A Publication of WTVP

It’s that time of year again—time to get out the corporate credit card and order holiday gifts for clients, customers and employees. It’s time for company or organization parties and the gift exchange program where we all draw names of people for whom we must find a gift.

Why are we so focused in our businesses and organizations on holiday giving? It happens for several reasons. First (and best), it is a way of expressing employee appreciation in a tangible way. As managers, we may not be too adept at affirming excellent work performance with our employees, or we may not be too good at finding the right words or the right times to express appreciation. But we feel good about giving something tangible. The gift may reflect the manager’s tastes, habits or convenience. Why give a holiday turkey when you can give a grocery store gift card—something employees can really use? How about giving the employee a gas card instead of a Christmas tree ornament?

The second reason for gift-giving is to express appreciation to suppliers, customers and clients for their business or the services they have provided. But there can be a sort of competitiveness in gift-giving between multiple suppliers—it can become a game of sorts with a more self-centered manager. In one office, a manager kept a scorecard of sorts for supplier gifts, keeping track of which suppliers gave more expensive gifts—so, perhaps more business should be directed to that supplier in the next year. In another workplace, the manager “hinted” at the kinds of gifts she wanted to receive so she could take them home and enjoy them. In both cases, it never occurred to the manager that these gifts should be shared with all employees. Instead, it was a kind of managerial “perk.”

Workplaces have varied approaches to employee gift-giving. In some, employees put their names in a jar and draw randomly. Usually, there is a dollar-value limit on the gift; but employees often disregard MOREthese instructions. In other workplaces, employees buy gifts that are then numbered, and all employees draw numbers and choose gifts. The obvious problem with this method is that the last person winds up with the item no one else wants. Then, serious gift trading can happen so that people get what they really wanted. Some managers participate in these giving methods; others are aloof from them and wait for a parade of gifts and meals to come their way from office sycophants.

Office gift-giving, then, can raise some ethical issues about fairness in working relationships. Poor ethical behavior can occur when people demonstrate selfishness and favoritism. I’m not saying that such behavior automatically happens—I’ve seen many holiday events where people really had fun in gift exchanges. Even better, some offices decided to make the occasion an opportunity for “gag gift” giving, which people really enjoyed. But there’s another route to office gift-giving which, from an ethical standpoint, is better because it calls on people’s generosity.

One common approach is to partner with a nonprofit social service agency to put up a “mitten tree.” The first names of needy children or families are hung on the tree with specific items to provide for the children or the elderly. Mittens, sweaters, winter jackets, blankets and other practical winter items then start appearing under the tree with the card from the tree placed on it so it goes to the right person. This person-to-person giving is a concrete way for employees to show generosity, yet remain anonymous and behind the scenes—to be a “working Santa.”

In other cases, again in partnership with a nonprofit, employees are invited to make cash donations to reach a certain dollar target, allowing the nonprofit to provide toys, bicycles, books and DVDs to needy children. And, again, employees and managers join together to bring happiness and hope during the holidays—the ethical excellence in office gift-giving. iBi