You Don’t Have to Be a Scrooge to Set Limits on Holiday Gifts

Posted by Allen Smith, J.D on 12/19/2018

Suggestive "his" and "hers" drinking cups. An exploding confetti bomb that caused a doorman to fall down a flight of stairs. A book to a boss on how to manage others more decisively. Office gift-giving fiascos are more common at the holidays than you might think.

Many people have seen, given or heard about inappropriate gifts at work, said Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work in Chicago. As a result, companies are telling bosses to decline gifts from subordinates, refrain from giving presents unless they are the same for everyone and innocuous, and ensure employees aren't giving each other religious presents in the workplace.

Sound like Scrooge? No, Weiss said: "It's the way of the world for business today."

Gifts Gone Wrong

Often, people give inappropriate gifts because they think the recipient is in on some joke. Take the lawyer and client who were at a gift shop together. They came across "his" and "hers" nude wine goblets and cracked up when they saw them. The lawyer presumed that because the client laughed, she liked them. So he bought them and sent them to her, Weiss noted. But the client felt the lawyer had crossed a line, and the gift ended up wrecking the business relationship, he said. The fact that the conduct occurred outside the office and around the holidays didn't excuse it, Weiss noted.

Secret Santa exchanges are typically a safe way to approach gift-giving, so long as there are certain limits, Weiss said. But even with these gift exchanges, someone could get injured if gifts are startling. He recalled the work team that brought a Secret Santa confetti bomb for an office-building doorman who was in his 80s. When the confetti bomb exploded, the doorman fell down a flight of stairs and broke his elbow. The company had to pay for the medical expenses.

Gifts from subordinates to bosses can be ill-fated. One employee gave his boss—a newly promoted supervisor—a book on how to be a more decisive manager. The gift upset the boss, who decided he didn't want the gift-giver on his team and fired him, according to Weiss.

Sometimes, rich employees give their bosses presents that other employees can't match, raising concerns of favoritism. Weiss recalled a publishing company with an employee who was far wealthier than his supervisor. The employee gave his boss a Vespa scooter for the holidays. This kind of gift-giving can damage morale.

So can well-intentioned presents that send the wrong message. A boss gave his sales team bamboo travel toothbrushes that he had bought while abroad. The entire team began wondering whose dental hygiene was deemed questionable, Weiss noted.

Gift-Giving Do's and Don'ts

Bosses should turn down presents from subordinates, Weiss said. If there's no policy prohibiting such presents, the supervisor can say something like, "Your hard work is the best gift of all." Or, the boss can suggest an anonymous donation to a charity as an appropriate alternative, recommended Maria Greco Danaher, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Pittsburgh.

Supervisors should also refrain from giving anything that might seem romantic or risqué. Jewelry or perfume cross the line, according to Weiss.

Even a box of chocolates might raise some concerns, he said. What if it's given to someone during a Secret Santa exchange? The recipient might think someone in the office has feelings for them, and that can be destabilizing for the person, he noted.

If managers do give employees gifts, they should be similar for all workers, said Laurence Donoghue, an attorney with Morgan, Brown & Joy LLP in Boston.

"All employees should be treated equally," he said. "That does not necessarily mean that every subordinate should be given exactly the same gift, but the gifts should be of relatively equal value."

Weiss, however, cautioned that employees are likely to compare the presents they receive from their boss, and some might be offended if they perceive one person's gift as nicer than another's. Workers may also compare the presents that different managers give their employees.

Weiss discouraged giving gifts of money, as that could have tax implications. Gift cards should be for a small amount and a specific item, but employers might want to take a conservative view of tax laws regardless and include the value of all gift cards in employee wages. A gift might be professional, like a book on the latest trends in training for a company that has trainers, he suggested.

Danaher suggested neutral gifts, such as a one-pound bag of coffee, a local history book or a nonreligious holiday card.

Giving co-workers presents with religious overtones is inappropriate, said Andrew Berns, an attorney with Einhorn Harris in Denville, N.J. 

Published at www.shrm.org, December 19, 2018.