Giving gifts at work? Proceed with care

Bill Ramsey, a self-described bacon fanatic, received a jar of Baconnaise from an employee for Christmas.
Bill Ramsey, a self-described bacon fanatic, received a jar of Baconnaise from an employee for Christmas. The Wichita Eagle

Guns, bobbleheads and hard cash – Christmas gifts in the workplace are as varied as the lists compiled and sent to Santa each year.

Our team of business writers spread out through Wichita’s offices and factories to ask about the best, the worst, the weirdest and most interesting gifts people have received at work.

For example, good friends Dick Schremmer and Ed Nemnich coordinated on their Christmas gift story.

Nemnich worked for Schremmer at Chevron back in 1979 and had been giving his boss a lot of help.

“So one Christmas I bought him a nice gift, which was out of the ordinary for me to do,” Schremmer said. “I bought him a neat little rifle that could be disassembled and concealed inside the rifle stock. Well, I gave it to him, and it was all wrapped up, and I guess it kind of looked like a bottle of whiskey.”

So, Nemnich said, he goes home to his family. They run out of something to drink, so he gets out the “whiskey,” unwraps it and proceeds to spend a few minutes trying to find the stopper. It was only when he asked for help that an unsympathetic family member informed him that it was a gun, not a bottle.

Shremmer is owner of Bear Petroleum in Haysville. Nemnich is owner of K&N Petroleum in Great Bend.

Gifts with a goal

It should go without saying that you need to know the recipient well to give him liquor or a firearm for Christmas. And it’s become almost as obvious that giving gifts – or exchanging them – at the office has become something of a legal and political minefield over the years.

“I think it’s becoming more difficult for a variety of reasons,” said Paul White, a Wichita-based psychologist and business expert who focuses on workplace relationships.

One reason is the heightened awareness and sensitivity about all things religious – leaving many employers to wonder what they should or shouldn’t do.

Another reason is fairness – is everybody getting the same gifts, and why or why not?

White says a lot of the trouble can be avoided if there’s clarity in both the purpose of the gift and the communication about that purpose.

For example, if your company hands out bonuses this time of year, it’s important to let staff know whether it’s a gift to celebrate the holiday or a reward for contributing to the company’s financial performance.

“One thing you can do is clarify your language,” White said. “What I ask employers to do is answer the question: What’s the goal of the action?”

If employees get a big check for Christmas one year, and then the business has a lousy year and the bonuses shrink or disappear, everyone feels bad. So it’s best to be clear with employees about what that check represents: holiday generosity or a performance bonus.

According to Bloomberg News, about 33 percent of employees in the United States are receiving Christmas or year-end bonuses this year. And about 15 percent more will get a gift card or merchandise from their employers.

But another group, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, puts the numbers a lot higher. The consultants group said 78 percent of the companies in its survey planned to offer year-end gifts or bonuses, up from 53 percent last year. The Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey said about half the companies planned cash bonuses and the other half planned to offer gift cards or other non-monetary gifts worth less than $100.

Regifting for charity

But employers and fellow employees aren’t the only sources for workplace Christmas gifts.

Vendors, clients and customers often share the joy of the season with gifts.

Debbie Gann, vice president of corporate communications and administration at Spirit AeroSystems, received a half case of red wine one year.

It was sent by a Spirit AeroSystems vendor.

“We can’t have alcohol on Spirit property,” said Gann, who noted her department often receives such goodies as cookies and popcorn – items easily shared with the team. They come from vendors, businesses or community partners.

Those kind of items comply with Spirit’s guidelines.

“If it’s something you can put out and share with the team, and it’s of minimal value, there’s no problem in keeping it,” Gann said.

The wine, however, posed a problem.

Spirit ended up donating it to a charity, “and they used it as an auction item,” she said.

“You can imagine the size of Spirit, and things are coming in from all over,” Gann said. “If it comes in, and it’s above what’s considered minimal value, we are the depository. We collect it all, and we dole it out to various charities, and if it’s appropriate, we allow them to auction it off.”

Last year, a vendor sent a Spirit employee a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne.

“That we definitely sent to a charity,” Gann said.

There was no way Brent Wasson, president of Chapple Insurance Group, was going to donate the gift he got this year.

He called it the greatest Christmas gift he’s received in his 27-year career.

“Back in October, I was given two tickets to the World Series,” he said. “They were given to me as an early Christmas gift.”

He said the tickets were to Game 2 of the series, in which the Kansas City Royals faced the San Francisco Giants. The seats were along the third-base line at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

“It was great to see the Royals win 7-2 over the Giants, and the atmosphere along with the energy level in the stadium was like nothing else I have ever experienced before at an MLB stadium,” he said.

Was there any special reason why he got the tickets, say, for something like the completion of a special project?

“No, he just likes me,” Wasson said, laughing. He declined to name the client but said Chapple does a lot of business with him.

Make it personal

Selecting a gift that reflects the interests and personality of the recipient helps build workplace relationships.

If your company is big – or you just don’t know employees that well – you might want to delegate the Christmas gift giving to direct superiors or others who know employees better, White, the business consultant, said.

Christie Summervill, owner of BalancedComp, a banking industry compensation consultant, said she gave bobbleheads to her small staff this Christmas before they started an all-day corporate strategy retreat. She said she searched for a bobblehead that reflected the personality of each staff member, or was reflective of the person in some way.

She said everybody laughed and appreciated that she had put in some time to pick out something individualized.

“What’s the phrase: ‘It’s just business.’ If it’s just business, don’t come,” she said.

Giving every employee the same identical thing can make it seem like the “lowest common denominator,” said Nate Regier, a co-founder and owner of Next Element Consulting in Newton.

One of his favorite office Christmas gifts, he said, was a pair of slippers from a colleague. Every year about this time, the consulting firm has what it calls “jammies days,” when the staff dresses down – or even in pajamas. During this slow holiday period, staff members get together to take stock of the year ending and make plans for the year ahead.

The gift showed a recognition of their shared experience and their shared values, Regier said.

Regier and White agree that holiday gifts are one way to express in a new way the values of your business or company.

For that reason, the “gift” might be extra time with family. Or it could be bread made by a locally owned bakery, made with wheat grown on area farms.

“It doesn’t always have to be a thing,” White said, but he urged gift-givers to think about the message the business wants to send – and about how the gift will be viewed by the recipient.

For some businesses, though, holiday gift-giving is more about sharing a laugh than a lofty ideal.

And that’s OK, too, said Regier and White.

The important part is to know your staff well enough – and to communicate clearly enough – that there’s a sense of appreciation on both sides of the gift equation.

That’s pretty easy if you’re buying for Bill Ramsey at Cybertron International.

Cybertron’s chief technology officer’s love of all things bacon is well known.

“Everybody at the office – in fact, I think probably everybody in Wichita – knows I’m a bacon aficionado,” Ramsey said.

He has bacon toothpicks. Bacon candy. Bacon gum. Bacon calendars.

“Bacon-covered bacon would be amazing,” Ramsey said. “Everything’s better with bacon. Come on.”

This year, an employee surprised him with a bacon-flavored spread called Baconnaise.

“It’s like bacon mayonnaise,” Ramsey said.

Except the product doesn’t have any actual bacon.

“Oddly enough, as I read the label, (it) says it’s vegetarian.”

Not that he minds. Ramsey was delighted to receive his Baconnaise.

“I promptly fell over laughing.”

Then he did a Facebook post about receiving the gift:

“My life is totally complete now.”

Eagle staff members Jerry Siebenmark, Dan Voorhis, Carrie Rengers, Julie Doll and Molly McMillin contributed to this story.

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