My son has been given the name of his Secret Santa person at work. If anyone is unfamiliar with this ritual, it means he must buy a Christmas present for that colleague. He is not unhappy and said that at least this year it was someone he knew. The office has kindly stipulated a limit for everyone of ten bucks. He should be able to think of something to buy.
Ten dollars is not a lot, but here’s the thing. We dip into our pockets more than we realise. According to a Nationwide survey in the UK published in 2017, the average person will spend around $70,000 (or 40,000 GBP) over the course of their working life on giving gifts, buying treats such as coffees, and handing over cash to sponsor people at work.
It is an insidious kind of spend. For many of us, it is a high price to pay to avoid the title of ‘Scrooge.’
We all know how it generally works. An envelope comes around, and the cause is usually worthy. Bob is leaving after forty years. Betty is in hospital, don’t ask! Enid is walking up Kilimanjaro in her Manolos to raise awareness for Chihuahuas. We all hand over some cash to make a deposit in the account of workplace goodwill. A large card is often signed.
I would hate to see kindness and generosity in the workplace disappear. I have moved about quite often in my career and I have kept all the signed farewell cards. On the wall in front of me, as I type right now, is a framed black and white poster of a Norman Parkinson print that I adore. That came from a farewell gift in 1987. And I recently had dinner with a former boss and showed him a beautiful fabric stationery holder and jewellery roll that he once gave me as a departing gift before I went travelling. I still have them, thirty years on. I still appreciate the gesture.
But, as with everything in life, there is warning label. Giving gifts can be a minefield.
The head of Australia Post recently fell on her sword over the media storm that ensued when she gifted Cartier watches as a thank you to four executives. If Australia Post were a private enterprise, we would never have heard this story, but the good citizens and taxpayers of Australia really don’t expect postal employees at any level to be handed luxury items as a bonus.
This was not a breach of any law, but the pain of going from 70 cents to $1 overnight, for a stamp, has not abated for many. This year I was advised to send my Christmas parcels by Express post, or they would never get there. This was said in November. Please explain; what exactly was the bonus for?
There are other things to consider when giving gifts at work, and it is not just the expenditure of other people’s money.
A decent manager will have to ask themselves, does this look like favouritism? Is it disproportionate? Think about your gift being written up by a journalist or (if you ever watched the movie, Love Actually) being found by your spouse. How does it look now?
Will it cause embarrassment? Is it in bad taste? Just because you think it’s funny, doesn’t mean the recipient will agree. There is room for every reaction from disappointment to accusations of harassment.
And then you can just be utterly insensitive without realising what you’ve done. Only recently I gave a bottle of wine to a man for his birthday, not realising that he didn’t drink, and from the patient way he explained this, I immediately understood that alcohol was not a happy subject in his life.
Some people are easy to offend. A woman I once gave perfumed soaps to, looked at me with some bewilderment and asked, ‘Do I smell?’ Chocolates can offend. Yes chocolates! I’ve heard, ‘Of all things! You know I’m on a diet!’ Or this; “I do like chocolate, but I don’t like these particular ones.” And please don’t get me started on allergies. When you’ve had a tin of shortbread or bunch of flowers handed back to you, it makes you wary.
What to do? Well, vouchers are a good choice. Vouchers for experiences like movies or restaurants are usually appreciated. It is a rare person who won’t use a coupon to buy a book, even if they use it to buy a present for someone else. It is as boring as hell, but it is safe. In the days of instant outrage, I’d rather be safe.
I have rarely discussed this dripping tap of expenditure with any colleague, except a guy who argued about feeling compelled to do anything at work. He once handed me, on my birthday, a folded piece of A4 out of the photocopier tray, with a simple drawing of flowers on the cover. Inside were the words, “Money’s tight, times are hard, Here’s your f**king birthday card.”
Fortunately, most of us summon up a measure of goodwill, manners, and cheer over the festive season. We are raised to say thank you and behave graciously when given a gift. When Christmas appears, we go along with the paper hats, dry slices of turkey and warm wine in plastic cups.
Office parties and lunches may be a bit thin on the ground this year for many. But the best gift will surely be the ability to say to each other, we got through 2020. And you can’t buy that sort of good fortune.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Just for the record, I would never hand back a box of chocolates.