Business gifts raise questions

Working Life

November 03, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,Chronicle Features

It's not too soon to think about a tough question that pops up each year around holiday time: What's the best way to handle business gifts and entertainment? The subject, which cuts across all levels of corporate life, involves an awkward blend of ethics, etiquette and economics. Sometimes it's not appropriate to give or to receive.

When it comes to accepting gratuities from outside contractors, many companies take a hard line. Policies range from flat prohibitions against presents and favors to price guidelines -- for instance, asking that gifts not exceed $25 in value (the Internal Revenue Service limit on what the gift-giver can deduct). The idea is to avoid conflicts of interest -- like favoritism toward a vendor or supplier who treated the head of purchasing to an expensive meal, fishing trip or ticket to a sports event.

If you receive an extravagant present or invitation, it's a good idea to let your boss know and together decide what to do next. You might attend a conference with a consultant, but insist on paying your own way, for instance. You can return a gift, give it to charity or raffle it off as a door prize at the company holiday party.

If you get something you can't send back, like a monogrammed desk set, you could make a donation for its fair market value. Either way, explaining corporate policy in a polite thank-you note can prevent similar problems in the future.

Vendors who respect the rules make it easier for their contacts at a company. Still, even for a modest price, there are ways to say "thank you for your business" without resorting to the usual calendars, baseball caps and coffee mugs emblazoned with a business logo.

A small alarm clock comes in handy for people who take business trips. A tray of Florida oranges is a great antidote for the winter blahs. And it's hard to go wrong with a store or catalog gift certificate.

Any present (or an announcement that one is on the way) should be delivered at work by mid-December, not to a client's home.

Within a company, gifts to anyone higher than you on the corporate ladder are usually inappropriate. With rare exceptions (like sending a holiday card, or whipping up a batch of cookies), gifts to your boss look like an attempt to buy favors.

On the other hand, bosses should find meaningful ways around holiday time to make subordinates feel appreciated. Whether you take the gang out to lunch, give everyone an afternoon off for holiday shopping or buy a present, keep the company culture in mind. You'll cause friction (not to mention envy) by giving your assistant two tickets to Hawaii when others at the same level are lucky to get a bottle of cheap cologne.

Among the rank-and-file, choosing "secret Santas" avoids having some people deluged with gifts while others get nothing. Instead, co-workers draw lots to see whom they'll buy a present for. This system cuts costs since each person buys only one gift, and, typically, there's a price limit. No one feels left out or scrambles to reciprocate after getting a surprise package. A holiday party or lunch is a festive occasion to open the goodies.

These gifts should be lighthearted and consider a recipient's interests, such as music, golf or gardening. Products you can personalize, like Post-It Notes or business memo pads, are a sure hit.

Or find whimsical computer accessories that reduce the drudgery of spending hours in front of a screen. A gift certificate to a local movie theater (maybe including popcorn) offers your co-worker a total break.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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