Beware gifts of ill will
The season for giving can be the reason for recriminations if the intentions or the gifts break the rules of engagement, writes Denise Cullen
THERE is no greater minefield this time of the year than the office Christmas party — except, perhaps, the cross-cubicle gift exchange. ‘‘ It’s become a huge operational risk to businesses,’’ explains Andrew Nicholls, director of NCS-Nicholls, a boutique chartered accounting firm. So huge, says Nicholls, who is launching a corporate gift service early next year, that larger corporations have started sending out explicit ‘‘ rules of engagement’’ for office gift-giving.
Just one dodgy present can be all it takes to fall foul of harassment, discrimination and corporate ethics policies — and smart companies aren’t taking any chances.
Particularly problematic are the common secret Santa, or Kris Kringle, gift swaps, where employees are randomly appointed to purchase an anonymous gift, usually with a price tag limited to $10 or $20, for one of their co-workers.
‘‘ It can be an issue because people often use it as a way to get back at others in the office, and let out their innermost frustrations with an individual,’’ says Lisa Montgomery, head of marketing and consumer advocacy with mortgage company Resi.
Seeing someone renowned for hissy fits unwrap a packet of baby’s dummies, or a stinkyfooted manager who’s always shedding his shoes in the office saddled with a pair of charcoalinfused insoles, can provide some fleeting moments of satisfaction.
But even when defended as ‘‘ jokes’’, such mean-spirited actions can sink workplace morale and, in the very worst-case scenarios, open up career-destroying claims of harassment, discrimination or bullying.
‘‘ It’s a very dangerous area to be in,’’ says Wayne Spanner, national leader of the workplace relations group with Deacons, a law firm which reports seeing discrimination complaints spike during and after the festive period. ‘‘ You do have to tread very carefully.’’
Trouble can arise even if the recipient of a badtaste gift seemingly cops it all with a blush and a big smile — yet people standing around them don’t find it such a hoot, he explains.
All it takes, for instance, is one person to be offended by the sight of a secretary unwrapping a pair of edible undies, a sex toy, or a slinky set of lingerie, for the makings of a discrimination or harassment complaint.
As Barbara West and Frances Murphy discovered while researching their recently released book G’Day Boss! Australian Culture andtheWorkplace (Tribus Lingua, 2007), other cheap and nasty novelties ‘‘ can push the boundaries of acceptability’’ in different ways.
‘‘ Someone we interviewed was at a corporate function where the boss received a toy that said things like ‘ f- off’ and ‘ you’re an asshole’ when you pushed a button — awkward for everybody else,’’ says West.
Even seemingly innocuous gifts can miss the mark in the highly-charged environment leading up to Christmas. ‘‘ In the work environment, we’ve always got a bit of a joke about someone who is slow or late, or perhaps someone who messed up big time on a major project,’’ says Meredith Fuller, a Melbourne-based psychologist who specialises in career change.
‘‘ You might give someone a gift that alludes to that, and get everyone laughing, but the person on the receiving end is standing there, wanting the floor to swallow them up,’’ she says.
‘‘ People tend to take things more stoically at other times of the year.
‘‘ When giving gifts, you need to be aware that we’re all more sensitive, and stressed, and a bit frayed around the edges coming up to Christmas,’’ she says.
While it doesn’t have quite the same devastating consequences, another common pitfall during the annual present whirl is spending up too big on gifts for colleagues.
Firstly, it sets up precedents and expectations, which might not match your fortunes or desires in years to come. And, even if you’re a generous person by nature, your actions may still provoke resentment, hostility, suspicion that you’re trying to curry favour, or claims that ‘‘ we must be paying you too much’’.
In any case, says Fuller, it’s the thought behind a gift that counts, not the monetary value attached to it. ‘‘ There’s something about the intention that’s more important,’’ she says. ‘‘ People can spend a lot of money on something that does not touch your heart at all.’’
This can be a tough call for people who can barely remember the names of people they work alongside, let alone whether they have pets, read Patricia Cornwall, or prefer pink to purple.
But Marion von Adlerstein, in The Penguin Book of Etiquette , writes that it is ‘‘ virtually obligatory’’ for a boss to give his or her personal assistant a ‘‘ thoughtful gift’’ at the end of the year; it is ‘‘ not necessary’’ for the assistant to return the favour.
Sonya Clancy, head of people capital for the personal division of ANZ Bank, points out that a personal, handwritten note acknowledging the recipient’s work that year, can be more meaningful than an expensive gift chosen at random.
Having said that, don’t confuse inexpensive with cheap. For example, if it’s bottles of chenin blanc you’re handing out, buy the best quality you can afford — but first establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that the recipient would welcome alcohol, because you never know who might be trying to steer clear of the stuff.
And if you’re planning to exchange gifts with friends you’ve made at work, it’s best to do so off-site and after hours to avoid others feeling excluded, adds Nicholls.
The issue of giving gifts to clients, or receiving gifts from them, is a ball game with its own set of ethical, and sometimes legal, dilemmas.
With classic understatement, von Adlerstein writes that ‘‘ sending something lavish just before a client’s annual review of suppliers would be very unfortunate timing’’.
These sorts of reasons, along with demands for greater transparency, have resulted in many businesses telling their employees that any gifts valued over a certain dollar amount must either be approved, or politely declined, says Nicholls.
‘‘ Some gifts can be effectively considered bribes,’’ he adds.
When he worked in the corporate banking environment, he noted that ‘‘ dubious clients, the ones I’d be most concerned about, were the most likely to give expensive gifts. There was one we were weeks away from closing (his company) down, and he turned up on Christmas Eve with a hamper containing two bottles of Moet, which was worth quite a few bob. I just looked at him and said, ‘ I really can’t accept this’.’’
But that was nothing compared to the experience of a colleague in an advisory position, who did a lot of work to help bail out a boat dealership, says Nicholls. ‘‘ His wife rang him at work a couple of days later and said, ‘‘ There’s a 21-foot boat on a trailer in the front yard’. The boat had to go back as well.’’
Corporate care: Lisa Montgomery says office gifts must reflect goodwill