Holidays and Seasons, In-House Counsel, Shopping, Shopping For Others

Moonlighting: Holiday Gifting at the Office (Hint: Ixnay on the Nose Hair Clippers)

‘Tis the season to puzzle over holiday gift etiquette at the office. Every year, a few questions come up about this topic — what’s appropriate, how much, whether they really have to, etc. No really, one year, a colleague complained, “Well, I’m not getting much of a bonus this year, so why should I give a gift to my secretary?” What you’d call a true, selfless, holiday spirit.

Obviously, this was back during law firm days, when bonus announcements are made early, unlike at companies, where the grand reveal isn’t usually for another couple of months after wilting trees have been cleared from the driveways. Not gifting your admin wasn’t exactly unheard of at a law firm, though, and I think it evidences a difference between the impact of gift-giving at a large law firm versus in-house.

At a law firm, you could give gifts to every employee at the office (or not) and, while your colleagues would be appreciative (or not), this act (or lack thereof) really wouldn’t make much of a difference in your career. Do you still have zero clients? Okay, still not making partner. Still have boatloads of clients? Continue with deity status.

At a company, on the other hand, you need to find out the unwritten rules for gifting….

Not gifting as others expect can impact how others think of you, treat you, and provide support to you, because companies are all about teamwork and morale. If you don’t give a gift to your administrative assistant, for example, employees will gossip about it in every corner like high school teens when they find out that the head cheerleader’s boyfriend was stolen by that girl in the dorky C Group. And management will shake their heads wondering where they went wrong with the employee, as the beauty queen mom would about her cheerleader daughter.

Who to gift at the office?

First, there’s gifting down. This means people who report to you — administrative assistants, paralegals, more junior attorneys, etc. This group also includes people who aren’t your direct reports, but who have helped you out during the last year. Only jerks don’t gift down — it doesn’t matter whether the economy sucks, or you’re not getting as large a bonus as you expected. The few hundreds of dollars you may end up spending is just a fraction of the thousands in bonuses that most attorneys will receive.

The weird thing about gifting down is the question of what the purpose of the gift is. Is it an end of year bonus for their services (aren’t they already getting a separate end of year bonus from the company)? Is it an incentive (we don’t like the word “bribe”) for them to be good to you the following year? Is it a gift of holiday cheer? Yes. So depending on how much you care about all of the three, it will affect how much cash you decide to shell out.

Second, there’s gifting up. Should you gift your boss? Some in-house lawyers say that you’re only required to gift down, not up, and I tend to agree (especially when I want to quit gift shopping and laze about with a remote in my hand). However, there are exceptions. There are some managers who just do their job — and that’s all good — they keep you accountable, provide you with adequate training, listen to you when you cry about ignoramuses who think “irregardless” is a real word, etc.

Then there are others who (and I know this sounds really sappy) really care about you. These are people who really stick their neck on the line for you and spend hours advising you, when they could be going home earlier to their annoyed families or loving Xbox 360s. Showing your appreciation for these people around the holidays is a natural must do. (Let me suggest Modern Warfare 3 for those latter dudes.)

Third, what about gifting to peers? A couple of years ago, I received an unexpected holiday gift from a work colleague. Of course, it was on the last day of work and I had no extra emergency gift stash left. Awkward! (Actually, I don’t keep an emergency gift stash, but is that a good idea, or what? The only problem is that you need to be on top of your game and prepare ahead — not happening over here.) Apparently, the appropriate response is to simply thank them for the gift, and not what I did: babble guiltily about how I don’t have a gift for them. As with bosses, unless there’s an exceptional peer out there whose existence you’re particularly grateful for, non-gifting peers is acceptable.

Gift-giving protocol differs from workplace to workplace, so everything here is of course subject to whatever’s considered acceptable at your workplace. As I’m finishing up this blog, it’s the beginning of the week and I’m realizing: oh crap, my column posts on Fridays. And after checking ATL later in the week: d’oh, everyone else is posting about this gift stuff already.

So for those of you who are on the ball and have already figured out the gift-giving protocol at your workplace — bummer, I hope that you’ve learned now that it sometimes pays to procrastinate. For the others of you who are scrambling on the Friday before Christmas, this blog is for you! And good luck. “Better late than never” may be a great motto for next week!

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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