Anyone who has ever worked in an office has experienced this uncomfortable situation at least once. Most have been party to it countless times. We’re talking about group gift etiquette, and it can be a source of headaches and uncomfortable feelings if not handled properly.
The dreaded gift memo
It usually starts with that super-exuberant, celebratory team leader. Perhaps the lady with the St. Patrick’s Day sweater vest (we’ll call her Daunting Donna) circulates a memo around the office, saying Debbie from Department D, a devoted, long-term member of the accounts payable team, is expecting a baby. “Wouldn’t it be fun to all chip in to buy her the latest and greatest $500 stroller? And with 10 people in the department, that amounts to only $50 each!”
Okay, so if you’re rolling in the dough, $50 might not be a big deal. But it’s also likely that if you’re rolling in the dough, there’s no one like a Daunting Donna circulating a group gift memo. That doesn’t mean it won’t visit you, however. It will, instead, arrive via email as a group message, and you could be expected to throw in closer to $100.
Is there such a thing as group gift etiquette in an office setting? What if you don’t have a spare $50 – or even $10 – that particular week? Are you obligated to contribute, and then forego drive-thru coffee or your weekly nail appointment to make up for the deficit? Certainly not.
So how do you go about turning down Daunting Donna without looking like a jerk to the rest of your colleagues – not to mention Debbie from Department D? After all, if you don’t donate, your name won’t go on the card that graces the large box with that stroller inside.
How to handle gift giving
Start with brutal honesty to Daunting Donna or to the initiator of the group email. Also, be firm. Say something like, “I’d really like to contribute to Debbie’s gift, but a few unexpected things have come up this month (week, year, etc.), and I simply cannot help.” This will open the door to your graceful exit from this group effort. You don’t owe anyone the specifics. Don’t leave it there, however. You should continue to be part of the group in the coming days and weeks – as well as during and after the event where Debbie is presented with her gift. Perhaps you can contribute in a different way. Consider sending an email saying, “I plan to make/bake/fashion/create my famous_______ (fill in the blank with your secret family recipe for cookies, a picture frame that will hold an image of Debbie’s future child, etc.) I know she’ll love it.” If finances are truly limited, you might also resort to a card with the promise of a home cooked meal delivered once Debbie returns home from the hospital. After all, pasta is a frugal way to stretch your budget!
So, what if you simply don’t like (or can’t stand) Debbie from Department D? What if she is your arch nemesis? Maybe she got the job you wanted. Perhaps she simply rubs you the wrong way. Despite the reason, if you don’t like Debbie, you don’t want to be handing Daunting Donna your dollars to help purchase a gift. How do you handle this situation? No one should ever feel forced to shell out hard earned money for something they don’t believe in or can’t afford. And if the relationship between you and Debbie is a bad one – or perhaps even nonexistent – you don’t have to contribute to the gift buying pool. “I just can’t do it this time, Donna,” you might say when the memo gets handed around. You don’t have to give an explanation. Be firm and polite, get back to work and avoid the chatter that may accompany the occasion. It might also behoove you to schedule a dental appointment or take a sick day on the day they present Debbie with the stroller. Or maybe if Department D isn’t adjacent to your desk, you can simply work through lunch while the celebration is occurring.
When to contribute
There is one aside to this group gift etiquette scenario. If the recipient isn’t Debbie from Department D, but is instead your boss from the office directly facing your cubicle, you might rethink your choice about not contributing. You definitely don’t have to pitch in with an amount that uncomfortably taxes your budget, but you really should do something to show you’re excited about the coming baby, wedding or promotion. “I don’t have $50 this time, Donna, but I’m happy to contribute $20,” will still get your name on the card, so your boss knows you’re part of the team.
Fortunately, some offices have banned the gift contribution memos that frequently circulate. Colleagues often opt to meet for drinks or dinner as a group instead. Once again, let your heart and your budget be your guide as to whether you do or don’t participate.
Working with someone doesn’t mean you owe him or her anything other than kindness and respect. Neither costs you a penny, and they reflect strongly upon your character at the same time.
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