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The office politics of holiday gifts

Answering questions about the etiquette of business and money.

December 06, 2009|By Alana Semuels

The holiday season is upon us. Time for eggnog, caroling -- and worries about what to buy the boss. Today Alana answers your questions about gift giving and receiving.

Dear Alana: I have been working in an office for a little more than a year now. Last year I did not exchange any gifts with co-workers because I was new. However, now that I have been here over a year, who am I supposed to give a card or gift to? What is appropriate?

Oscar in El Monte

Dear Oscar: It's a tough question. If your cubicle mate presents you with a diamond-studded "Best Colleague Ever" mug, you'll feel like a heel if you don't reciprocate. But if you shower your boss with gifts, you might be branded the office kiss-up forevermore.

The best plan, some experts say, is to be a Scrooge.

"You're not obligated to give anybody a gift or a card," says Jacqueline Whitmore, the author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work."

However, Whitmore says, if you feel you have to do something, stick with work-appropriate items that cost less than $20. She suggests a picture frame, a nice pen or a music gift card (presumably to buy songs to tune out the endless office prattle).

If you're going to buy a present for your boss, Whitmore said, go in with other people so that you can get a nicer gift and don't come off looking like a bootlicker.

If it's a big office, ask a colleague whether there's a tradition of Secret Santa. Maybe you have to worry about only one gift.

Given the tough economy, maybe you could all agree to limit your office gifting this year to a holiday potluck or cookie exchange. It's cheap, tasty and takes all the pressure off -- unless you're on a diet or don't care for fruitcake.

Family's generosity feels excessive

Dear Alana: I tend to give gifts the way I like to receive them, expecting the same in return: one item that's well thought out and well wrapped. I always feel so guilty on Christmas Day to be inundated by gifts from family members who can't afford to spend as much as they do, and to have put such an environmental damper on things with the paper and packaging piled high in the middle of the room.

How can I politely request that my relatives give me just one thoughtful gift each, without hurting their feelings?

Kasey in Los Angeles

Dear Kasey: So you're sick of receiving loads of presents from family members? That's a problem most of us would like to have. Still, your concern about the environment is admirable. The trick is to balance your passion for the planet with love and respect for your family.

"All you do when people give you gifts is say thank you," said Amy Alkon, author of "I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society."

"The receiver doesn't get to be the dictator of presents."

Still, maybe there's a way to nudge your family toward your way of thinking without getting all preachy about their senseless consumerism.

The economy is a convenient scapegoat. In the name of belt tightening, you could float the idea of pulling names out of a hat and having each family member concentrate on just one gift recipient this year. Who knows? Your relatives might find it such a relief not to have to shop for everyone, it could become a new family tradition.

Or you could suggest that the family set a limit on giving to each other so that you can take up a collection and give a big check to a food bank or other charity this year.

If that fails, don't push it.

After all, the holidays shouldn't make your family members feel bad. If your Granny spent weeks knitting you a sweater with a design of a sickly-looking elf, you wouldn't tell her to keep it, would you? Gifts that your loved ones spent time picking out for you at the mall aren't any different.

Get back in touch with a simple card

Dear Alana: I worked at an office in New York for four years, and I consider my boss there a mentor of sorts who can help my career. Since moving to Los Angeles two years ago, I have lost touch with him. I sent him a Christmas gift last year but have not heard anything back.

In the interest of staying in touch, I was planning to send him another gift this year. Is that a bad idea?

Sharon in Pasadena

Dear Sharon: Is it a bad idea? Yes. While staying in touch with your boss is a fine idea, sending him a gift probably is not.

"It feels pushy if there was no response," says Daryl Twerdahl, founder of the Los Angeles School of Etiquette and Protocol.

Sure, it's possible that he didn't send you a thank-you note because he forgot. Or maybe his card got lost in the mail. Or maybe aliens descended from space and snatched your present before your former boss could receive it. But it's also possible he wasn't sure how to respond to your display of affection and decided to do nothing at all.

A handwritten holiday note is more appropriate than a gift.

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