Feel like a Grinch? How to handle the office gift pool

When it comes to money decisions, it can be hard to figure out the right thing to do. Money is about power, emotion, morality, and security, among other things. So in this space, we gather a few experts to weigh in on a financial quandary.

This week’s question: How do you opt out of your office (holiday, maternity, etc.) gift pool without looking like a jerk? Can you?

Ramona Packham, HR expert and founding partner of RPHR Consulting:“Choosing to opt out can be an awkward and difficult message to deliver. A few appropriate responses may be: ‘Thank you for including me in this, but I have already done something for John/Jane,’ or ‘Thank you for including me, but I am opting out this year.’ Or, you could contribute what you can afford: $1 to $2. In the past, an office I worked in had a gift exchange for the Christmas party. A price limit was set at $10 — it was fun trying to find outrageous gifts for that amount. At the party, you opened a gift or you could steal someone else’s that had already been opened. Inexpensive and fun!”

Robert R. Brown, author of Wealthing Like Rabbits“As with so many other things in life, the best option is to be polite, honest and clear. If appropriate, reach out privately to the recipient of the gift and let them know that your decision was financial, not personal. (This is not a good time to do your Michael Corleone impression.)

Some people prefer to contribute only to certain types of gifts, like maternity, especially when they have been the beneficiary of a similar present themselves. So, when someone at the office announces that she’s expecting, start tossing a toonie into a jar every week until the baby showers begin.

In regards to the annual December gift gorge, get in front of the issue next year by stepping up early and suggesting that the gift pool be replaced by voluntary, anonymous donations to a local shelter or charity. No one looks like a jerk then.”

Karen Cleveland, etiquette expert: “The pressure to bow out of contributing to an office gift can be tempting; but while you prevent a small hit to your wallet, it might hit your reputation. Celebrating milestones together or jointly contributing to a shared cause are important for team building and creating solidarity. And, your colleagues might very well kick in to generously buy you a gift some day. Knowing that, you can relax, take a deep breath and pull out your wallet. If the gift pool is going towards someone that you’ve never met or worked with, you can politely bow out by explaining that you ‘haven’t had the pleasure of working with X, so it wouldn’t feel appropriate contributing to a gift.’”

(Originally in National Post, December 23, 2014)

The well-mannered year ahead: Kick off 2013 with some very polite resolutions

Karen Cleveland, Special to National Post

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You don’t have to use a quill and inkwell, but handwritten thank-you notes will make all the difference in 2013.

Diets, schmiets. Such pedestrian resolutions are usually gone by spring, anyway. Reign in the unrealistic ambition and instead, consider your crisp new calendar the perfect opportunity to really commit to a better year. Karen Cleveland shares her tips on how to make 2013 your most polished, charmed, best year yet, one month at a time.

January: Give the consummate toast
The most memorable toasts are concise, eloquent and convey just the right amount of emotion. Start by surveying the scene. Everyone have a drink? Stand and clear your throat, or move to a more visible area to get their attention. Make your intentions known in a clear, confidence voice (fake one, if you lack one). “Thank you for coming, I’d like to raise a glass to [insert subject or occasion of your toast here].” Say a few kind words about your subject, then raise your glass higher and repeat the toastee’s name. People will drink on your cue. Purists don’t clink, they merely raise glasses. Larger audiences logistically prohibit a clink and eye contact with every single guest, so just do your best. If you are the subject being toasted, lucky you! Do not drink to yourself — simply sit back and revel in the moment.

February: Upgrade from emails to handwritten notes
I know, email is so much more convenient than sitting down to write notes by hand, but the same could be said of paper plates over dishes. Paper and handwriting is just, well, nicer. Stockpile some great stationary that you are actually excited to use and a surplus of stamps. Grab some scrap paper to scribble what you want to write and test out your pen. A good note should address the recipient (Dear friend), touch on the occasion (“Thank you for hosting an excellent dinner”) and any specifics (“Sorry again about that red wine incident, it’s a late Christmas miracle that it came out of the carpet”) and close with a fitting sign off (“Looking forward to returning your hospitality, Sincerely, you’). Sure, you could put this in an email, but doesn’t  the medium elevate the message?

March: Make your bed every morning, all month

Making your bed is a metaphor. It sends a signal to the universe, and to yourself, that you set aside few moments of each day to add some order to your life. No matter how hellish your day was, you can take solace in knowing there is a tiny little sliver of civility waiting for you, in the form of a crisply made bed. Do it for a month and see how you feel. Such small daily rituals can set the tone for other things in life. Whether that tiny ritual is making your bed, in the morning, not going to sleep with a sink full of dirty dishes, or not using your front entrance way as a dumping ground, relish in some little practices that honour your nest.

April: Spring clean your online persona
If someone were to Google you right now, or creep your Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn profile, what would they find? Years ago, before the marvels of social media, we lived private lives and actively chose what parts of ourselves we wanted to make public. Today that model is totally inverted. Take care of your online reputation in the same delicate way that you would your offline persona. Do some digging and relentlessly edit, untag and delete until you are happy with your online image.

May: Edit your closet
This is a considerable task to undertake but a gratifying and important one. Set aside a weekend day. Begin by taking everything out of your wardrobe and sorting it into three piles. Pile one is for things you regularly wear and that are in good repair. A second pile is for things that you want to wear, but need some love. The final pile is for items fit to donate or if they are beyond that, shred into rags. Remove this third pile from your home immediately, as you’ll be instantly more motivated with a good purge under your belt. Take things to be mended, pressed, polished or sewn as needed, then put everything back into your wardrobe in a state that it is ready to be worn. Rotate items so forgotten pieces get their due, and if space is an issue, store your fall and winter items separately (under the bed storage boxes to the rescue).You’ll likely realize that most of the items you pitched were things you never really needed to buy, or they were of such poor quality, they fell apart. Shop smart by sticking to well-made things that you’ll actually wear, and that are on point with your social and professional life.

June: Make memorable introductions
Your dazzling handshake should be accompanied by your first and last name when introducing yourself. If you struggle remembering names, try repeating the name of the person you just met (“nice to meet you, Robin”). You can try to draw some recall connections, like reminding yourself that Robin is wearing red. When introducing two people, introduce up. If you introducing your intern to you president, you would say, “President, may I introduce you to our newest intern, John”. A person of high rank, importance or seniority (I know, I cringe at that too) is named first and receives the introduction. If you are introducing two peers that haven’t met, providing some context can help the conversation along. For example, “I’ve been meaning to introduce you. John, meet Mike. You both spent time in Italy last year.”

July: Be the best damn cottage guest
Charm your hosts so much and you just might score invitations for every weekend until Labour Day. Confirm what time you should arrive so you don’t surprise your hosts and arrive with something awesome for them. Help with meal preparations and clean up and make your stay as least invasive as possible. That means not taking over the entire bathroom vanity, hijacking the iPod with your music or leaving your wet towel and stack of magazines on the dock. Thank your hosts for having you with a thoughtful handwritten note, which you mastered back in February, right?

August: Throw an “oh, it’s nothing” weeknight dinner party

Summer entertaining is inherently casual, so ever an intimidated host can pull together a Wednesday night dinner party with ease. Gorgeous fresh produce, BBQs and long, lazy nights beckon for unfussy dinners.  Invite your guests a week or so out, then use that week to set aside mini tasks. Shop for beer and wine one night, stock up on ice the next, buy flowers the night before, and before you know it, the night of your dinner will only need your actual meal preparation. Grill everything you possibly can: some bread to serve with a salad to start, fish, meat, veggies or pizza for a main, then some fruit (serve over ice cream) for dessert. A bucket of beer and wine on ice within arm’s reach, a plethora of white candles and a laid-back soundtrack for the night and you’re set. Best part of grilling your entire meal? Very few dishes to wash up.

September: Pour the perfect cocktail

Chalk it up to the revelry of TIFF or the siren call of comfort cocktails, but when temperatures dip, I’m ready for a proper drink. Master a classic cocktail that you like to drink, perhaps an Old Fashioned, Tom Collins, Manhattan or Negroni. Stock up on quality ingredients and barware then enlist a trusted group of tasters to sample your concoctions. Warning: your skills are bound to improve with every round you serve them: it’s just science. Feel free to tinker with a trusted recipe, but only after you’ve mastered the purist’s version.

October: Nail a power lunch (or breakfast, or dinner)
Breaking bread with a client can galvanize a relationship. Or ruin it. Pick a date and time first, then choose a venue that is reputable, conducive to talking business and conveniently located for your guest. Make a reservation. If you are going to try for a table at a hotspot that doesn’t take reservations, get there very, very early as not to keep your guest waiting twenty minutes for a table. Give them the better seat at the table and keep your phone off of the table. Instagramming your meal is verboten. Settle into some small talk (read the headlines that day) before delving into shop talk. When the bill comes, they who did the inviting typically grabs the cheque, but to hell with that custom if grabbing the bill saves you from an awkward moment. Follow up from your meal with whatever you promised you would and if it seems natural, touch on something non-business related, for example, “thanks for your time over lunch, Nicole. Attached is the concept we discussed. Have a great time at the Brickworks this weekend with your daughter.”

November: Call in sick like a grownup

Cold and flu season isn’t fun for anyone, so coming to work when you are knowingly contagious is a cardinal sin. Spare your colleagues from your gnarly germs by staying home. Call or email your boss explaining that you are staying home sick for the day (text message is likely too casual a medium to convey this). Touch on who-can-cover-off-what in your absence, and if you hazard a guess, say when you expect to be back in fine fighting form. No need to go into gory details, but a cursory descriptor of what ails you should suffice.

December: Indulge in a bit of the good life
In a month saturated with shopping and hosting others, what is the harm in picking up a little something for yourself?  Treat yourself to something that your heart desires. Surely those lovely sheets, fancy stemware or decadent bottle of scotch will benefit your guests just as much as you, right? ‘Tis the season!

(Published first in the National Post, December 2012)