Balancing Act / Gift-giving at work can be awkward

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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, Mr. 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," Mr. Ibarra said.

He solved his dilemma by putting a 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 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 adviser to American Express Open.

Experts say the best gifts are handwritten notes and something consumable, such as a basket of treats. The worst are expensive or too personal, such as jewelry 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 Ms. 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," Ms. Augustine said. If there isn't a gift-giving precedent, she advises erring on the side of caution and avoiding giving "up."

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.

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com.


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