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‘Tis the Giving Season

Gifts are one of the more vexing problems for people at a workplace—giving, receiving, thanking, accepting, rejecting. It’s confusing.

Who to give to? To begin with, not everyone in the office. Two people who have a close working relationship may give gifts: a boss to an assistant and vice versa, colleagues who work together, a co-worker with whom you share lunch breaks. Most important, give your gift privately, not in front of others at the office. You don’t want to cause hurt feelings, or make anyone, including the recipient, feel uncomfortable. Be careful to choose a gift that is appropriate. Avoid personal items such as clothing or perfume or cologne. Avoid alcoholic gifts. Look for items that would be useful at work or that reflect an interest that the recipient has—a book, a CD or vinyl, a DVD of a classic movie.

When someone gives you a gift, the first and most important thing to do is express your appreciation for the gift. If you don’t have a gift in return for the giver, don’t mention it or say you will give it to him or her later. Instead, keep the focus on the giver and the gift. If you had not planned on giving this person a gift, you have a decision to make: get them a gift or not. Just because someone gave you a gift, you are not obligated to give one in return.

What do you do if the gift is really inappropriate, lingerie for instance? Politely let the giver know you can’t accept the gift: “I’ve always appreciated our relationship, and I want to continue to keep it professional, but this gift is really too personal for me to accept.” For a gift you consider sexually provocative, it’s a good idea to reiterate your rejection in a brief note to the giver and keep a copy of it.

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Some people feel compelled to give a gift, even a small gift, to everyone in their office. One way to avoid that problem is with an office-wide gift exchange event. Everyone is given the opportunity to participate, but participation is optional and a limit is placed on the value of a gift—generally $10 to $20. The idea is to keep it optional, fun, and inexpensive. In a “Secret Santa” exchange, each person draws a name from a hat and gets a gift for that individual. The “Yankee Swap” is an exchange where participants’ gifts are placed in a pile and each participant draws a number from a hat to determine their turn. Players either select an unopened gift from the pile or take an opened gift from a person who already has one. If a person has their gift taken, he or she can either take a gift from someone else or choose an unopened one from the pile. The swap ends when the last gift in the pile is chosen.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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