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Santa or Scrooge? the country's somber mood has some companies rethinking their holiday gift-giving. (Business Tools Gift-Giving).

A mid a slumping economy, the war on terrorism and lingering sadness from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's hard to shift gears into corporate Santa mode. Even if you're able to muster up some holiday cheer, somehow, the concept of giving out employee gifts -- even the nicest engraved letter opener -- seems trivial, excessive or a little of both.

Though the doom and gloom makes it tempting to downplay the season, resist, for your employees' sakes. Now, more than ever, employees need a dose of appreciation, whether in the form of a traditional gift, a party, a charitable donation or time off.

When handled appropriately, gift-giving helps lift the spirits of both the giver and the recipient, says Lydia Ramsey, a Savannah, Ga.-based consultant specializing in business etiquette. "That's something we all need right now," she says. This year, Ramsey expects one of the most popular gifts from employers will be donations to a charity -- such as the United way's Sept. 11th Fund -- on behalf of employees. "Everyone is more focused on giving a gift with a cause."

And gifts, personal and professional, are likely to be more heartfelt than in years past, says Gresham real estate agent Cliff Kohler, who heads the Gresham Downtown Development Association.

"We realize now that we can't afford to take anyone for granted," he says.

Several holiday seasons ago, Portland-based JohnsonSheen Advertising decided to replace holiday bonuses, which often ended up going toward household bills, with a memorable experience. Whether in downtown Portland or San Francisco, the weekday holiday event involves surprise, adventure and some sort of a shopping spree.

This year, the tradition continues, but the company is considering giving employees the option of donating shopping spree money to a charity, says Pat Johnson, president and chief strategic planner.

Portland's Yoshida Group, a collection of 20 diverse companies, is going ahead with its annual post-New Year's bash, believing an evening of entertainment -- last year's theme was a spoof of the Golden Globe Awards -- will be good for employees, according to public relations director Kristina McMorris. Attendance for the party soared after Yoshida moved the bash a few years ago until just after New Year's.

"It used to be before Christmas," says McMorris, "but it just got too hard to schedule with 300 people."

Davis Wright Tremaine, a Portland law firm, has a creative approach to gift-giving that could result in more bang for the buck. The firm gives its employees baskets or backpacks full of client products, such as cookies, coffee or wine. It's a great chance for employees to get to know their clients' products, says administrative assistant Leslie Dustin.

Nonprofits are faced with a fiscal double-whammy this year because of the economy and the outpouring of giving to victims of the terrorist attacks. So the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF), a Portland-based nonprofit, came up with a holiday gift for employees that doesn't break its tight budget: the gift of time. With revenue down this year, NPF employees were given the choice of taking off the entire week of either Thanksgiving or Christmas in lieu of year-end bonuses. It's an idea that's worked well in the past.

"The first year we did this, we were so surprised. People loved it. We got more thankyou's than we ever had for the bonuses," says president and CEO Gail M. Zimmerman. "You get so much impact for not very much investment."

It's expected to be a slow season, as well, for client gift-giving. Recipient lists, as well as the price per gift, are likely to be smaller than in recent years.

"It's a pretty easy thing to cut," says Mike Darr, who runs Salem-based Adventures in Advertising, which specializes in customized corporate gifts. Since the economy took a downturn, businesses have been choosing less expensive items for trade-show and client gifts, Darr adds.

As companies grapple with how to approach gift-giving in trying political and economic times, it doesn't really matter how lavish gifts are. It's the act of giving that'll be noticed most by clients and employees.

If you have comments about this article, e-mail us at feedback@oregonbusiness.com.

RELATED ARTICLE: GIFT-GIVING ETIQUETTE

Years back, it was not uncommon for a boss to buy perfume for his secretary. He bought something different for each staff member and thought nothing of giving an extra-special gift to his top salespeople.

Flash forward to the modern-day workplace, where a new set of rules is in play. First, don't play favorites. Gifts should be consistent in nature and value. And second, avoid gifts that are too personal, such as perfume, bath products or personal apparel. Our old-timer in the above example was breaking two of today's cardinal rules.

A common gift-giving faux pas, according to Georgia-based business etiquette expert Lydia Ramsey, happens when employees collect money to buy a gift for another employee. Ramsey worked with an employee last year who was asked to contribute $10 or $15 for a gift but simply couldn't afford the money.

"It would have taken away from her own family's Christmas," says Ramsey, who suggests that any such collections be voluntary, without a required contribution amount.

Another big no-no is giving gifts to some employees and not others. That's not to say you can't give gifts to friends who are employees, but the exchange should be done outside of the workplace.

As a general rule, employees should be wary of giving gifts to the boss unless it's coming from an entire department or company.

"Giving to your boss may be seen as apple polishing, and if one employee gives a gift, others may feel obligated to do the same," says J.B. Lyon, vice president of Staples.com business services. "The whole thing can quickly degenerate into petty squabbling."

While focusing on the "holiday" season instead of Christmas has become almost second nature, experts warn to be inclusive and religiously and culturally sensitive. Leather goods, for example, are not a wise choice for a Hindu associate, because in that religious tradition cows are considered sacred. Likewise, be sensitive to diet restrictions when giving food gifts in the workplace, particularly in small offices. Homemade beef jerky isn't a good choice for a vegetarian, nor is fudge a smart pick for a diabetic.

ALTERNATIVES TOTR5ADITIONAL GIFT-GIVIHG

SPEARHEAD A COMPANY WIDE COLLECTION OF GOODS TO BENEFIT LOCAL FAMILIES. Portland Impact, which assists families as they overcome financial hardship, needs donations and volunteers for its holiday store. Contact Andy Nelson at 503.988.6000.

MAKE A CHARITABLE DONATION IN THE NAME OF YOUR EMPLOYEES. Get employee input on which charities they'd like to support.

ALLOW YOUR EMPLOYEES TIME OFF TO VOLUNTEER, Loaves and Fishes' Meals on Wheels program utilizes employee volunteers from area companies year-round to deliver noontime meals to seniors. Contact Clee Ann Hart at 503.736.6325.

FOR INFORMATION ON OTHER VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES, contact the Salvation Army's Chris Fruin at 503.872.8365,or Chad Coffelt at the United Way at 503.226.9361, or visit the agency's website at www.unitedway-pdx.org.

TIPS FOR GLOBAL GIFT-GIVING

CHINA. Don't give a clock. It closely resembles the Chinese symbol for funeral. The Chinese prefer to open gifts privately, so don't insist they tear off the wrapping paper in front of you.

INDIA. Never give a gift of leather, as cows are considered sacred.

ISLAMIC COUNTRIES. Don't present gifts to a business associate's wife. It's considered inappropriate. Gifts made of pigskin should be avoided since Muslims shun pigs.

RUSSIA/JAPAN/MEXICO. Gifts indicative of American culture are greatly appreciated.

Freelance writer MICHELLE MEYERS has worked for The Oregonian, The Outlook in Gresham and several community newspapers in Northern Virginia. Writing this month on holiday gift-giving was challenging after Sept. 11. "People responded to questions about their gift-giving plans with deafening silence. The holiday season was the furthest thing from their minds."

SOURCE: Adventures in Advertising, Pacific Marketing, Salem
COPYRIGHT 2001 Oregon Business Media
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Comment:Santa or Scrooge? the country's somber mood has some companies rethinking their holiday gift-giving. (Business Tools Gift-Giving).
Author:Meyers, Michelle
Publication:Oregon Business
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Date:Dec 1, 2001
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