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In this economy, few workers may want to give a gift to a manager who has furloughed them, slashed their benefits or has them doing the work of two people due to downsizing.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/6/2009 7:18:03 PM ET 2009-12-07T00:18:03

Employees thankful to still have jobs this holiday season may want to show their gratitude at work by giving a gift to the boss. But adding a manager to your Santa list may not be the best career move, and it could end up costing you more than you want to spend in this economy.

“Giving a gift to one’s boss is always fraught with peril and should be undertaken with full information and forethought,” warned Jodi R. R. Smith, a former human resource professional and owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

Employees who bestow a gift on their boss could be perceived as brown nosers, or they might feel pressured to spend more than they want. There’s also a risk of buying a totally inappropriate gift, which could create an uncomfortable atmosphere at the office. And many managers say lavish gifts from workers put them in a bad position because they feel pressured to reciprocate but don’t want to be perceived as showing favoritism.

“There are entire industries where giving a boss a gift is an ethics violation,” explained Smith, including some banks, mutual fund firms, government offices and nonprofits. “If you are new to a company, it is imperative to read the employee handbook ASAP.”

You would think in this economy that there are few employees who want to give a gift to a manager who has furloughed them, slashed their benefits or has them doing the work of two people because of downsizing.

"Who in the world can afford to buy a gift for the boss?” asked Stephen Viscusi, author of "Bulletproof Your Job.” “It just makes it seem like you are out of touch with the economic times.”

The spirit of giving
But many of you are still in a giving mood.

According to a survey by online savings site AskDeals.com, 31 percent of those polled said they would give their boss a gift if they received one from the boss. But of those, 11 percent said they would be expecting a raise in return.

That kind of thinking is what gets workers who give a present to their managers in trouble.

Besides making a shambles of the whole spirit-of-giving concept, if you expect something in return, and the gift isn’t as a result of a good relationship that you have with your manager, the gesture may be perceived as insincere.

“It may make your boss suspicious, and they may begin to question your motives, asking ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” said Aubrey Daniels, author of “OOPS! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money.” “Once that occurs, it turns into a negative, not a positive.”

Kelly Rouba, a senior manager at EAD & Associates, an emergency management and special needs consultancy in New York, gives from her heart.

“I always give my boss a gift at Christmas and on her birthday as a way to acknowledge that I appreciate her and all that she has done for me,” she said. “She is a wonderful boss and mentor, so it's my way of saying thank you.”

But even if you like your boss, giving a gift to the big guy or gal can become a costly proposition.

Take Melissa, who works for a Nashville company but did not want her full name used for fear of looking like a Scrooge at work.

She and her husband have had some financial issues and don’t use credit cards anymore. They keep Christmas spending to a minimum for the family, but a long-standing tradition of giving the company owner a pricey gift is causing her some economic pressure. “Last year my son got bubbles and my husband got some chip clips and a candy bar from me, and my boss got $70 for the spa,” she said.

Feeling obligated
Comedian Shaun Eli Breidbart used to chip in with fellow workers to give a former boss a bottle of $100-plus Dom Perignon champagne every year, and the manager would reciprocate by giving them each a bottle of Veuve Clicquot — also champagne, but about a quarter of the price.

“After more than 10 years of this annual practice, we discovered that while we were paying for our gift, she was expensing it, so the company, not she, was paying,” he said.

Some managers may not want to spread holiday cheer on their workers but feel obligated to reciprocate. And others are just uneasy when an underling buys them a present, especially when it comes from a worker who’s not a good performer or could be on a future layoff list.

When career coach David Couper, formerly a vice president of a major mortgage company, was given a gift by a subordinate, he felt obligated to return the gesture.

“And I had to give them to all the team so that it did not look like favoritism,” he said. “It was a little strange, as the gift came from someone whose performance I did not think was that good.”

To keep any gift-giving issues at bay, some firms have established Secret Santa or white elephant programs. About 40 percent of firms are planning Secret Santa or grab bag events this year, according to a survey by recruiting firm Battalia Winston.

Hornall Anderson, a design firm in Seattle, holds a holiday gift exchange where everyone, managers and employees, draws names and spends about $25 each, said CEO Jack Anderson.

“That’s our culture here,” he said. “Everyone is equal whether you’re the receptionist, CEO, intern or designer.”

He admitted that the practice could put pressure on the worker who draws his name, but overall, he says, “I’ve gotten clever, not inappropriate or lavish gifts.”

Alternatives to gifts
Even gift exchanges and group gifting can have their pitfalls.

“Allowing group gifts to the boss could place some employees in an uncomfortable position if they do not want to participate,” said Charles Wilson, an employment attorney with Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall. “This can be viewed by others as not being a ‘team player.’ Further, soliciting for group gifts in the workplace may violate the company's non-solicitation policy, which could create an opening for a union's solicitation.”

Overall, Wilson advised against the whole gift-giving ritual at work because:

  • Gift giving can also create the perception of favoritism between certain managers and employees, which can lead to claims of harassment or discrimination.
  • Certain gifts may be offensive to a manager's religious beliefs, which could be viewed negatively by the manager.
  • The negative perceptions of the manager could be carried out in his or her next disciplinary decision.

While this advice may sound like a holiday buzz kill, there are ways you can acknowledge your appreciation of a boss, if indeed you do appreciate them.

For example, author Daniels suggests a handwritten note of thanks for a boss you feel really deserves to be acknowledged. “You can say, ‘Happy holidays’ and ‘Thanks for the support you’ve given me,’ ” he said.

If it’s been a long-standing tradition at your company to buy managers presents, especially costly ones, economic conditions today provide for the perfect excuse to bow out this year, Daniels advised.

Since most managers make more than their employees, he added, it would be unreasonable for a supervisor not to understand.

“Any boss that expects a gift is not a good boss,” he maintained.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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