Here are two letters asking about the same thing.
The first letter:
I was so glad to see you tackle gift-giving issues, as I once was strong-armed into helping buy a Tiffany necklace for my then-CEO. Ever since, I’ve resented the holiday office collection and tried to put a stop to it.
My husband’s employees just presented him with a generous gift card to a store that’s related to one of his favorite down-time activities. It was a surprise, and although we know gifts aren’t supposed to flow up, he couldn’t help but be touched.
We’re wondering two things. First, now that he has received the gift, is it sufficient to respond with a simple thank-you? He doesn’t typically present staff with gifts, as it would be financially challenging for us to give gifts to all of his direct reports. Additionally, the payment structure at his company is heavily weighted toward bonuses, so it feels excessive to add personal gifts on top.
Second, how does he discourage this sort of thing in the future, without appearing ungrateful for the gift? He thought about quietly inquiring as to who spearheaded the collection, but that wouldn’t prevent another member of the team from taking up the post. Is it best to just let it go for now, and make a note to let people know his stance on this next November?
And the second letter:
I saw your post on the CEO getting a ski trip last month, and it prompted a follow up question:
I manage a team of four people, and I would like to give them a gift to show my appreciation for their efforts this year. I do NOT want them to feel pressured into giving me a gift back, but knowing my team, I know that they will probably try to do something for me.
How can I, as a manager, nip that in the bud gracefully?
For the manager who has already received a gift from his employees, I’d say to just be gracious and thank them in a sincere way. He doesn’t need to now run out and buy them all gifts too just because of this, but he should think about other ways to show some holiday appreciation in return. Bringing in delicious holiday food for everyone? Writing each of them a note with specifics about what he appreciated about their performance this year? There are nice things that he can do that won’t just keep the gift-giving cycle going.
Then, next year, before any gift collections are likely to have started, he can say something like to everyone: “I know this is the season of office gift-giving, so I want to say up-front that simply doing your jobs well is enough of a gift for me. Please spend your money on your family or yourself, and know that I’m incredibly grateful to have a staff like you.” (He can say this in the context of talking about other office holiday plans, so it’s not a random, stand-alone pronouncement.)
The second letter-writer can also say something like this to her staff.
And if either are worried that their staff will ignore this and feel obligated to get a gift anyway — or if there’s likely to be a lone employee who pressures others into contributing for a gift — you can strengthen this message a bit: “I don’t want to assume anyone is thinking of getting me a gift, but just in case, I want to say that (a) that is very kind of you, but (b) I firmly believe that gifts should flow downward, not upward, in a workplace, so please put that toward family and friends instead.”
All this said, it’s entirely possible that someone will give you something anyway. And as long as it’s small — food, a trinket, or so forth — you should accept it graciously. The point here isn’t to make people feel bad (which you will do if you refuse to accept a small gift on principle); rather, it’s to ensure that your staff doesn’t feel obligated to use their money to buy you things.