Today’s gamut of beliefs and sensitivities can turn holiday business gifts into an etiquette minefield. Here’s how to give grateful good cheer without crossing any lines.
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Seasonal treats that say "thank you" to valued clients, associates and employees are always a smart idea, so long as you don’t overstep the bounds of good taste or accepted business manners.
The key, according to corporate etiquette experts, is to give gifts that are heartfelt, thoughtful and clearly chosen to please your recipient. Impersonal, logo-studded executive toys won’t do. Likewise, wine or spirits aren’t always appreciated, so be careful about choosing such gifts if you’re not sure they’ll be welcome.
You should also check on your recipient’s corporate policy. Many companies now forbid employees to receive holiday gifts. A quick call to the human resources department can avoid the embarrassment of having your gift returned.
Here are some do’s, don'ts and ideas for the season:
- Pay attention to details. Whatever gift you choose, make sure it reflects what you provide throughout the year. No client wants to feel bribed by an unexpected payoff at year's end. If you plan to send only a card, take care to make your message a personal one. Take the time to write a personal, handwritten note — rather than sending a printed card — and it will show you value the client more.
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- Think comfort. Consumable or edible gifts, like candles or food, are especially appropriate at holiday time as an expression of warmth and friendship. Food draws people together and it’s something that can be shared with friends and family.
Find a way to match your choice to the company culture or location, so the gift seems more fitting: cheese from Wisconsin or key lime cookies from South Florida. If you don't like the idea of regional or indigenous tastes, choose home-style treats: chocolate chip cookies instead of formal petits fours, for instance. One etiquette consultant usually makes peanut brittle as holiday gifts, and clients have come to anticipate her homemade candy.
- Make a donation. Giving to worthy causes in the name of your staff or clients is an obvious choice. Groups like the Red Cross, the USO, the YMCA and other organizations are certainly worthwhile and support a broad range of needs.
You can also brainstorm with employees to choose a group suitable for your company, or charge an employee committee with coming up with recommendations. That way, the choice becomes meaningful for the entire staff. Try to connect the cause to your firm. For example, give donations to a research foundation trying to find a cure for a disease that's affected an employee or client's family.
To let the client know you've made a donation in his or her name, send a handwritten announcement and explain why you chose the cause or group. You might also slip a note in with the company greeting card. Don't mention the amount, just the fact that you made the donation in the client's name.
- Volunteer with clients. Set aside an evening or weekend afternoon and invite all your clients and staff to an event or location where you all help someone else. For instance, spend time at a food pantry or clean up a park or playground. Or, start a book drive and donate the proceeds to a local library with a ceremony that everyone attends.
- Give gift certificates. If you plan to give individual gifts, a certificate for a favored shop or restaurant might be just right. Many employees prefer a gift certificate that allows them to choose their own gift, rather than an item selected by their employer.
- Research personalized gifts. Keep a file of your client's likes, dislikes and hobbies throughout the year. Then you can give a gift of something related to a hobby or activity the client enjoys — golf balls for a golf enthusiast, say. The closer your relationship with the client, the more personal the gift can be.
- Give gifts in November. Instead of giving your business gifts over the December holiday season, send them out before Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday is nonreligious, truly American and spiritual, so it can easily encompass all tastes and beliefs. Plus, your gift will stand out because it arrives before the holiday hoopla.
Overall, when you make an effort to recognize major clients and suppliers as people rather than accounts or checkbooks, you'll be giving the right gift. True gifts, of course, are always about time and attention.