Office Gift-Giving Etiquette
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Office Gift-Giving Etiquette

What are the rules for gifting your colleagues -- and bosses? An expert shares her secrets for navigating this tricky exchange.

To Gift or Not

When it comes to inter-cubicle gift-giving, confusion often reigns. Every assistant has tales of getting clearly re-gifted items from a seemingly ungrateful boss; plenty of bosses have known the pain of a clearly kissing-up holiday trinket; and Secret Santas... well, that's just an entire nightmare altogether.

Fortunately, there are some guidelines to help keep you out of the water-cooler conversation. Leah Ingram, author of You Shouldn't Have! How to Give Gifts They'll Never Forget, (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2001) has some advice to guide you through the bleakest office-etiquette blizzard.

"It's important to give gifts at the holiday," says Ingram. "It's how you say thank you to people who support you throughout the year, and how you show appreciation to your professional mentors." With any gift, she says, get your idea from something the gift-getter has mentioned. "Your gift-radar should go up around mid-November," she says. "Scan the floor for dropped hints." And let the card explain why this gift could only go to the recipient. "I had a boss who gave me a manicure, and the card said 'I knew I had made it when I was able to go to Georgette Klinger. Enjoy your taste of what's to come.' That was a vote of confidence, and a great gift.'"

A good rule of thumb, she advises, is to spend no more than the IRS allows. "You get no more than a $25 tax deduction for each professional gift," she says. "CNN has a policy that gifts can't be worth more than $20. So you've got the top-end of your range right there."

When "gifting up," you don't want to appear too ingratiating. After all, a brown nose doesn't go with the rest of the Rudolph costume. Picking something that goes with the boss' hobby is a good bet, because it shows you know more about her than how many copies she likes to have made. "Most people in management don't need another tchotchke," Ingram says. "If that person has a charity she supports, you can give a gift in her name."

If you're the boss-er rather than the boss-ee, you should make a similar effort to zero in on a hobby, interest, or pet cause. "You want the 'wow' factor, as in 'wow, this person really does appreciate me!'" says Ingram.

If you're wondering what the cutoff is, the answer is in your gut. "If it makes you feel weird to give a particular person a gift, don't do it," she says. "You tip people with whom you do regular business throughout the year; this is no different."

Essential Dos and Don'ts

Looking for divine inspiration -- or at least solid suggestions? Ingram has five good ideas:

  • Treat someone to a service: A manicure, dog-walking, hair-blowout -- anything he or she enjoys doing but might not indulge in.
  • Food: Nourishment has mass appeal, and it doesn't have to be a box of chocolates. A gift card for the local gourmet coffee shop can also feed someone's fancy.
  • Greenery/plants: This is especially good as an up-gift, especially if it's something a little bit unusual.
  • Books/music/DVDs: A gift card for something entertaining is almost always the perfect thing. If you must buy something specific, always include a gift receipt.
  • Upscale retail: Maybe it's the Tiffany-blue box, or maybe there's another well-known arbiter in your area. Even if the item inside doesn't break the bank, the sight of the box can be a thrill in itself.
  • Anything alumnae oriented: Something from the old school can be a fun way to show you notice more than the everyday chit-chat.

Of course, if you're wondering what to avoid, here are five definite don'ts:

  • Lingerie: It's just never appropriate, even if you work at Victoria's Secret.
  • Alcohol: Some companies prohibit it -- and you never know who's on the wagon.
  • Anything sexual: You might make silly jokes on a day-to-day basis, but a sexually focused gift is just asking for trouble.
  • Anything culturally taboo: Be sensitive to the gift-getter's culture. Don't give leather to a Hindu (you know, the sacred cow and all?) or a Christmas ham to your Jewish assistant.
  • Personal services that are, well, too personal: Items/gift certificates designed to improve the recipient or that imply that his or her appearance could use a boost. It's one thing to give a manicure, which is fun and relaxing. It's quite another to offer hair coloring.
  • Perfume/cologne: Even if you know what the person wears, this is still the realm of spouses and dates. Ditto for themed boxers and socks: just don't.