Exchanging gifts with employees can be a fraught process. HRM unpacks the science behind finding workplace gifts that will keep everyone happy.
As former Australian Post CEO Christine Holgate discovered recently, workplace gift giving can be a tricky issue.
When the Senate Estimates committee found out she had gifted four executives $3,000 Cartier watches as a ‘thank you gift’, the press and the public were outraged at what most saw as a misuse of public funds and favouritism for the executive team.
While the watch saga ended up costing Holgate her job, the consequences of workplace gift giving aren’t usually that severe. However, that’s not to say it is without complications.
To gift or not to gift?
Choosing whether or not to embrace workplace gifts will differ from workplace to workplace – it could depend on an organisation’s culture, size or the industry it sits within. A quick poll of AHRI lounge members shows there are plenty of HR professionals who support workplace gifting, but it’s worth keeping in mind the individual preferences of the employees.
Are you an AHRI member? Then you can be part of the debate too. Join the the AHRI lounge today.
After overcoming the hurdle of whether or not to exchange gifts at all, there’s the added complication of who to buy them for, what constitutes an appropriate gift, and how much to spend.
Thankfully, the research around gift giving is quite extensive. HRM looked to science to determine how to approach gift giving in your workplace this silly season.
Good gift vs bad gift
Most people will say they give gifts to show affection or appreciation for someone, but psychological research into gift giving suggests our primary driver is to strengthen our social relationships with others.
Strong relationships with colleagues can play a big part in how employees work. Research from Gallup found employees with a best friend in the workplace were seven times more likely to be engaged in their work, while those without had just a one in 12 chance of being engaged.
Therefore, you could argue that it makes sense to build those relationships through gift giving when the situation calls for it (Christmas, birthdays, work anniversaries etc.). However, while a good gift can strengthen a relationship, a poorly chosen gift can ruin them.
A study from 1999 asked participants to detail a time when they had received a gift and experienced a negative emotion. Ten of the participants said their relationship with the gift giver weakened after receiving the gift; two people said it ended their relationship. This is a small sample size, but insightful nevertheless. Do employers really want to offer a gift and risk things going pear-shaped?
Even romantic relationships can be impacted by an unfavourable gift. Interestingly, research suggests men often react more negatively. US-based researchers asked heterosexual couples to give their partner a gift voucher. After receiving an undesirable gift from their partner, men reported a negative outlook on the relationship’s future. For women, however, their feelings about the relationship were unchanged.
This research shows there is more, psychologically, to gift giving than simply swapping presents. Employers should take care and weigh up the risks before deciding whether to organise a Kris Kringle at the work Christmas party this year.
When and what to give
Jessica Kaaden FCPHR, executive manager of people and culture at Amaze Inc, and vice president of AHRI’s Victorian council, says there are really only two occasions where gifts should be given in the workplaces – by management as a ‘thank you’ or voluntary gift giving by employees (such as a Secret Santa or birthday gift).
“Gifts should never be given unequally or to demonstrate favouritism,” says Kaaden.
“Even if employees are friends and want to get only each other a gift, I would recommend they do it outside the workplace.”
Any gift giving among employees must be voluntary, adds Kaaden, and HR should ensure employees who choose not to get involved are not excluded or treated differently by other employees for their decision.
This year, it’s worth keeping in mind that some employees might choose to forgo the office Secret Santa due to the added financial pressures COVID-19 has placed on many households.
There is also the consideration of cultures and religions that might restrict an employee from engaging in gift exchanges and those employees should never feel socially excluded because of this.
For managers and leaders, deciding what to give employees has an added difficulty.
“Most importantly the gift must be appropriate. Inappropriate gifts, even as a joke, can be considered as sexual harassment,” says Kaaden.
Gift cards might seem like the easy option, but if you chose to go down that route, a 2016 study suggests you should opt for vouchers that offer experiences, such as a movie ticket, over material goods, such as Woolworth’s voucher.
The research noted experiential gifts strengthened the relationship between the giver and the receiver, even if it was not experienced together. Kaaden recommends soul over substance, which can also be an economically-savvy choice.
“With teams so dispersed this year, a handwritten card posted to them would really send the message you appreciate them,” she says.
Wrapping it up
Kaaden offers three final tips fpr HR professionals to keep in mind:
- Get everyone involved – if one team leader would like to award their team, make sure all team leaders are aware of this and have the budget to buy their teams gifts too.
- Keep it consistent – everyone should receive a gift and it should be of the same value.
- Avoid alcohol – this will vary from workplace to workplace, but avoiding alcoholic and edible gifts is safest.
With all this in mind, what is Kaaden getting her employees this year?
“I think I’m going to get my team members a little desk plant or something like that,” she says.
What are your thoughts on gift giving in the workplace? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.