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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 18, 2006

Keep those office gifts appropriate

By Dawn Sagario

It was quite possibly the worst office Christmas party ever.

The holiday workplace debacle was courtesy of an episode of last season's "The Office." A fairly benign Secret Santa gift exchange goes awry when managerially challenged and delusional supervisor Michael Scott shows up with an iPod blatant disregard for the spending limit.

When Michael is less than thrilled with the hand-woven oven mitt he receives, the party quickly devolves into every human resources official's nightmare the boss buys 15 bottles of vodka to soothe sour moods, and it results in drunken debauchery and nudity. Michael takes pictures of it all.

It's probably safe to say that most workplace gift-giving isn't rife with quite as much animosity (or baring of skin). But outside of established, officewide traditions of gift-swapping, workers may face the quandary of whether to give presents to a boss or colleagues.

It's best to first check company policy on gifts, including rules regarding clients or vendors. Presents should be professional, appropriate for the individual and his or her interests (but not so personal it embarrasses the person) and reasonably priced.

While those guidelines seem simple enough, a recent survey shows that some workers may need a refresher on what makes an appropriate holiday offering.

A survey of 250 U.S. advertising and marketing executives by the Creative Group asked the question: "What is the most unusual or unique gift item you've ever heard of an employee giving a colleague?"

Their responses ranged from dumbfounding sea monkeys to creepy: "Someone gave me a stuffed likeness of his head mounted like a deer."

Others were exorbitant: One CEO gave his assistant a car, while another person received a honeymoon vacation to an island.

Gifts from employees to managers, and vice versa, should be $20 or less, said Smith McClure, division director for the Creative Group.

"It would be something you feel would be of value to a person," said McClure, who is based in Minneapolis.

Taking notice of the decor on someone's desk or asking the person's friends what he or she likes can give you some ideas.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for someone to give a hugely expensive gift at work," said Deborah Rinner, with Tero International.

A lavish present may make someone feel obligated and uncomfortable, said Rinner, director of international protocol and corporate etiquette. "We don't want to put anybody on the spot. The main thing that people want to do is be reflective."

One idea, if everyone is on board with it, is to have a department chip in for a gift for a boss. Rinner said workers could make a donation in the manager's name to a charity he or she is involved in.

Rinner said bosses should be especially careful when handing out gifts to their direct reports, and will want to keep gifts standard among workers who are the same level.

Including a personal note with the gift, "really adds a lot of value," McClure said.

In fact, a handwritten note to say thanks for that extra help on a project or countless hours put in to make a deadline can sometimes be just the right present, he said.

"People want to be recognized for who they are," McClure said.