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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Vanessa Hunter

Cor­po­rate care: Lisa Mont­gomery says of­fice gifts must re­flect good­will

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