Gift Giving at Work
There is one interesting collision point between work and life that’s not really major. It won’t affect your retirement, it has zero impact on your healthcare, and unless it’s from the company itself, it’s not going to affect your personal time off or income. It doesn’t make or break a career, nor does it change your regular work routine in any discernible way. Yet, it’s important because it’s a part of life that spills over into work. It happens at different times throughout the year but most specifically at Christmas time. I’m talking of course about gift giving.
I was motivated to write this article because we are entering into the Christmas Season. That also means it’s gift giving season. Typically, when it comes to small teams, we are expected to give gifts. As a side note I wonder if this is why people sometimes refer to their business group as ‘a family’. Yes, family connotes strong emotional connections and strong emotions can definitely apply to the ups and downs of our work environments. It’s also a word that can describe people we generally don’t want to hang around with unless we are forced to, which happens more than we want it to. That latter definition definitely describes most work environments. Because of social norms and expectations we give gifts to family members. It’s similar societal norms that have us giving gifts at work, which for most, is the only other group that people are deeply engaged with.
When Gifts are given, or expected.
When do you give gifts at the office? It’s easy if it’s a one off or if there is a traditional gift associated with the event, such as a wedding. In these kinds of situations look up the registry, pick something within your budget, and done! It’s a bit harder when it’s standard rotating things such as holidays, birthdays or other life events. Let’s start with holidays. The biggest Holiday is Christmas. I’m going to discuss this more, but this is the one area where it’s nearly mandatory to give gifts. Depending on the unique nature of the office, holidays such as Easter, Valentine’s Day and many others may be the spark for a gift exchange. Typically it’s considered bad form you never reciprocate the gift. There are also other events that to greater or lesser extent require gift giving including birthdays and other life events.
Maybe it’s me but I find the Hallmark holidays somewhat reprehensible. Bosses Day, Administrative Assistant Day, the list is endless. I’m not necessarily mad at the creators of these specious holidays. The people who created them did so to sell product and if you are being honest, it works, it works very well. The problem is the approach. It’s a little bit like when you’re at a bar with a girl on a date and there’s somebody walking around selling overpriced flowers and they solicit you. It just puts you in an awkward position. Do you recognize the false holiday? You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. If you do, it’s expected that you’ll do it every single time the holiday comes around. If you don’t then you may be seen as insensitive.
Occasionally gift-giving is associated with a very unexpected event. When there is need such as a disaster or an illness, the gift is a variant of charity. You don’t want to call it charity because nobody likes to receive it, but the fact of life is occasionally we could all use a little extra help. I wouldn’t put too much thought into the these types of situations. My advice is to just give whatever you can that needs to be given.
Traditional Types of Gifts
The vast majority of gifts between work colleagues are ‘safe’ ie. impersonal. These typically are unemotional gifts. It’s almost always generic. Baked goods, soaps or other prepackaged gifts like candy or gift baskets. It’s a little different when the gift is coming from the organization to the individual. These gifts include gift cards, logo mugs, or really anything that’s the product developed by the company itself. Google famously gave away their own phones as a Christmas/Holiday gift to all of their employees. I remember a VP that gave me a T-Shirt with the company logo. It’s hard to go wrong giving a gift that’s on message.
This makes perfect sense. The company needs to meet social norms but in a way that is completely devoid of risk. If publicly traded, the perceived value of company products is reinforced by the action. Management gets to say “here is this thing that our organizational culture says is very valuable, and we are giving it to you”. I still think it’s kind of, well, meh. Giving a company gift is an obvious way to save a buck or two and in some cases the perceived value is not the actual value. I don’t care what the suggested retail price is, if you can find a product for ¼ MSRP on the open market that’s what it’s really worth!
A Strategy for Giving
So what should you give? I’ve learned that the ideal gifts are personal, but not too personal. You don’t want a processed personal. For example, the person who bakes cakes bakes them every year. It’s a nice gift but it’s just a process. Nobody will specifically remember the bunt cake of 2017 if it’s the same as 2016 and2018.
So how do you do a personal gift that isn’t a process? Well you need an idea. In the past this used to be a big problem. Not so much in the age of pinterest. I personally don’t use the website very often for myself as I’m not very crafty but it is the mecca of cool craft ideas. There is also etsy. In many cases Pinterest and Etsy products can simply be purchased. they come personalized and are highly unique. The negative of course when purchasing is that they come at significant cost as personalized or hand made products usually do. Money can be another challenge. Money is generally in short supply for the working professional around the holidays. In the world of shopping for kids, holiday parties, traveling, etc money is almost always tight. For gift giving that means you can’t go ‘all out’. You have to be focused on value in your effort. So the best practice, if your schedule allows, is to simply find the idea and then make the gift. Make sure the gift aligns to the person that you are giving the gift too.
One best practice is to always look for gifts that are unique and keep a cache of ideas at the ready. An added benefit is that you don’t necessarily need to just limit this to work. It’s a strategy that works very well for giving gifts to those who have everything. When I say everything I don’t mean technically everything, I’m referring to people like my father. When he was alive he had enough money to go get all of the things he wanted which were mostly modest. So the challenge for him was finding something that resonated emotionally and that he didn’t specifically see as something he should get for himself.
Gift-giving is always going to be one of those things that has this little sense of unnatural about it. Our relationships in the professional world are built on transactions. you work and receive money in return. You do your part of the task and the person you are working with does their part of the task. Gifts, if done properly, are supposed to be selfless acts. A personalized gift, Especially one that has a personal effort beyond just a purchase, can achieve some measure of that selflessness which a gift is supposed to represent. This is especially true around the holidays. I don’t believe there is a company on earth that can come up with a way to give a personalized gift that matches the unique personality of every one of their employees, but there is no reason why you can’t do it for your immediate team and other professional connections. They will remember the gift, and appreciate you for the effort behind it. An added benefit is that this type of effort gives back to you in ways that you don’t expect.
Gift giving or can be a challenge, an additional responsibility or an opportunity to better our professional journey. I’ve looked at it with all of these different perspectives over the years and I have to admit I prefer thinking about it as an opportunity. I’m sure of one thing, work and life is tough enough, anything that makes it a more pleasant experience will always look like a gift to me!
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