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Balancing Act: Gift-Giving at Work Can be Awkward All Around

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By Cindy Krischer Goodman

holiday_gifts_at_work(MCT)—One day in the company lunchroom, Jason Ibarra and his co-workers had a conversation about what they were going to buy their boss for the holidays. As the agency director at Exults Internet Marketing, Ibarra considered aloud how much to spend and asked: “What do you get a guy who probably has money to buy himself more than I can afford?”

In the workplace, holiday gifting can have big implications. Buy too extravagant a gift for a boss and you look like a suck-up. Worse: Don’t buy a gift, and you could come off as unappreciative. “It can be a little awkward,” Ibarra said.

Ibarra solved his dilemma by putting a black-painted jar in the lunchroom at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., firm. He suggested staff put in whatever they feel comfortable giving for the boss’ gift. They collected $250 and bought the boss a fishing rod, which they presented to him as a group gift for Hanukkah.

Etiquette experts say bosses should give their employees gifts to thank them for performance or dedication, but employees don’t need to give a gift back. In the workplace, giving should be down — supervisors to employees — rather than up.

“Don’t feel the need to reciprocate if your boss is showing appreciation for your year of hard work,” said Amanda Augustine, a careers expert with TheLadders, an online job-matching site for career-driven professionals.

If you do give the boss a gift, do it for the right reason. “If you feel appreciative of opportunities this year to work in your organization and you’re pleased with the way you were treated, it’s nice to acknowledge a supervisor with something small and a handwritten note,” said Alice Bredin, small-business advisor to American Express Open.

Experts say the best gifts are handwritten notes and something consumable, such as a platter or basket of treats. The worst gifts are expensive or too personal, such as jewelry, cologne or intimate apparel.

If you’re giving a gift to curry favor, you might want to reconsider. “If you are not a cultural fit or under-performing, sending the boss a really nice gift is not going to save your job,” said Augustine of TheLadders. “The person is going to feel uncomfortable or offended, and, either way, I don’t think the outcome is going to be favorable.”

If you are new to the company, it pays to do a little research on precedent by asking a veteran employee. “On-boarding 101 is always enlisting someone who can tell you what you will not find in the company handbook,” Augustine said. If there isn’t a gift-giving precedent, she advises erring on the side of caution and avoiding giving “up.”

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