Thinking inside the box

Marketplace Staff Apr 24, 2007

Thinking inside the box

Marketplace Staff Apr 24, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Tomorrow is Administrative Professionals’ Day. Which means today, a lot of bosses are out frantically hunting for the right . . . something . . . for their assistants. Thoughtful, but not too personal, like any good office gift ought to be. No hidden emotional value, and certainly nothing too risque.

Colleagues wind up buying each other presents for all sorts of occasions. But sometimes, there’s just not much joy in it. Alex Goldmark looked into gift-giving on the job.

ALEX GOLDMARK: If you work in an office, you’ve heard it before:

EXUBERANT FEMALE CO-WORKER: Hey, it’s John from Accounting’s birthday tomorrow — wanna chip in for a cake?

Some places, it’s corporate culture. In others, it’s organized by that over-zealous co-worker down the hall who just loves cake.

So, how do you feel about contributing for birthday gifts, or picking your boss’s name in Secret Santa?

I wanted to get some honest answers. So I asked around at about a dozen companies.

MIKE: For our office, it was worthless to give gifts — because we all wound up giving all the money to the receptionist anyway, who did all the work for us. She picked out the gifts, she wrapped them for us — we didn’t see them until they were opened in front of us at the party.

Mike — who, big surprise, doesn’t want his company or last name used — is an engineer from New York. And he says before the receptionist took over the shopping duties, the Secret Santa was even worse.

MIKE: Well, we had a mix-up at our office where a new guy that started received a slip of paper that said “Tony” on it, and didn’t realize that it was really referring to Anthony, who was a separate person in the office — one a vice president, one an entry level engineer. The vice president received like a cap and some kind of stuffed animal or something with a Mets logo on it — and he was the biggest Yankee fan we have in the office.

New York baseball rivalries are bad. But the real problem here is that Mike and his co-workers felt pressured to buy gifts, so they weren’t from the heart. Buying that kind of gift can seem like a waste of time, which was the biggest complaint I heard.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: If your culture is one that implicitly or explicitly requires the giving of gifts, that’s a problem.

Johnny Taylor’s a board member at the Society for Human Resource Management. He says employees resent being pressured to spend money on their co-workers.

But data from his organization show they sure do like to receive gifts. And when they do, they’re less likely to quit.

TAYLOR: What we clearly know is spot gifts given to employees throughout the year — to recognize their achievements and/or their value to the organization — go a long way toward retention. And we know that as fact.

JUDITH YANARELLI: There’s something about getting the tangible and wearing it and showing it off, that . . . I don’t think you can put a price on that. I don’t think I’d want it in my paycheck.

Judith Yanarelli’s an administrative assistant at the New Jersey Utility PSE&G. She loves gifts — and every year, she buys up to $25,000 worth of gifts for 500 employees on behalf of her boss. Mostly, its clothing branded with the company logo.

YANARELLI: Here’s something that we did, my boss did, for his senior leadership team this year ’cause they worked so hard. And this is a beautiful . . . I mean, this came from Lands’ End — I hope I can mention the company.

These black pullover jackets were a hit, she says. And whenever an employee goes above and beyond, they get something like this as recognition.

PETER POST: The point of a gift really is to show appreciation. To say, “Thank you.”

Peter Post is the director of the Emily Post Institute for etiquette. He says the best gifts are personal, but not too personal. Like a coffee-table book about a shared hobby.

POST: I don’t think it’s a problem to give a gift to a person that is saying, “I thought of you and the things you’re interested in.” When you cross the line into that personal gift, that lingerie and the colognes, that’s a different kind of “I thought of you.”

And that’s not OK. So, if you wanna be safe, get them a knick-knack for their desk or something simple.

POST: Even flowers for a man would be terrific, OK? They love getting flowers. People out there shouldn’t assume that men don’t enjoy flowers. They do.

Can I get an orchid? I like those.

In Los Angeles, I’m Alex Goldmark for Marketplace.

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