During the holiday season, gift-giving can be a political minefield. Who gets gifts? Who should NOT get gifts?
Q. I am a manager with eight direct reports. I received a couple of Christmas gifts this last season and don’t know how to handle the situation. Should I give them back? What can I say?
A. Why are these employees sending gifts? Was there a custom from their previous department? Are they your best or your worst employees? Can you present the gifts as something to be shared: “Sam brought in donuts!”
Ultimately, what’s needed is a clarification of policy.
When I was a college professor, students (especially those from Asia) often gave me gifts. If the course was over and the student was from another country, I sometimes felt I had to accept. But I tried to educate students: the best gift
to a professor is a nice letter of appreciation with copies to the dean and the VP-Academic Affairs.
When I lived in Seattle, a neighbor who was a police officer shared a funny story. In Seattle, cops pay for all their food and coffee. They do not accept freebies. A new officer from the South breezed through the Dunkin Donuts without paying, just waving a thank you. The company called the police department. The officer’s supervisor had to explain, “We don’t do that here. You have to go back and pay.”
This officer wasn’t being mean — she just assumed that was the custom. And your employees may feel the same way.
However, inappropriate gifts can be a warning signal. Research on the psychology of gift-giving has identified “poison gifts,” which are given with an agenda. In one university, a married couple was invited to interview for two positions. Their schedule included dinner at an administrator’s home. Afterward they sent a very large, very lovely floral arrangement.
This gesture was highly inappropriate and not at all customary. After all, the dinner was a business event, not a social activity. Several eyebrows were raised. The couple turned out to be troublemakers!