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Warm, Gooey Corporate Gifts Sometimes Prove Ethically Sticky by Perkal

For the past three weeks, EFX Media in Arlington has turned itself into a chocolate-chip cookie factory.

The roughly 30 employees at the media and marketing production company signed up for four-hour shifts to bake holiday cookies in the office kitchen for their clients. From early morning to happy hour, the aroma wafted through EFX's two-story suite and throughout the building. By the end of the week, EFX had churned out 5,160 of its signature cookies and delivered them to 430 clients across the Washington region.

"We crank the holiday music," President Jennifer Cortner said. "It really gets our whole staff and team into the holiday spirit."

Christmas brings not only a bevy of gifts from family and friends, but also a host of special deliveries from bosses and business partners. Though both government and private-sector ethics guidelines have become more strict in recent years, the corporate gift remains. And such companies as EFX have come up with creative ways to work within modern constraints.

According to a recent survey by business publication BNA, 15 percent of companies do not allow employees to accept gifts from clients, customers or outside associates. More than half only allow workers to accept presents of nominal value. About 15 percent of companies have set a price limit of $25 to $50, while 16 percent have no policy.

"Companies have really shored up their ethics policies," said Matt Sottong, director of surveys and research reports for BNA. "It's just easier to have a standard policy than to have to vet every gift."

Several of Washington's largest businesses, including Lockheed Martin and AOL, said they do not give gifts to clients or employees. However, they said employees may choose to send presents to colleagues both outside and inside the company.

For many smaller firms, the tradition remains alive. At Apres Peau, a boutique in downtown D.C., store manager Liberty Jones said most of her corporate customers sought to buy gifts for less than $50 each. Law firms, lobbyists and recruiters were partial to small accessories such as the leather business-card holders by Giorgio Fedon 1919 and the Rowallan travel clock. Hotels requested more unique items, including Washington-themed coasters, chocolate and stationery by designer R. Nichols.

"Their primary concern is finding something that's quality and utilitarian," Jones said. "Ideally, they're not just going to get - - I don't know what to call it -- tchotchkes."

The District office of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority decided that the market was too crowded around Christmas. So it sends gift baskets around Thanksgiving instead, said Jim Ryan, senior manager at the authority. The packages include chocolate, cheese and a bottle of champagne etched with the group's logo. Plus, he said, Thanksgiving has broader appeal. "A lot of people are not crazy about the Christmas thing anymore," Ryan said.

Still, Ryan has sent personal holiday gifts to his clients the past several years. He started by buying 200 White House Christmas ornaments and mailing them to everyone with whom he had done business. But over the years, he has whittled down the list to about 40 people -- and reduced the cost to about $1,000.

"It's all about relationships," he said. "If I get somebody that appreciates it, if I ask for something at 4:55 on a Friday, they're a little bit more willing to help me."

For many workers, the days of the company Christmas ham are long gone. The BNA survey found that only 12 percent of companies will give gifts to non-management employees. However, about 28 percent said they plan to give workers cash bonuses this season, and two- thirds of companies planned to throw holiday parties. The average cost was expected to be $8,150, up from $7,000 last year.

"Now you have to be more correct about what you're doing," said BNA's Sottong. "It's a lot easier to give somebody cash or even a gift certificate than it is an item. You run no chance of offending anybody or causing any hard feelings."

Keith Lipert said most companies take one of two approaches toward employee gift giving when they call his decorative art and jewelry gallery in Georgetown. Some have a defined budget and buy in bulk, such as the executive of a Midwestern company who bought 60 gifts for less than $50 each. Others want to select each gift individually, perhaps brooches for the women or cufflinks for the men, he said.

"The nice thing about gifting is that it allows people in almost a nonverbal way to say thank you," Lipert said. "It's not about the size of the gift. It's the thought."

EFX Media struggled to come up with unique holiday gifts for its clients until sweet-toothed inspiration struck five years ago. Now the baking operations are spearheaded by an internal group known as the Super Happy Fun Committee. There are two shifts per day, generating about 10 dozen cookies an hour. Employees package them in tins designed by the company along with a miniature bottle of Baileys.

Cortner said the cookies are particularly well-received because employees deliver the sweets less than 24 hours after they come out of the oven. Dropping off the cookies has become an event in itself, though the company nixed an idea to wear holiday costumes as well. Clients now begin e-mailing Cortner in November to make sure they are on the list.

"Who'd have thought that a dozen chocolate chip cookies would bring so much joy to somebody's day?" Cortner said. "Maybe it's the Baileys."

This article was published on Friday 27 February, 2009.

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