Giving the Right Holiday Gifts

This year, according to industry reports, businesses will spend over $2 billion on corporate gifts. The giving of gifts to business associates has been a time-proven tradition for centuries. But the rules of corporate gift giving have changed substantially over time, and are changing even now.

It is almost unthinkable now, in light of concerns about sexual harassment, to give the calendars with pictures of scantily clad women as were popular only a few short years ago. Other gifts of Christmases past would be equally inappropriate in today's politically correct business environment.

So what is a consultant to do? How can we navigate the uncertain waters of corporate gift giving today?

Why Gifts?

Corporate or business gifts serve important purposes in today's business world. Hillary Feder, the Owner of Hillary's Gifts, has written: "The giving and receiving of gifts is often the unwritten protocol that builds relationships, internally and externally, the glue that helps connect companies with clients, associates, vendors, and others who are essential to their success."

1. Gifts help build relationships. Gifts given to employees can help them feel appreciated and valued as contributors to the organization's mission. Properly given, they can send a message of warmth and concern to valued colleagues. And, with clients, they can express appreciation for their confidence in you and for their business and referral of other potential clients.

2. Gifts can distinguish you from the "pack." Properly chosen gifts can help you rise above your competitors. Tailoring a gift for a client can communicate respect and genuine appreciation. One company I know uses food as a gift, but provides several options for its sales associates including fresh apples, chocolate, gourmet cocoa and English muffins, allowing them to cater to the specific tastes of specific clients. Giving gifts that are native to or produced in your geographic area can help set you apart from the competition.

1. Be socially conscious. In an era of political correctness, gift recipients will often appreciate gifts which demonstrates a commitment to favorable causes. Environmentally friendly gifts or those that might benefit community causes are appropriate and welcome.

2. Beware of ethical issues. Many clients have policies which govern the acceptance of gifts. Make sure that you ask someone in the organization about their policies. Many governmental agencies are governed by conflict of interest laws which set maximum value of a gift to a government official. Effective alternatives to expensive gifts in these cases might be a charitable contribution in someone's name or a gift subscription to a trade journal or other appropriate publication.

In an era of economic growth, sometimes there is a tendency to try to demonstrate one's appreciation for business or referrals with gifts of largesse. While these may seem appropriate, they may not pass the "smell test" and be interpreted as a bribe. An appropriate question to ask might be, "If the truth of this story were included on the front page of the local newspaper, would I feel good about it?" If not, consider another gift alternative.

3. Giving food and drink. Often, business people will want to give gifts of food or drink. Never give alcohol as a gift. You never know how the gift will be perceived, and it is too uncertain whether alcohol sends the wrong message. Giving sweets to a diabetic or a person with weight to lose can also be read as insensitive. Sticking with fruit baskets, muffins and the like are safer alternatives.

4. Consider personalization. Most business people like seeing their name in print. Gifts such as pad holders, business card cases or business cases with a person's name or initials are usually appreciated. But make sure that the predominant personalization is the gift recipient, not the giver. Save the gifts with a big corporate logo for trade shows.


Corporate gift giving can bring significant rewards to a business if done appropriately and ethically. But if done improperly, it can do much more harm than good. If the gift is usable by the recipient, if it reflects well on your company, if it is in good taste, and if it helps the recipient remember your company in the right way, you have gone a long way toward choosing the right gift for your clients, employees, vendors and friends.