I raised a good debate on the Never Work Alone Google Group with the question about gifts: "Is it acceptable for a manager to receive gifts from those that he or she manages?" In the discussion, another question came up: "Is it acceptable for a manager to only give gifts to some of their people?"
When I raised this question, I suspected that there would be two distinct camps - those that see no problem with it, and those that believe that gift giving and receiving could cause more harm than good. So, let's look at both sides of this coin.
Gifts are acceptable
Bren says sure. Unless your company has a policy prohibiting gift giving, why not? Of course, extravagant gifts ought not be acccepted. Though "extravagant" is a relative term. He had a "boss of a boss" once who gave expensive wine (~$100/bottle) as gifts. But only to his direct reports or those above him. All of whom could afford such luxuries. Bren didn't get no stinkin' wine. This year Bren didn't give any gifts, but he did receive a few. Some handmade jam, a box of mints, etc. Small, appropriate gifts. If someone had tried to give him something extravagant, he'd probably have found a way to gracefully decline it. Which brings me back to one of your questions. he'd probably say something like, "Thanks for this [whatever], but as much as I'd like to, I really can't accept it. Accepting such a gift would cause some hurt feelings within the department and we just can't afford that. I sure appreciate your generosity, though. Thank you."
Martin Spernau feels that accepting such a gift has it's problems, but not accepting does likewise. One thing he thinks is crucial in such a situation: The manager must make her position regarding the "strings attached" to such gifts absolutly clear. It must be crystal clear that giving and accepting a gift has null and nothing to do with anykind of benefits etc. A gift must be a purely personal thing. No strings attached, and no obligations. To prevent any kind of unease re gifts one team manager once started a nice tradition: For the team christmas party everybody (managers included) was to buy/make/bring a small gift. The gifts where all gift-wrapped, and there was a rough value-guideline (about 20$ max). Those gifts then were RANDOMLY drawn, so no one knew who recieved which
gift. And no one knew who the gift was from. That wprked nicely and was fun.
Dwayne doesn't have an issue with gifts. He gets a few gifts, and gives a (very) few gifts - not based on position, etc. Sometimes there is a reporting relationship, sometimes not. He doesn't expect "strings" for the giving the gift, and people get no strings for giving me gifts. Most of the time, when he gives someone a gift, it's an "I saw this and thought of you" sort of thing. He also tends to give things people whenever the mood strikes, not just around the end of year holidays.
Chris believes that if you're working in an organization where you might be set up for charges of favoritism, then he think it says more about the culture than about the action of giving a gift. For Christmas, he gave each of my employees a book (carefully selected based on their own self-created professional development needs) and he also gave a book to my CEO. Does that set him up for favoritism? Or does it show that he appreciates them and their work? He gets increasingly tired with the idea that, as a manager, you have to be "fair" to all. His experience is that transparency is more important than fairness. If your folks know the how and the why behind decisions, then that is enough. Managing with a "one-size-fits-all" philosophy doesn't reward anyone. If anything, those who put the best of their talents and skills on the line everyday get punished in order to keep those who prefer to do less happy through "fairness." Sorry, life isn't really fair and neither is management. Those who do great work deserve to be rewarded. Those who deserve our appreciation should be able to accept something more than a letter or a comment.
Chris also talks about culture in this decision. Culture is an accumulation of people. If a culture doesn't have enough trust and transparency involved then almost anything can be interpreted as favoritism. Ask one employee if they'd like a latte from Starbucks, but not another (because they don't like coffee)...could be favoritism. Share a particularly useful article with one employee but not another (because it is about marketing and not databases)...could be favoritism. If there's a person who takes things like gifts as favoritism, then he questions whether the culture in the organization is truly healthy. By your example, if that's all it takes for someone to get suspicious, then perhaps there are some larger troubles hanging out there unexplored.
Gifts are not acceptable
Eric Sohn was strongly in this camp. He goes on to say: In a word, no they shouldn't. It leaves you open to charges of favoritism. I would return this and say "while I appreciate the gesture, accepting your gift is inappropriate given our professional relationship." If it's something that could be shared (e.g. candy), you could further suggest that the sender re-gift it to the entire group, which would be viewed much more favorably by all concerned.
Eric also thinks that prefacing things with something on the lines of "that was really thoughtful of you" or "how nice!" is probably sufficient. But it's important not to sugarcoat things, either. A statement on the lines of "If I wasn't your manager, I'd be ripping the wrapping paper open right now. But, unfortunately, I'm in a tight spot here" helps show appreciation, while acknowledging that there is an issue. The direct report did commit a faux pas, however well-intentioned. I've never been at a company with a written policy on this. It's just considered bad form - and it is bad form. At some point in time, he or she might want to get a better understanding of corporate hierarchies and politics. It would do a world of good for their future career arc.
Eric thinks it's naive to think that things are always successfully done in private. It's not just between you and the other person - it's between the two of you and anyone else who might find out. While normally he is a risk taker, my take is that this is clearly a case of better safe than sorry. And, in some respects, it doesn't matter which way the gift flows. If it flows from the manager, unless he "brings something for everyone," there are potential problems. He suspects it's much easier to deal with in smaller, more informal, groups where the "manager" is more of a facilitator and team leader and whose title and status is more of a formality (i.e. someone has to be held accountable). The more status distance there is between manager and managed, the more my Magic 8 Ball says to be cautious. Cultures in which gift-giving raises eyebrows may have larger issues....but that's the real world. I'll bet there are pockets in Google or Yahoo! where gift-giving from staff to manager would raise eyebrows.
Eric also believes that gifts to your direct reports aren't the issue. Imagine if direct report X gives me a gift, which I accept, and direct report Y does not. During the next review cycle, X gets a promotion - or at some point, he or she gets a plum assignment. Might Y grumble about favoritism, legitimately or otherwise? It's not about what's right - it's about the impression. Taking gifts from those you manage is fraught with potential dangers. And, to be honest, it's not about company culture - it's about the people in those companies. All it takes is one person with a nose out of joint to start a minor ruckus. And, again, it doesn't matter about whether they're justified or not. The fact is, you're spending time and effort putting out a brushfire you didn't have to see start in the first place. And, unless you're really tight with the CEO, I'd probably leave him off the Christmas list. Rightly or wrongly, it could come back as an attempt to curry favor.
The only gifts that Eric gives to managers are ideas. If he saw an interesting article or newsletter, he will share it. If he read an interesting book, he will bring it in and offer to lend it out. Keeping the "gift" squarely focused on professional advancement deflects the charge of currying favor. It probably also depends on firm size - I've tended to work in large financial institutions, where rules, regulations and guidelines are king.
Cathy Goodwin agrees with Eric on several of these points and asks more questions. Why are these employees sending gifts? Was there a custom from their previous department? Are they your best or your worst employees? She wouldn't want hurt their feelings or make them feel bad. Instead of returning the gift, can you either share with the whole group (as Eric suggested) or donate to a charity? You could say, "I realize I should have clarified our policy on gift-giving." And send out a memo as soon as possible. When Cathy was a college professor, students (especially those from Asia) often gave her gifts. If the course was over and the student was from another country, she sometimes felt she had to accept. But she tried to educate students: the best gift to a professor is a nice letter of appreciation with copies to the dean and maybe VP-Academic Affairs. And a neighbor who's a police officer shared a funny story. In Seattle, cops pay for all their food and coffee. They do not accept freebies. A new officer from the South breezed through the Dunkin Donuts without paying, just waving a thank you. Her supervisor had to call to explain, "We don't do that here. You have to go back and pay." She wasn't being mean -- she just assumed that was the custom.
Did I get the answers I needed? Well, yes but not in the way I imagined. My conclusion is that there is much controversy on this topic, and I would suspect that no matter how you sell it to your organization it won't satisfy everybody's expectations. As a manager, you don't always (and can't) please everybody, so you need to determine what is right for your organization. If it is going to cause more harm than good, don't do it! Otherwise, make sure everybody understands where you stand on the issue of gifts and be consistent in that policy.