Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

With the holiday season approaching, I need some advice.

I agree with you that gifts in the office should only flow down (managers can give gifts to employees, but employees shouldn't give gifts to managers because of the power dynamic). My office used to collect funds to purchase something for the owner and VP, but I put a stop to that when I took over as controller/HR.

That being said, my department has always given me a joint gift. I don't have too much of an issue with this, as it is usually a relatively small item and I gift them back at least tenfold in value. I have tried to ask them to stop, to no avail.

However, last year, I was completely thrown off when two of the shop guys gave me gifts, saying they were from their families in appreciation for all I do for them. These were gift cards in the $100 range and I was extremely surprised. I was uncomfortable accepting these gifts and worry that it will happen again this year. Obviously I cannot reciprocate, and while I was touched by the gesture, I don't want these employees to feel they need to do it again.

How do I politely assert that while I was very appreciative, I do not want to receive gifts this year?

Green responds:

Speak up early! This week would be good.

Managers who want to ward off gifts from their employees should say something like this to their staffs: "I know this is the time of year when people are starting to think about holiday gifts, so I want to say up-front that just doing your jobs well is enough of a gift for me. Please spend your money on your family or yourself, and know that I'm grateful to have each of you on our team." (Ideally you'd say this in the context of some other holiday-related announcement, so that it's not a stand-alone pronouncement.)

But even with announcements like this, some people will give managers gifts anyway. And if that happens, as long as the gift is small, like food or a trinket, it makes sense to accept it graciously, since otherwise you risk making people feel bad. Plus, the idea isn't to refuse all gifts on principle. It's to ensure that your employees don't feel obligated to use their money to buy you things.

In your case, though, where people are giving you expensive gift cards -- and where you've already asked them to stop and they haven't -- I think you need a stronger message ahead of time. In this situation, I'd go with an announcement like this: "In years past, you've given me very kind gifts, despite my pleas with you to put your money toward your families. It's been so thoughtful of you, but I firmly believe that no one should feel they need to spend their money buying gifts for their boss, and I worry about creating an environment where other people feel pressured to do it too, so this year I'm not going to accept any gifts. I hope you'll honor this."

Then if anyone ignores that and gives you something anyway, thank them warmly but explain you can't accept it. For example: "This was so kind of you. As you know, I can't accept gifts -- so I'm going to give this back to you and hope you'll give it to a loved one or even use it yourself. You've already given me the best gift just by being on our team. Thank you for being so great to work with."

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Dec 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.