HR Hero Line

Gift-Giving Policies for the Workplace

It’s the time of year when gift-giving shifts into high gear. Maybe a vendor sends an oversized tin of cookies or basket of fruit for the whole office to enjoy. Or maybe coworkers in neighboring cubicles pick out presents for each other. Sometimes a vendor or client hands over an expensive gift to one particular employee. Is it harmless fun or potential trouble?

A recent survey of employers by HRhero.com shows varying policies on workplace gift-giving. Some respondents say they have no policy and no problems. Others impose dollar limits on gifts employees can accept from coworkers or outsiders including vendors and clients.

Some respondents reported policies that prohibit supervisors from accepting gifts from subordinates. Other policies require gifts of significant value be reported to the CEO. Still other workplaces require gifts to individuals to be turned in at work where they’re used for giveaways at holiday office parties.

Evaluate your workplace policies with the Employment Practices Self-Audit Workbook

Regardless of how an employer chooses to handle gifts, it’s important for employers to understand the pros and cons of office gift giving.

Brian R. Garrison with the Baker and Daniels law firm in Indianapolis says employers need to keep the potential negative effects of gift giving at work in mind. “However, if the company’s employees traditionally have exchanged gifts, or if the company’s employees have a holiday gift exchange, then I think it is wise for those companies to provide their employees with certain guidelines for their gift-giving,” he says.

He suggests guidelines such as:

  • Structuring the program so it’s run by the employees themselves, not the company.
  • Setting a limit on cost.
  • Informing employees that if they want to go beyond the dollar limit, then the gift should be exchanged outside of work.
  • Instructing employees that gifts must be appropriate for the workplace.
  • Informing employees that participation is completely optional.

Regarding gifts to and from vendors and customers, Garrison says policies often state that employees generally shouldn’t accept gifts or gratuities for doing the job the company pays them to do. But inevitably, employees often receive nominal gifts or promotional items, and those are often excluded from a general prohibition on gifts.

“The same goes for employees giving gifts to vendors/customers/clients, and for supervisors/managers accepting gifts from employees they supervise,” Garrison says. “Also to avoid the appearance of impropriety, to steer clear of issues that could create feelings of favoritism and resentment among employees, and to avoid issues regarding disparate treatment that could crop up in a discrimination lawsuit, supervisors/managers should not give gifts to employees they supervise unless all supervisors throughout the company are doing so,” Garrison advises.

Peyton Irby with Jones Walker in Jackson, Mississippi, says whether a policy is needed depends on the workforce. A multicultural workforce will have issues of heritage or religion that can be a problem if gifts are exchanged, he says.

Some employers have cost limits and limits on the kind of gift that’s acceptable (nothing of a personal nature). Still others don’t allow gift giving in the workplace, Irby says. “Gifts from vendors are generally considered shared gifts, and many employers place a cost limit or they must be returned. There is no one-size-fits-all policy,” he says.

Robert P. Tinnin, Jr., with Tinnin Law Firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says he thinks in most cases policies aren’t necessary. But if there’s “a developing trend in a given workplace over a period of time causing employees to think they HAVE to give gifts,” a policy might be advisable. Also, if gifts are “getting out of hand in terms of expense” or if they’re inappropriate, a policy may be necessary.

Here’s a sampling of employer responses from the HRhero survey:

  • “Secret Santa” gifts are allowed among employees who want to participate.
  • Gifts from clients that can be shared with others in the office are acceptable.
  • Employees are not allowed to accept gifts from vendors unless the gift is something like holiday cookies.
  • Nothing valued at more than $25 from a customer, vendor, or other third party can be accepted by an employee.
  • Gifts are allowed but “significantly expensive ones” must be reported to HR.
  • Guidelines say no gifts can be solicited, and only gifts of minimal value, such as inexpensive cups or pens, can be accepted.
  • Gifts such as fruit baskets are to be shared with a work group or donated.
  • No cash or gift cards can be accepted.
  • Gifts are limited to small-dollar value, and some gifts from vendors are shared in drawings with employees.
  • One respondent said the workplace policy doesn’t allow acceptance of “any gift, gratuity, favor, service, compensation, discount, special treatment or anything of monetary value from any supplier, vendor, or any individual or organization doing business with our company. Exceptions to this are business-meeting meals, consumable gifts offered to an entire work group, awards for meritorious civic service, unsolicited advertising or promotional materials of nominal value.”
  • Employees wishing to participate can bring gifts not to exceed $25 and then be given a ticket so they can select a gift at the holiday party. No one-to-one gift exchanges are allowed.
  • Employees are prohibited from receiving gifts from customers or vendors when the gift is valued at more than $50.
  • Any gift over $100 must be reported.
  • Any gift of a greater value than $10 must be returned or donated to the organization.
  • Another employer reported that there’s no policy and the subject has never been an issue.

Keep up with the latest developments in employment law with your state’s Employment Law Letter, a monthly publication of news and analysis of trends in employment law and HR for your state