The worst workplace holiday gift I ever received

Have you ever received a holiday gift at work that was so bad it made you want to find a new job? I have.

The holidays can be awkward with their workplace gift exchanges. Who do you have to buy for? How much do you spend? How personal should it be? In ‘Secret Santa’ draws, you often end up buying something for someone you don’t know very well.

In smaller organizations holiday rituals can sometimes be even more uncomfortable than in larger ones. They tend to have that ‘we’re a small family’ culture, but, of course, you’re not a family. You’re coworkers.

Case in point. My first professional writing job was as an advertising copy writer for a small, family-owned marketing firm. A husband and wife had started the company and over the years had brought on a small sales team, an administrative person, a designer, an IT professional and a copy writer. That was me.

The boss/owner, the IT guy, and I were the only males in the office – and the IT guy often worked from home. Because he was old-school and kind of dumb, the boss liked to make crude jokes and sexual innuendos. He would always give me the nudge, nudge, wink, wink as if I were in on the joke.

None of the women seemed to be offended by his boorish behaviour. I guess they had all known him for long enough and had learned to ignore him or just shrug it off. Who would you complain to anyway, when the guy in question owns the company and the only other person of rank is his wife, who doesn’t seem to notice anything wrong?

I was always very uncomfortable, however, because I didn’t like the implication that I was a part of it. I’m generally not offended by jokes, I know when someone is just going for a laugh and isn’t being mean spirited. However, I don’t like to have my own sense of humour impugned or my professionalism dragged down to someone else’s oafish level. Leave me out of it.

That is kind of a longwinded intro to the fact that at the holiday party that year, the boss gave me a page-a-day tear-off Playboy desk calendar. Yes, for every day of the year, there was a different photo of a scantily-clad woman. I tossed it in a drawer and tried to forget about it, but even that wasn’t possible.

When he got bored in his office he would routinely wander out and say, “Let’s take a look at Miss January 6th.” Or “How is Miss February 13th looking?” Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. The only reason this didn’t go on for the full year was because by April I had found other employment.

Obviously, in retrospect, I would handle that situation very differently, but as I said, it was my first professional job. I had a great deal to learn. It was years ago, but this was inappropriate even then. Over the course of my career since, that offensive calendar is still the worst workplace holiday gift that I personally ever received. (And it’s one of the worst I’ve seen exchanged.)

A corporate gifting firm called Snappy has recently conducted a survey of workers about the worst things they have ever been given in a workplace gift exchange. The results reveal some truly awful choices:

  • A book on how to be better at your job
  • Melted chocolate coins
  • Quail from a boss’s hunting trip
  • Season tickets to the CEO’s son’s little league
  • A quart of milk
  • Old stale cookies
  • Deli meat

Some of these sound like re-gifting or someone just grabbing something they already had on hand at the last minute. The worst of them seems to be the baseball tickets. They could come with a nagging sense of obligation that you’re supposed to show up for some of the boss’s kid’s games. It’s the gift that can put a damper on your weekends all year long.

When in doubt think gift baskets full of holiday treats for sharing. It’s a nice gesture, not too expensive, and certainly not offensive.

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