Let’s talk a-boat gift giving in the workplace

Giving a gift to a colleague

Workplace gift giving can be a blessing and a curse for employers. On the one hand it brings out the generous, team-oriented qualities in employees, but equally, it can cause animosity between employees — not to mention embarrassment and even anger.

The dangers of workplace gift giving and money collection were demonstrated recently when employees of the Tate art galleries in the UK were asked to contribute to a sailing boat for the galleries’ outgoing director, Nicholas Serota.

A notice was posted on staff notice boards saying the director “loves sailing, and this would be a lasting and very special reminder of the high regard so many of us have for Nick and his contribution to Tate.”

Many Tate employees were outraged at the request to contribute funds to a sailing boat, proclaiming it an insult to junior employees who did not earn a liveable income from their work at Tate. The notice about the boat fund was widely reported in the media and provided Tate employees with the opportunity to publically air their grievances, not just about the request for money but also about Tate’s outsourcing, being required to work unreasonable overtime and the disjoint between management and ground staff.

While the notice about the collection for the boat was likely well-intentioned, it was clearly an ill-informed and out-of-touch request from those close to the director without their finger on the pulse of the organisation as a whole.

The situation at the Tate demonstrates what can go wrong when workplace gift giving goes awry.

Generally, workplace gift giving is coordinated amongst employees, but employers should not shy away from having a say for the sake of workplace harmony.

Here are some tips for employers in managing workplace gift giving.

1. Develop gift giving guidelines 

Set up some employer endorsed guidelines about workplace gift giving and tell employees about the guidelines. That way, when it comes time for a collection to make the rounds, both the employees doing the collecting and those contributing know what to expect.

2. Place a limit on the value of a gift and the contributions requested 

As demonstrated by the Tate example, it is not appropriate to ask junior employees to contribute to an extravagant gift for a senior manager. Gifts given in the workplace should be symbols of appreciation and gestures of well-wishing. Employers could set a limit on how much should be spent on gifts and cap contributions so that employees aren’t filled with anxiety about how much they should give.

For example, a $10 cap on contributions for any gift will still enable the purchasing of an appropriate gift. In larger teams, the total gift budget may be limited to $100, meaning employees individually contribute less and the gift remains reasonable, but not over the top. Also remember that larger teams will have more gifts overall so a lower contribution cap is important.

3. Only notify relevant employees about a gift collection 

If the employer is a large organisation, keep requests for contributions to within the team that works with the gift recipient.

4. Promote, foster and recruit for a positive and generous workplace culture

All workplaces have a culture of some kind, whether they actively encourage it or not. Developing and maintaining a culture that embraces gift giving flows from the top down and starts with recruitment.

Managers should encourage a culture that celebrates employee life events and should recruit employees that they feel share their values. Where a team approaches gift giving from a shared understanding, expectations will be clear, employees will support each other and dramas, such as the situation at Tate, are less likely to develop.

5. If it simply doesn’t work, put a stop to it

Employers are within their rights to set rules of conduct within the workplace. If gift giving and money collections are simply causing too much drama and conflict, put a ban in place. This doesn’t prevent employees who are friends from celebrating life events away from work, but it may calm the seas within the workplace.

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