It's hard enough to shop for your parents, nieces and nephews. But what do you give your employees as a holiday gift? Your co-workers? And how about that white elephant office Christmas party?
The most frequently asked question etiquette expert Diane Gottsman gets each year is whether to give a gift to the boss.
Protocol says no, said Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas, a corporate etiquette training firm based in San Antonio.
In reality, however, if you work closely and you'd like to give your supervisor a gift, you can make some cookies or a plate of your famous fudge, she said. Or you can join with your co-workers and buy a joint gift.
But go out on your own and slip a bottle of perfume on the boss' desk? It looks a little too, well ... cozy. And eyebrow-raising around the office.
“Don't try to be the shining star,” Gottsman said.
Generally speaking, you gift downward, she said: “Your boss is giving to you.”
The development office at the Houston Zoo used to have an “As Seen On TV” holiday party. Each employee was asked to buy and exchange one of the gifts promoted on late-night television.
Even though the limit was $20 per gift, Nick Espinosa, senior director of development, worried it might be a financial burden at an expensive time of the year. So he came up another idea: scratch-off lottery tickets.
Espinosa dips into his own pocket — he does not use Houston Zoo funds — to buy a $5 lottery ticket for each of his 10 employees. The mass scratch-off — aided by a thoughtfully provided quarter for each ticket — is done before the food arrives at the annual holiday lunch because if one of the employees wins the $100,000 jackpot, he or she is expected to pick up the lunch tab.
Well, that's the joke anyway.
“I want them to win,” said Espinosa, whose team is responsible for fundraising. “I want them to have a good holiday. But not too much so they don't come back.”
The big winner this year won $15, he said.
Some offices have a gift exchange. Gottsman recommends staying away from gag gifts.
Think office accessories, instead. Consider decorative push pins. Or a brightly colored stapler. Or a candy jar filled with nuts.
Consider a small basket of fruit. Or a gift card to a neighborhood coffee shop.
One gift that Gottsman doesn't like is a coffee mug.
“Too generic,” she said.
And don't even think about giving anything with a corporate logo as a holiday gift. That's marketing, Gottsman said.
But even if you unwrap a coffee mug with a corporate logo, be courteous and say thank you.
Are you really good friends with a colleague and you'd like to get him or her a gift?
It's best to present the present off-site, Gottsman said. Do it over lunch or over the weekend.
It puts co-workers in an uncomfortable position when someone is handed a wrapped gift but no one else gets one.
Some companies have taken the stress of holiday gift giving by organizing a secret Santa gift exchange. Names are drawn and employees are asked to buy inexpensive gifts; typically, the exchange happens at a company-sponsored party.
Or companies host what's known as a white elephant party where employees are asked to bring a wrapped gift. Numbers are drawn and employees can choose between opening a wrapped gift or forcing someone else to give up theirs.
That's how Lennie Ambrose got his standing alligator toilet paper holder last year, which now graces the men's room at his employer, Saint Arnold Brewing Co. in Houston.
Ambrose, the brewery's marketing and events director, was thrilled to get one of the coveted prizes in the game that goes on for hours. He had one of the later picks, which gave him more opportunity to steal something attractive.
The last thing you want to do is get stuck with something terrible, he said, recalling the institutional-sized can of Chef Boyardee ravioli that was the “dog gift” one year.
Vince Mandeville, who works in the lab at Saint Arnold, knows all about those fifth-tier gifts, recalling the cookie jar shaped like a rooster that he brought home one year. But at least he avoided the hot pad and the giant can of soup.
So he was holding his breath last year when he set his heart on a velvet painting of the Admiral Ackbar character from the “Star Wars” movie franchise.
Mandeville drew a high enough number and was able to “steal” it from a co-worker. It now graces the lab.