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

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By Cindy Krischer Goodman

Surveys show the majority of employees spend less than $50 on a supervisor’s gift, and the $10 to $25 range is the average. “Bosses usually make more than you, so if you spend too much money, they are going to feel embarrassed,” said Elena Brouwer, director of the International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood, Fla.

This year, only about a third of employers of all sizes plan to give employees holiday gifts, and about a fifth will give non-performance-based bonuses, according to a member survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Small-business owners, however, may be less generous. This holiday season, fewer small-business owners will give staff gifts (30 percent compared to 44 percent in 2012) or plan holiday activities to celebrate the season with their employees (32 percent vs. 40 percent in 2012), according to the 2013 American Express Small Business Holiday Monitor.

At South Florida’s Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors and Accountants, all employees received a handwritten note from their supervisor and a $100 bill during the firm-wide holiday party. It is a 15-year tradition. Joanie Stein, a senior manager in the tax department, said the notes, presented in person by the supervisor, are as appreciated as the money. Beyond the firm’s gift, she prefers not to give or receive presents at work to either those above or below her in the hierarchy. “In our office, staff works for multiple managers. You don’t want to show favoritism, so it would be all or none.”

Of course, company culture, size and politics factor into workplace gift-giving, too, Stein noted. “In some businesses, it’s common for a secretary to buy something for the boss because they have a one-on-one relationship on a daily basis. We work with multiple staff during the day, so it’s different,” she said.

For bosses, gift-giving can be just as thorny as it is for employees. You don’t want to get too personal or show favoritism. Each year, Rosalie Hagel, a senior partner at M Silver in Fort Lauderdale gives her staff carefully selected gifts. “I try to come up with something personalized to each member of the staff, but I have to give the same level of gift to everyone to be fair.”

She said she doesn’t expect a gift in return but has received small gifts from employees such as cookies, lip gloss and nail polish. “It’s usually accompanied by a note, so it’s more about the nice gesture, and I appreciate it. I don’t think bosses today should expect to go home with armfuls of presents from staff.”

Even as Hagel chooses gifts for employees, she is pondering the complexity of what to buy her new bosses. In January, her public-relations firm merged and became a division of Finn Partners. Now, she has three supervisors in New York and plans to buy them something related to their interests without going overboard. “One loves chocolate, so maybe I’ll do that.”

Meanwhile, some businesses organize gift exchanges to simplify gift-giving. This year, a little more than half of companies plan to arrange secret Santa or white elephant exchanges, according to the SHRM holiday survey. Most set a price limit. Augustine advises: Stick to the rules, and if you want to exchange with a co-worker with whom you have a rapport or friendship, do it outside of the office. “In the workplace, you don’t want to make gift-giving awkward.”

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