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The dos and donts of corporate holiday gift buying by Perkal

"Etiquette. It governs much in the corporate world-even the act of gift giving during the holidays. While most gifts are received with warmth and appreciation, well-intentioned employers, employees, clients and associates who breech the sometimes unwritten rules of gift giving can end up severing valuable relationships.

Frank Heasley, PhD, President and CEO of MedZilla.com, a leading Internet recruitment and professional community that targets jobseekers and HR professionals in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and science, remembers sending a newspaper reporter a small holiday gift. ""He never called me for a quote, again,"" Dr. Heasley says. ""I had no idea that my action would have that effect.""

But the fact is that giving gifts can be misinterpreted, according to Jacqueline Whitmore, founder and director of the Protocol School of Palm Beach.

For example, Whitmore, who provides etiquette training to executives and others at colleges, universities, corporations and associations, says it's important to know that it's not always necessary to give your supervisor or boss a gift during the holidays.

""When you give individual gifts to a superior, it could be misinterpreted as a bribe. However, if everyone in the department wants to get together and pool their resources and get something for the supervisor, that's a different story.""

Still, Whitmore suggests making the pooled gift small and based on the supervisor or manager's interests. If a supervisor likes to play golf, for example, a set of clubs would be considered extravagant but a golf shirt and sleeve of golf balls would be appropriate, she says.

To avoid chaos and controversy, department managers who decide to distribute gifts to their employees should give all of their employees the same gifts or give nothing at all, Whitmore says. The manager might solve the gift-giving problem by having a holiday party for employees within a department. Managers who oversee large departments might consider giving less expensive gifts, such as turkeys or gift certificates to grocery stores for holiday food shopping. Holiday cards (not denoting any religious affiliation) are appropriate tokens to show employees that management recognizes them.

One instance in which it might be appropriate to give an individual gift is when someone has an executive assistant. The executive assistant and his or her boss are in such close contact that a boss might want to give that person a little something extra, just for being there, Whitmore says.

When sending gifts to clients or vendors, gift givers should first check with the recipient's company policy on gifts. There are policies that limit the value of gifts acceptable from outside firms.

""We have clients that send out notices to their vendors that vendors must limit gifts to their employees to a certain amount. Some companies prefer that their employees do not receive any gifts from vendors or associated companies,"" says Michele Groutage, MedZilla's director of marketing.

The same holds true for pharmaceutical sales representatives, who under new guidelines are supposed to be curbing their gifts to doctors and other clients. According to Jeff Trewhitt, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, under the new marketing code guidelines that went into effect July 1, 2002, entertainment activities are inappropriate gifts from pharmaceutical reps to their clients. ""The goal is to have a meaningful conversation about a new medicine and its potential value and characteristics, including side effects. And if you're sitting on the third baseline at Wrigley Field in Chicago, watching the Cubs play the Giants and waiting for Barry Bonds to hit his next home run, you're not having a meaningful conversation. So all entertainment activities are considered to be inappropriate under the new guidelines,"" he says.

Trewhitt adds that gifts are appropriate only if they are of modest value-less than $100-and only if they help the client's practice. ""Let's say you find a nice serving tray and it only costs $60. Well obviously it's less than $100 but it has nothing to do with the medical practice. That's inappropriate,"" he says. ""Again, the two key bullet points here covering gifts would be that they have a value of less than $100 and they be gifts that are appropriate in helping the medical practice. If you can find a medical dictionary or a stethoscope for less than $100, that would be a very constructive gift to provide,"".

Whoever the recipient is, keep in mind that some gifts are appropriate while others are not. Whitmore recommends that people don't get too personal in their corporate gift giving. Steer clear of red roses, perfume or lingerie, she says. Rather, focus on things you know the recipient enjoys, such as movie tickets, a CD or a book.

""We've learned our lessons when it comes to gift giving,"" Dr. Heasley says. ""We haven't stopped giving gifts by any means. We strive to make our holiday gifts small but fun and we make sure to abide by client companies' policies.""

This article was published on Sunday 03 December, 2006.

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