A Good Workplace Gift-Giving Rule: Would Your Mom Approve?

During holidays, avoid giving jewelry, perfume, gag gifts or expensive items

By Dana Wilkie Nov 17, 2014
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As the holidays approach, workplace gift-giving is a common—and potentially tricky—tradition.

If you want to give your subordinates a gift, what’s appropriate? If the holiday party involves a gift exchange, what should the guidelines be? To avoid hurt feelings or claims of favoritism, is it better to avoid gifts altogether?

A company gift-giving policy should first make clear that gift-giving is not required by the company, to or from any employee. Typically, it’s better to have an “opt-in” as opposed to an “opt-out” policy so that employees who don’t want to participate don’t feel compelled to do so.

In addition, include a cost limit for gifts, with $20 being a standard cap, said Harley Storrings, labor and employment attorney at the Fort Lauderdale office of Arnstein & Lehr.

Policies should explain that gifts must be workplace-appropriate and also give examples of inappropriate gifts.

“The gift giver should [ask], Is this gift something you would feel comfortable telling your family about?” Storrings said. “Would you be able to tell your mother, grandmother, daughter or son what you gave as a gift? If you make the gift, is the time you spent consistent with time you put into other aspects of the relationship with this person? Would you feel comfortable if a co-worker gave you this type of gift? Is the cost consistent with both your own and the recipient’s comfort level? Are you purchasing the same item for multiple co-workers? If so, do they know about each other’s gifts? Would you be comfortable with them learning about the gifts to others?”

Gifts To and From Managers

Gifts from managers to employees require special caution, Storrings said.

“Remember to avoid the perception of favoritism. That means giving relatively innocuous gifts which are of roughly equivalent value. You also want to make sure you keep to a modest budget—you do not want to give extravagant gifts which might make an employee feel compelled to reciprocate the gesture.”

Leslie Wallis, a shareholder in the Los Angeles office of Ogletree Deakins, said avoiding any indications of favoritism can help protect a company against lawsuits. It’s important, she said, to remember that “what feels simply like generosity now while you have a good working relationship with a subordinate may later be used to support an allegation of discriminatory or harassing conduct or other inappropriate actions when or if the relationship sours. For this reason, you should be cautious that you are not considerably more generous with one or more subordinates than you are with others.”

When it comes to employees giving managers gifts, a company policy should first acknowledge the company culture, Storrings said.

“If gifts are traditionally given to managers in the company, speak with your co-workers to get an idea of what gifts have been given in the past and what your budget should be. If gifts are not traditionally given to managers, then the employee should probably refrain from buying the manager a gift. Once you have determined whether a gift is appropriate, stick to the general rules regarding a modest budget and avoiding gifts that could be misconstrued.”

Barbara Wells, senior vice president with Staples Promotional Products, said that when acknowledging supervisors, “the message is the most important thing. Be thoughtful, but don’t break the bank. Choose items that show your appreciation for your manager’s leadership.”

Obvious No-No’s

Avoid giving gifts that are too intimate or personal for the workplace, such as clothes, jewelry, items of personal hygiene, perfume or cologne. “A good rule of thumb is that if you are unsure as to whether the gift is too personal, err on the side of caution,” Storrings said.

Avoid gag gifts, because you never know if the recipient will take offense. “For example, a colleague of mine received a book on dating tips for dummies a few years ago. Although the gift was intended to be a joke, my colleague was visibly embarrassed,” Storrings said. A similarly offensive gift might be a bottle of wine for someone struggling with alcohol abuse.

Shun gifts that have romantic, sexual or religious overtones, or that poke fun at anyone in a protected class, or that purport to be funny at the expense of someone, said Alex Bodnar, another shareholder at Ogletree Deakins. Moreover, relatively expensive gifts may leave an employee feeling that acceptance of the gift implies some sort of obligation on the part of the recipient.

“To the extent any complaint is received regarding gift-giving, the policy should make it clear that the complaint will be investigated in line with existing discrimination and harassment policies,” Bodnar said. “Each employee should remember that anyone and everyone can be held responsible for the work environment the individual helps to create and maintain. Moreover, individuals can be held personally liable for workplace harassment.”

Gift-Giving Ethics

Companies should also consider how to handle gifts received from vendors.

“To avoid the appearance of impropriety, the company policy may be that certain gifts may not be accepted or, if they are acceptable, they may need to be disclosed to company management,” Storrings said.

In addition, company gifts to employees such as cash, gift certificates or other items readily convertible to cash value may qualify as W-2 wages, which are required to be reported for tax purposes.

Wells said that company logo merchandise and holiday gifts valued at $25 or less are more likely to qualify as “de minimis benefits” that do not need to be reported.

Suggested Gifts

Experts interviewed for this article suggested these workplace-appropriate gifts:

  • Homemade gifts and gift cards.
  • Mobile technology gifts, including power banks, chargers, or tablet or smartphone accessories that help people stay connected and productive.
  • Coffee mugs or tumblers.
  • Desk items that can be used and appreciated daily, such as pens, business card holders and cube calendars. 
  • Plants or holiday food, particularly if one has an idea of the individual’s taste.
  • A donation to a nonprofit entity that doesn’t have religious or other political associations on behalf of the recipient.
  • Stylish logoed apparel that can be worn on the job.

“Items that feature your company’s brand name are a great way to reinforce a message of belonging and community within your organization,” Wells said. “Choose gifts that bring value to someone’s everyday life, whether they’re at home or at the workplace. Recipients will think of you every time they use their gifts, so think ‘products with a purpose.’ ”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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