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Pineapple chutney

graphic

The business of gifts

Ann Humphries

(CNN) -- It's that dangly thing, that mobile -- still over your desk from when you got it in last year's office gift exchange -- that should remind you every year. Workplace gift exchanges, as common as they are in the holidays, may not make much sense.

Surely if you have a co-worker you feel close to and would like to recognize with a gift during the season, you're a big enough boy or girl to take care of it. Does a whole staff have to get into the useless gag gifts? -- the $10 price caps? -- the issues of when a joke gift is too racy or a serious gift is taken the wrong way?

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Are you in favor of gift exchanges at work?

Yes. They bring colleagues closer together. My favorite color is red.
I can take them or leave them. (Give or receive them?)
No. It's just one more present to worry about and who knows what to get the third secretary on the ninth floor, anyway?
View Results

Why enter the new year with hurt feelings and confusions? Many careerists may feel that workplace gift exchanges just aren't the way to go anymore.

CNN: So we gifted ETICON president Ann Humphries with the question. Business-etiquette specialist that she is, she knew just how to unwrap the issue and get down to what's really inside the box.

The purpose of a present

Ann Humphries: You have to ask, "What's the purpose?" Why are you giving things to people in the workplace?

Are you just going through the motions? Trying to get things marked off your list so you don't feel guilty? Are you currying favor with a boss or with co-workers? Or is it a genuine gift? -- something you want to give someone as a way of expressing admiration or appreciation.

A lot of "junk trading" goes on at offices at this time of year. I always say that if you're going to go to the trouble, go to the trouble. An expensive card is better than a cheap gift.

I tell you, one of the most popular gifts for this sort of thing I've ever run into is a pineapple chutney that goes around here. It's something everybody begs for. They all love it and it's small.

And it's useful when you remember why you're giving: to thank or honor someone. If you keep that impulse pure, it settles you down, simplifies things.

It also might help you remember to be discreet. If you're going to give something to Jason because you value your business relationship with him -- but not with one of his co-workers -- you want to do it in such a way that the co-worker won't see it.

A lot of "junk trading" goes on at offices at this time of year. I always say that if you're going to go to the trouble, go to the trouble. An expensive card is better than a cheap gift.

The object is not to force it. Sort out the purpose and keep it in mind. Sometimes a gift can be a peace offering. Maybe you want to get the new year started on a better footing with someone. That can be a good reason to give something.

A not-so-good reason is a feeling of obligation. Do you have to give something to your boss? No. You don't have to give anyone a gift, especially up the ladder. In fact, most supervisors, with the exceptions of some oddballs, will prefer either nothing or something very small. That way it doesn't make them feel employees are currying favor.

From the home office

Now, let's talk about some specific dynamics here. First, the issue of how management should handle gift-giving.

One option to consider is letting everybody off the hook by just announcing that there won't be gift exchanges, "Let's not do this." Some companies are taking that route. If the management team goes in this direction, it might work.

  SMALL PACKAGES
graphic Good things -- like ideas of issues you'd like to see addressed here in "Corporate Class" -- come to us in the tidy confines of our submission form. If the holiday spirit is on you and you feel like giving us a hint of a career-etiquette issue that's on your mind, please avail yourself of our popup here. We'll thank you for your effort.

But in some settings -- maybe in smaller, more closely knit groups of workers, say at a doctor's or dentist's practice -- it's really enjoyed. In a situation like that, a CEO or other organizational chief needs to be sensitive to what the employees want, how they feel about it.

You just have to make sure it's not social harassment. You want the energy and joy of giving and doing for people, not the manufactured conveyor-belt way of doing it.

A way it might be handled well in a large company is to allow employees the option of a voluntary registry, a pool of people who say they want to get gifts for each other.

B2B gifts

Now we come to companies sending gifts to other companies.

•   I have a friend who runs a gift-basket service and she says many companies are starting to send group packages -- a big gift that everyone enjoys.

Of course, on the receiving end, the morning shift has to save some for the evening shift and so on. Employees may tend to fight over the goodies in a basket. They have to share and not pull all the cashews out. Me, I'd go for the Mr. Goodbars.

•   And when sending something to another company's staff, it's important to stick to the best-sellers. Most everybody can deal with tea and coffee. Cookies are a top-seller. Soup mixes, drink mixes, dip mixes. Some people are allergic to cheese. Others are vegetarians. A good basket-maker will ask when setting up an order if there are allergies or special situations to be aware of.

•   The same care needs to be taken in terms of religious sentiment, too. "Merry Christmas" isn't appropriate for everyone. "Season's Greetings" usually is safe, as is "Happy Holidays."

•   Any time a company sends a gift, it needs to consider what's appropriate. For example, some companies and government organizations have ethical limits on what their employees can accept. A gift may need to be delivered to a home, if it's appropriate to deliver it at all.

On the receiving end of a company or department gift, the morning shift has to save some for the evening shift and so on. Employees may tend to fight over the goodies in a basket. They have to share and not pull all the cashews out. Me, I'd go for the Mr. Goodbars.

•   Packaging is important. We should learn from businesses what we know today -- good packaging can make an inexpensive gift look great and bad packaging can make a nice gift look cheap.

Employee-to-employee

In terms of individual gifts, one thing to consider is giving something to a colleague for his or her children. Maybe a book with a note, "To Mary's children: Dear Jason and Dolly, I really enjoy your mom, I think she's great, here's something for your holidays." If it's not manipulative or strategic -- if it just feels right -- then this can be a good way to go.

If a gift idea feels at all inauthentic, maybe you should back away. Always ask yourself how it would go over if you had to defend your actions in a staff meeting.

Some ideas for easy gifts -- tickets, books, food, plants, a coupon to a movie, a gift certificate to "Blockbuster," something they can use.

Remember your manners

Finally it comes down to the thank-you. You thank in proportion to the gift. A big gift gets a nice, mailed written thanks. For the smaller gift, a thanks in person is OK, followed, maybe, with a voice mail, e-mail or fax.

Always be gracious unless it's an inappropriate gift, of course. Don't forget to thank people, at least for the thought if not the gift. And you don't have to exchange a gift with a gift.

One of the nicest things I remember was a place in which friends would come around at night and put a poinsettia on everybody's desk. Just a medium-size one. The secretiveness was pleasant and everybody was included. Very nice.

Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON, Inc. and a Certified Professional Consultant to Management, includes several Fortune 500 companies among her clients. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at www.eticon.com.

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