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The Unspoken Etiquette of Workplace Gift-Giving

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page K01

Sparkly ruby pendant for mom -- check.

Sturdy snow boots for dad -- check.

A copy of your favorite kid's book for your 6-year-old niece -- check.

The holiday shopping list looks pretty good so far. Now, what are you getting your boss?

Almost half of us plan to give a holiday gift to at least one business associate this year, according to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive Inc. for Office Depot Inc. The survey also found that 90 percent of us are baffled about the etiquette associated with workplace gift-swapping.

We spend so much time with our co-workers, it's not surprising that we wonder if we should get them gifts. But what kinds of gifts? The expectations surrounding holiday giving vary so much from office to office that it is difficult to generalize.

However, here are 11 tips to help you indulge in the holiday spirit without running afoul of the law or good taste:

Check the rules. Some organizations have strict regulations about what kinds of gifts their employees can give and receive. In government agencies, this can be a matter of law, and repercussions for violating cost ceilings or reporting requirements can be severe. For more information, visit the agency's Web site. In other cases, it's a matter of voluntary ethics. Read your employee handbook for guidance.

Give to the group. Instead of individual gifts to your office mates, give something everyone can enjoy. Food is generally well-received. If you're a good cook, bake a tasty treat. If not, surprise everyone with coffee and pastries from a bakery one afternoon. Besides saving you money, and the time it would take to wrap gifts, this approach has another advantage: If people have diet restrictions -- due to diabetes or a food allergy, for example -- they can simply pass on the offering without making a big fuss.

Keep it secular. Not everyone is Christian, but people of all faiths will usually welcome a cheerful "Happy Holidays." If you send out greeting cards to colleagues, choose those without an overtly religious message. They may be different from the ones you send close friends and family.

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