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Office Etiquette Check: Should Employees Buy Managers a Gift?

Corporate Gift Giving, Etiquette, Management...

Whether it is for a holiday, a life event (marriage or new child), or even a birthday, there is always a good reason to want to express gratitude or appreciation for someone in the workplace, by purchasing a gift.  It is normal for external contractors or vendors to show their appreciation seasonally, but for employees, gift giving within the office (particularly to managers and senior officers) can be something of a social minefield.  One that could damage your career, rather than helping foster stronger connections between the employee and the management team.

While the average employee does not want to be the only one with a gift for the Manager on his or her birthday, staff also want to make sure they are not the only one out of the entire team to bypass the opportunity to make a good impression.   There is no hard and fast rule about gift giving that applies unilaterally to all workplaces, but employees should be aware of how a gift can be misconstrued, and why the practice depends entirely on the culture of the organization.

The Negatives Consequences of Gift Giving

While the intention of sharing, a gift is generally quite sincerely, the gift can be misconstrued and complicate the manager and subordinate relationship, if gift giving is not embraced by the organization.  It can create so many problems in fact, that many businesses adopt a policy that prohibits gift-giving between staff, or to senior managers to avoid conflict of interest, bribery and other misunderstandings.

The first potential conflict lies between the gift giver and other members of the team, who may accuse the giver of trying to ply favoritism.   Of course, you want your boss to like you, and when you buy them a gift, it is both an act of appreciation and a sign that you value your job and your relationship to your manager.   But to fellow employees who feel uncomfortable with the idea of a gift exchange, the animosity is understandable.

The act of giving a gift to your boss can also be misunderstood by your manager as an attempt to bribe favor.  For instance, if your work performance is under review, or if you have had personal conflicts with management or other members of your team, a gift can appear as an ingenuine attempt to mend bridges by ‘buying’ favor.  It can also increase awkwardness between a manager and subordinate, particularly if the manager is required to take punitive measures against the employee for performance or productivity related issues.

In some scenarios, the executive may even be accused of preferential treatment, based on a history of receiving gifts from certain staff members.

The last tier of potential conflict with interoffice gift-giving is the appropriateness of the gift.  A nice bottle may seem to be a tactful choice, unless the manager is unable to enjoy the gift for health or religious reasons.  The potential to offend someone personally within your professional environment is there, even for the most thoughtful gift.

Tailor Gift Giving to the Existing Culture of Your Organization and Relationships

Each workplace has its own unique social microcosm, and for new employees, the best advice from our recruiters is to simply follow the lead of other staff and managers.  There is less hesitancy for managers and senior officers within the organization to exchange gifts with each other typically, than there is for subordinates and other members of the team to purchase gifts for those that rank more highly in the organization.  Influence is less a concern between executives of the same rank, compared to managers and subordinates.

If you are new to an organization, don’t be afraid to ask the human resource department for guidance on the rules of social engagement and gift-giving.  Fellow employees will also be able to provide some cues to the universal stance of gift exchanges within the office.   Don’t be the person that starts a trend of gift-giving, or chances are, your colleagues won’t appreciate it.

If you are an manager, executive or business owner who does not want to encourage bought gifts, you can and should create a transparent policy about receiving gifts, which can also be extended to vendors and subcontractors.  You don’t have to eliminate gift-giving entirely, there are other ways to share the spirit of generosity and appreciation seasonally such as an anonymous (and voluntary) gift exchange.