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Office gift-giving: Pens good, body spray bad

No area of work life bristles with potential — and potential perils — quite like office gift-giving around the holidays. Do it right, and you can make your boss, co-workers, clients and assistants beam with a warm and happy glow. Do it wrong, and — hoo-boy. Pray for a) mercy and b) short memory spans.

To be clear, gift-giving at work certainly isn’t mandatory. But if you’re going to do it, stuff these particular stockings with the greatest of care. Small, thoughtful tokens of appreciation are ideal, gift-giving experts say; gifts that are too sensitive in nature, too personal, too expensive or even a teeny-tiny bit offensive are bad moves.

“The people you work with are kind of like a second family, and they can feel like family — but they’re not,” said Nancy Soriano, a lifestyle expert and a spokeswoman for Office Depot, (which, incidentally, is a veritable hotbed of gifts that won’t get you fired). “Never give something that’s too personal or too intimate.”

What might fall into the “too personal” or “too intimate” categories? The Internet might not be able to house this article if it spelled out all the possibilities. But here are some generally agreed-upon no-nos:

  • Perfume or cologne. (Don’t imply that you wished your colleague smelled better.)
  • Clothing. (Aside from, say, a very-very safe shirt with a company logo ... but then, do you really want to venture a guess at someone’s size?)
  • Gag gifts or other presents that might strike you as hilarious but may not seem funny to others at all — especially if the comedy is tied to stereotypes or sexual innuendo.
  • Anything overtly religious. Yes, it’s Christmas — but not everyone you encounter in your work life celebrates the holiday. Generally speaking, it’s safest to take a more secular “Happy Holidays” or “Wishing You a Wonderful New Year” approach at work.
  • Booze. (This choice is often too risky unless you know the recipient really well because you just never know.)

Peter Handal, chairman and chief executive of Dale Carnegie Training, still cringes when he thinks of the champagne incident. A few years back he decided to treat his company’s top producers to a weekend getaway. As a special touch, he had nice bottles of champagne sent to each person’s room.

“There were 24 people there, and 23 thought it was wonderful,” Handal recalled. “But it turned out that one of the people was Muslim and did not drink alcoholic beverages. ... He was very gracious about it, and I didn’t offend him, but shame on me! It was very embarrassing.”

OK, so those are some of the things to avoid. But then, what can you do? Here are just a few ideas from Soriano, Handal and other experts:

The practical gift
Soriano said functional, practical presents are sure to be appreciated for months to come — and there are all sorts of ways to personalize them in just the right way. She suggested items like desk speakers, earbud headphones, cute desk organizers, personalized mugs, monogrammed stamps — (tailor-made specifically with someone’s name or initials, so they can always create personalized stationery) — and USB flash drives.

While a flash drive might not seem like the most exciting gift idea in the world, if you have one at your disposal, you do tend to use it — a lot. Soriano noted that you can personalize a flash drive by uploading your own music playlist to it and sharing those songs with a colleague who loves music.

Of course, before you do anything like this, REVIEW YOUR PLAYLIST. Some examples of the kinds of songs you may not want to share with a boss or potentially competitive co-worker:

  • “Take This Job and Shove It”
  • “Bang the Drum All Day” (You know the one! “I don’t want to work ... I want to bang on the drum all day ...”)
  • Anything with this warning label: Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics
  • “Thong Song” (Because, seriously, if that’s on the playlist you share, you deserve whatever you get.)

The group gift
Let’s say you regularly work with a team of people in another part of the country. Or let’s say you and your direct co-workers really want to join forces and do something thoughtful for your boss, or for the team’s administrative assistant, or for a valued client. Here’s where the group gift can be a genius move.

You can become a hero to that faraway team if you send the whole group something like a really nice coffeemaker along with a whole bunch of fun coffee and tea blends, Soriano suggested. Or, alternatively, you could gather a group of people — such as your team of direct co-workers — and make someone’s day by presenting a gift from the whole group along with a card that everyone signs.

The thoughtful, handwritten card
Speaking of cards, here’s something that’s always welcome: a genuine note of thanks to each individual who helps you do your job well throughout the year.

“I really do think handwritten notes are important,” said Handal, whose company provides performance-based training at businesses all over the world. “In today’s day and age we all communicate by texting and e-mail, and it’s such an assumed way of doing things, but that makes a simple little handwritten note that much more meaningful.”

Think of all the people at all different levels who make your work life good for you. Tell them how much you appreciate them. If you can, mail the card to their home address for a more personal touch.

The gift of food
I don’t know how it is where you work, but in newsrooms, communally shared food doesn’t just get eaten. It gets INHALED.

This, of course, is the sincerest demonstration of gratitude you can find. And it’s a sign that a thoughtful and crowd-pleasing way to give at the office is to bring in yummy homemade foods for everybody. If you're a good (or even just average) cook or baker, you know what to do: Fire up that oven!

Pssst! What’s the best workplace gift you ever received? How about the worst? Feel free to share your uplifting and soul-crushing tales — along with your gift ideas — in the comments area below.

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