Dos and don'ts of office gifting

By Vickie Elmer
Monday, December 13, 2010

Don't buy a co-worker or a business client anything that may belong in the bedroom. Don't give political or religious gifts. And never give alcohol.

Those are some holiday gift-giving rules from Silver Spring etiquette consultant Cynthia Lett, who sees plenty of people stumble over the seasonal ritual.

"I have seen people give beer of the month club and wine of the month club" memberships to clients who don't drink, she said.

One client gave everyone in his office a President Obama bobble-head. When he asked Lett about it afterward, she said: "Boy did you blow it. . . . With politics, you have a fifty-fifty chance of insulting somebody."

One woman gave a female coworker lingerie as a holiday gift.

"Stay away from anything that they would take into the bedroom -- not cologne, not a purse, not brushes. They're not appropriate business gifts," said Lett, who runs a etiquette and protocol company called the Lett Group.

Many businesses and government agencies prohibit or strictly limit gift-giving, so before you start planning your work and client gift lists, check with human resources on the policies and any dollar limits for gifts.

"You're trying to make a good impression and show appreciation," said Lett, author of "That's So Annoying: An Etiquette Expert on the World's Most Irritating Habits and What to Do About Them" (2009, Skyhorse Publishing).

Among her best business and work gift ideas are museum memberships, food baskets and plants, provided the latter will flourish under an office's fluorescent lighting. She also favors tickets to sporting events or theaters, books and lunch -- bring it in for everyone in the office one day or take a favorite client to a fine restaurant next month and cement your relationship.

"What they give is going to reflect on who they are in the eyes of the receiver," she said, so the gift must not be neither too extravagant nor too and cheap.

Rosanne Thomas , president of Protocol Advisors, agrees. "Business gift-giving is a powerful tool, and one not to be overlooked. A thoughtfully selected and presented gift of high quality and taste can help cement a relationship," she said.

One of Lett's favorites arrived years ago and still sits on her shelf. It's an old-fashioned telephone sculpted in about five pounds of chocolate with her name written across the bottom in Marzipan, given to her by MCI. "How do you throw away a chocolate telephone with your name on it? It's followed me from office to office," she said.

It also meets her standard for a great holiday gift from a client: It's memorable, it's appropriate and it can be shared with others.

Here are three of Lett's suggestions for whom and how to gift:

-- The client. Before you buy for a client, clear your plans with your boss. "If you're going to give to one client, give it to all your good clients," said Lett, suggesting you set a benchmark for sending gifts -- say, the company must be the source of X amount of business. Then show appreciation across the board not just to the one person at the client organization who is its public face or your main contact, she said.

-- The boss. Do not buy your boss a gift by yourself. Just don't do it. It would look like brown-nosing and it may make the boss uncomfortable. If you have a terrific boss whom everyone appreciates, consider having everyone chip in for a present. But remember, each person chooses whether to contribute. If you don't want to give, say, "I'm so sorry, I can't participate" or "I wish I could but I cannot."

-- Best friends at work. Give them their gifts outside the office, and ask them to leave the presents there until after the holidays. This discretion keeps other colleagues from feeling jealous or irked that they weren't acknowledged.

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