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Rules of professional gift-giving

With the holiday season underway, many people are busy packing the stores to find gifts for everyone on their list. Did you know that you can advance (or hurt) your career by having the wrong people on the gift list, or giving the wrong gifts? To help you avoid making any faux pas, follow these tips to keep the season joyful, and paying you back with career dividends the whole year through.

Holiday gifts
1. Buy equally! If you work with an administrative assistant and a paralegal, buy them the same thing. Then there are no messages to be read into about whom you like more, or any consequences that you will have to pay for. Buy gender-neutral items that will have broad appeal. No lotion and cream sets and candles for women (you’ll inevitably buy scents that someone doesn’t like or is allergic to). Plus, all women get at least three of these during the season. Similarly, no liquor, cigars or grooming supplies for men. Keep it light and happy, not personal. This is a gift for a colleague with whom you want to maintain a collegial work relationship, and it is awkward to thank a male colleague for body lotion and a manicure set and not feel strange about it. Similarly, do you want to hear a story about personal grooming or getting drunk on your bottle of wine? Not at work you don’t. How about giving everyone two movie tickets? You can always add extra gift cards for money for additional moviegoers and for snacks at the theater. If you really want to go all out, put the gift card inside a nice leather workbag or clipped together with a high-end pen.

2. Define your boundaries! Pick a reasonable cutoff of who you will buy for at work and stick to it. Once you give a gift to someone at work, it is hard to stop giving them gifts in subsequent years due to the nature of a work relationship, which involves lines of supervisory authority, performance reviews, and a reliance on others to help get the job done. Maybe it’s everyone in the office (if your office is small), or everyone in your group, or everyone you work on an active case with (and their administrative support specialists). It doesn’t really matter, but pick and stick to it.

3. Have a reserve! Keep two or three small wrapped gifts in your desk in case someone unexpectedly gives you something. If someone hands you a gift and you say “oh, yours is at home” it may well look like they weren’t on your list (which is true) but you don’t want them to know that. An eco-friendly mug that keeps coffee hot, Starbucks gift cards in $5 denominations, a box of fancy teas or coffees that they could put out for guests they are entertaining, a business card holder and a paperweight that works as desk art are all options. Don’t get caught flat-footed and good tidings will come to you.

4. Beware of upstream gift giving! Your boss probably has a lot of people to buy for, including clients. Giving a gift to someone above you may just create embarrassment to the recipient (especially if the boss doesn’t know rule #3). So, if you give to a superior, only give to those whom you have a close working relationship with (not all of the partners in the office or the group). Then, you want to give something very thoughtful but not very expensive. You don’t want to seem like you are trying to buy the boss’ favor. You want the message to be that you value his/her sage counsel and guidance, and that you pay attention to it. An employee who is paying attention in that way should be able to come up with something that the “mentor” would really like (this is where giving a certain bottle of wine is okay). Or ask the person out to lunch, get some mentoring and have the lunch be your treat.

5. Thank everyone! Keeping a stash of thank you note cards in your desk is just a good idea. Write nice thank you notes and distribute them quickly so that people really know you appreciated they are thinking of you. People have to do (and spend) just on family and friends, so if they gift you, they deserve a handwritten thank you note – not a email, this is not work-related.

Enjoy the holidays and remember, nothing good ever comes from getting drunk at the Christmas party!