It’s the holiday season, and for many of us that means considering gifts for employees, clients, referral sources, colleagues and others.
The issue is not as simple as one might think. In a world of political correctness and strict human resources policies, it’s important to think carefully before running off to the mall to pick up a few items. Moreover, science tells us that much of what we thought we knew about gift giving, is, well, wrong. A recent Wall Street Journal article (“The Science Behind Gifting”) noted that
Some gift givers spend time and energy trying to find just the right gift. But thoughtful gifts don’t necessarily lead to greater appreciation, according to a study published in November in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person, the study found.
So I checked with some of my expert sources, notably Lucia Robles, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who now operates Lucia & Co., a provider of elegant gift boxes. While Robles acknowledged that the rules of gift giving are continually evolving, she says common sense and a dose of thoughtfulness will go a long way toward bringing a smile to friends and business associates.
Following are a few suggestions to keep the season jolly:
- Check with HR before sending a gift. While there is little risk in sending someone a Christmas card, many companies have policies regarding employees’ receipt of gifts. (Inc. magazine offers suggestions for establishing such policies). Some organizations, including many government agencies, frown on gifts and maintain clear restrictions, most of which are designed to avoid the appearance of graft or special favor.
- Use caution when giving gifts inside your company. While it may seem the most natural thing in the world, giving gifts to colleagues and staff presents noteworthy pitfalls. For example, you can engender resentment if you offer gifts to subordinates or co-workers while neglecting others, or give one individual a gift perceived to be superior to those given others. The best solutions are to either 1) give everyone an identical item, such as a gift card; or 2) Establish a “secret Santa”-type gift exchange, in which every participant draws the name of a single recipient and there is a pre-set dollar limit for purchasing a gift.
- Give fewer, nicer gifts rather than numerous cheap ones. There is no obligation to give a gift to anyone, and it can be stressful trying to find something appropriate for multiple individuals. Therefore, it usually makes sense to carefully consider your business relationships and identify a small number of high priority recipients (such as important clients). Better to give fewer, nicer things to fewer, more carefully considered recipients.
- Save the branded tschotzkes for trade shows. There is a place for promotional items like tee shirts and coffee mugs, but not as a holiday gift. “You want to actually touch someone emotionally by demonstrating thought and caring,” says Robles. “You don’t want to risk having them feel like a communications channel in a marketing campaign.” There are exceptions, of course, such as if the branded item is rare or particularly special: A 100-year-old advertising poster for Budweiser could be a memorable gift for right recipient.
- Avoid items such like wine, spirits or cigars…unless you know the recipient well. Such a gift presents obvious risks, especially if you are unsure whether the recipient will truly appreciate it. You also want to be sure such items are not considered inappropriate by the recipient’s co-workers or in violation of company policy. (Personally, I consider these ideal gifts – and hope any potential benefactors take note of that.)
- Avoid the overly personal…and especially the suggestive. “These are business relationships, and should reflect a sense of professionalism,” says Robles. “Perfume and lingerie – any clothing, really – are just not appropriate in a business context. They send the wrong message to both the recipient and his or her colleagues.”
- Consider how the gift’s packaging will reflect on you. While the gift itself is the key consideration, high quality packaging can make a favorable impression and demonstrate your taste and discernment.
- While food items remain popular, be mindful of spoilage. Gourmet foods, desserts, coffees and teas continue to be popular among both givers and receivers – especially if you confirm the recipient is an enthusiast of, say, pate or gourmet tea. (Cookies and pastries are usually unobjectionable.). But be cautious with food items, especially if you plan to mail or ship them. “Make sure to choose items that won’t melt or spoil if they are not opened relatively quickly,” says Robles, who also suggests caution when considering specifically “healthy” foods. “These can be ideal for many health conscious recipients,” Robles notes, “but you don’t want the recipient to interpret the gift as a less-than-subtle hint about losing lose weight.”
- Strive for something unusual and personalized. Though it usually requires the giver to devote careful consideration or even conduct a little research, the best gift is one the recipient really wants to receive. “The secret to being a good gift giver…is to give them what they want,” says Dr. Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study referenced in the Wall Street Journal article.
- Consider gift cards if you have numerous recipients. While not particularly personal and unlikely to impress important clients or referral sources, these are often popular with audiences such as employees. Moreover, they won’t break the bank if you have a lot of people to recognize.
For those considering providing me with a little Christmas cheer, I enjoy cognac, single malt scotch, premium bourbon and mild to medium cigars (a box of Davidoffs is always appreciated).