It may be called "Secret Santa," but the annual exchange of holiday gifts at the office can reveal plenty about employers and co-workers, gift-giving experts say.
That may explain why workplace gift-giving has declined steadily over the past decade.
Less than 40 percent of managers said they would be exchanging office gifts this year — a 10 percent decline from the late 1990s, according to a recent survey of 110 companies by Battalia Winston International, a New York-based executive-recruiting firm.
In an Office Depot survey of 2,500 households across the country in October, nearly half said finding perfect gifts for family, friends, and colleagues was the "most challenging aspect of the season." Those polled cited a shortage of time and money as the biggest obstacles.
"It can be easy to lose your 'holiday cheer' with all of the budget pressures, work deadlines, and time-consuming commitments," says Hillary Mendelsohn, Office Depot's holiday gift-giving advisor and the founder of thepurplebook, an annual online-shopping guide.
Those pressures are compounded in the workplace, where gifts deemed too personal can be inappropriate.
Why the stress? It may be that gifts betray so much of a giver's motives, attentiveness, thoughtfulness, and generosity — or lack thereof, according to Sherri Athay, the author of Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion.
Other values associated with gifts include appropriateness, perceptiveness, selflessness, indulgence, surprise, and evocation, Athay says.
With all that bundled under the wrapping paper, it's no wonder Athay has called banning office gift exchanges a "drastic, but sometimes warranted measure."
In a gift-rating poll of more than 1,000 adults, Athay found that both men and women ranked gifts from employers dead last.
Topping the list of preferred gifts were money and travel, while clothing, perfume, and photographs were among the least appreciated.
Still, don't expect money if you work for a bank, or a trip to Hawaii if you work for a travel agency. A recent survey found that the types of gifts executives plan to give this year have little or nothing to do with the market served by their business.
In a national poll of more than 1,400 chief information officers, 64 percent said they would not be giving computers, electronics, or technology gadgets for the holidays, according to Robert Half Technology, a recruiting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif.
"IT managers may be experts on all things technology-related, but it doesn't mean their personal or professional gift giving has to be limited to electronics," Katherine Spencer Lee, the firm's executive director, said in a statement.
Instead, the executives polled said they preferred to give gifts that were more personal — in stark contrast to most employee preferences.
To avoid trouble, Athay advises setting a clear policy of exchanging only token, low-cost gifts at work, including scented candles, small boxes of candy, puzzles, picture frames, key chains, and magazines.
As an alternative, she also suggests collectively buying the office a gift everyone will appreciate, like a new microwave over or an espresso maker.
For her part, Mendelsohn prescribes buying employees and co-workers gift cards. According to the Office Depot survey, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they would prefer receiving gift cards from workplace gift exchanges.
Whatever employers and co-workers do, they should try to err on the conservative side, according to the experts. "If you question whether or not a gift is appropriate," Lee says, "it probably isn't."
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