a colleague that is inoffensive and appropriate can become a daunting task.

In light of all the news that has surfaced in the last month about sexual harassment, my hope is that professionals will become more aware of how their actions, including their gift-giving, can affect their careers and reputations.

Some do’s and don’ts are more apparent than others, but what about those seemingly gray areas? A gift-giving pitfall has the potential to be a career downfall. Here are some guidelines for office gift-giving that can help you conquer your shopping and calm your career anxiety.

Know the culture of your company

Before you do anything, you need to understand the company culture and tradition of gift-giving in your office. Are there any guidelines or rules on the issue that you weren’t aware of before? If you’re new to the company, ask a trusted colleague about it. In general, gift-giving flows down, and you’re not obligated to give something to your boss. If you do, make sure you keep it professional and career-centric. You can make it something they’ll see or use at work on a regular basis. This can also be a great way to help them think of you in a positive way. Make sure you’re keeping within the guidelines for any gift exchanges, and always be courteous in how you respond during those present-stealing games with your team.

Be aware of time and place

So much time is spent at work. Some people end up working with the same colleagues for years. They become very comfortable around each other and each other’s families. Some professionals may get too comfortable and forget time and place. Although you may be close outside of work, the office is not the right place for certain kinds of gifts. Be aware of the time and place that your exchange is taking place. Is your coworker opening this gift in front of others? Your coworker who is receiving the gift may not find it offensive, but what about your other coworkers who will see them open it? Ask yourself if this present could give the wrong impression to another colleague or a boss.

The same goes for colleagues you don’t know very well. I know a young professional who experienced this very issue with a manager who didn’t consider time and place.

This young professional had been recently moved to a new team, and her birthday was coming up. Her new manager bought a birthday card for the whole team to sign. This manager didn’t know this young woman very well, and the card he got wasn’t really appropriate for the workplace. It had this cartoon plumber that would bend over when you opened the card (and I think you can guess what was showing when he bent over). There were several “crack” jokes throughout the card. This young woman told me later that she was more surprised that the manager assumed she would appreciate that kind of card than by the card itself. Some of her other teammates were offended by the card, and they had asked the manager to get a different one. He insisted on giving it to her anyway because he thought it was funny. While this story involved a birthday card, the same lesson applies to holiday cards and gifts.

While you’re at the office, remember that it is always the time and place to practice self-awareness and social awareness.

Keep it generic

It’s okay to play it safe with gift-giving in a professional setting. Think of useful items like stationery, a book (The Inequality Equalizer would be a perfect office gift), something techie, a cool clock, or a great pen.  Keep a few gift cards in your desk drawer just in case you receive a gift unexpectedly and want to gift something in return. A donation to a reputable charity in honor of a client or boss is another thoughtful way to go.

Leave out the Santa underwear. Don’t over-gift, but don’t be the office Grinch or Scrooge either. Don’t give anything too personal, cutesy, intimate, or inappropriate.

At one point in my career, I was the only female executive on a board of several male executives. During a holiday gift exchange, one of them gifted me a pair of gold “balls” with a note that said something like, “I know you always wanted your own pair!” He was trying to make a joke about me being the only woman on the board and how assertive I was. However, when I opened the gift in front my other colleagues, I was almost at a loss for words which is rare for me. I felt very uncomfortable. I tried to be polite, and I think I said something along the lines of, “Well, bless your heart,” and, “Oh my, well I guess I’ve got some new Christmas ornaments!”

What you think is funny may be uncomfortable to someone else. Again, time and place. Keeping it generic and professional is the safest way to go for your workplace relationships.  A “funny” gift isn’t worth your reputation or career. Don’t be that person at work.

Keep these things in mind and you’ll be set for another successful season of office gift-giving.

Happy Holidays!

Check out this video for other great do’s and don’ts of gift-giving!

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