St.Louis Business Journal
BUSINESS GIFTS SHOULD BE
SMALL, HIGH QUALITY TOKENS
By Anna Navarro
Author's note: Client stories in this column are based on actual situations fictionalized to protect privacy and told with permission.
Giving a business gift often has the effect of making you memorable or allowing you to say "thank you" in a meaningful way. That is an important and legitimate function. But to achieve that outcome, you have to make sure both the gift and the way you deliver it are appropriate.
The general rule is that small, high quality, token gifts are usually best. Large, expensive gifts can create awkwardness and sometimes more serious problems. You can give these small gifts to recognize many things, including a referral, a recommendation, the sharing of helpful information, a job well done, being selected for an opportunity, etc.
Sandy was a marketing executive for a hospital system. She met Oscar at an industry professional conference. He was a speaker and she had been impressed with what he had said. After the seminar she followed up by email and they corresponded briefly about some issues of mutual interest.
Some months later Sandy started to do some networking to uncover new job possibilities. She approached Oscar for advice about her situation, and he immediately went into action to help. He referred her to several people he thought might be interested in what she had to offer. One of them was in his own organization.
Sandy kept Oscar in the loop about her interviews, and when it became apparent that there was a job in his hospital system that she really wanted, she leaned heavily on him for advice. He also went to bat for her with her prospective boss, and it was his recommendation that she believed clinched the offer.
She was enormously grateful for his help and wanted to express her appreciation with more than just a thank-you note or lunch. She had learned that he was fond of wine, especially pinot noir, and she decided to get him a case of a very expensive vintage. The tab was well over $1000. She had it delivered to the office.
When it arrived, it caused quite a stir. Word got back to the person who had hired Sandy, who called Oscar into his office and asked what kind of relationship he had with the young woman he had championed.
Oscar said they had met at a professional conference, emailed afterward about some work related issues, and that she had later sought his advice when she decided to change jobs. He said he recommended her because he had been impressed with her as bright and hardworking.
Though that had ended the inquires, the incident made Oscar very uncomfortable. He returned the wine, which was embarrassing to both him and Sandy. After that, he kept his distance from her.
Sandy’s overly expensive gift had created a negative experience for both her and her mentor, and deprived her of his on-going help. It would probably have been inappropriate in any circumstance, but it was especially problematic because this particular organization had some scandals in its history and now had a very strict code of behavior regarding business gifts. They even required that employees pay for their own meals when meeting with people outside the company to discuss business matters.
While this degree of stringency is probably unusual, Sandy would have been much better off playing it safe with a more modest gift. Examples might be a nice pen, note cards, a gift certificate for books, or for Starbuck’s. Even a single bottle of the pinot noir might have worked well. If her mentor had been a woman, she might have sent a small flower arrangement.
When sending a business gift, it is also a good idea to include a note that is very specific about what the recipient did for you. That can help dispel any confusion about the reason for the gift, and it also creates another opportunity to appreciate the person you are thanking.
If you have any concerns about whether a gift you have in mind might conflict with the rules of an organization, it's wise to call the human resources department and ask them about it before sending the gift.
There are many situations when you may want to say "thank you" with more than words, or make an impression with a gift. You just have to be careful that, unlike Sandy, the gift doesn't end up back firing.
Anna Navarro is the founder of Work Transitions, a nationwide career consulting firm that trains independent career strategists and consults with individual clients.
This column was originally published by the St. Louis Business Journal. The actual title of the column and date in which it appeared in the Business Journal may be slightly different from what appears on WorkTransitions.com.