Should I Play Scrooge?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about Cooled relationship with boss:

I have been in my current position of lab supervisor for almost 3 years. My relations with my boss were fairly good for the first two years, but have cooled lately. I think it’s partly personality and part a growing lists of unrealistic demands from her, due, I think to outside pressures on her. Anyway, we exchanged gifts on Christmas for years one and two. This year I fear that she may do it again, for show, good press etc. I don’t want to exchange gifts with somebody I really don’t like. Is there any way to prevent or avoid this without completely bringing down the roof? Thanks.

Signed, Hospital Scrooge

Dear Hospital Scrooge:

Gift exchanges are often problematic at work, particularly between a boss and employee–or a manager and supervisor, in your case. That is why such exchanges are often discouraged or even forbidden. However, once a gift exchange between two people–co-workers, neighbors, friends, bosses and employees, whatever–has started, it’s difficult to stop!I have two thoughts about this situation:1. Your boss may wish she could stop the exchange too! So, according to your work situation and the costs of gifts you usually exchanged, you might want to suggest alternatives to her or simply do something first and lead the way. Keep in mind that she may have already gotten your gift–in which case the situation will likely be awkward, no matter how you approach it.

You may want to send her an e-card that reflects her style–serious, joking, religious or casual. In the card say something like, “I hope your holidays are peaceful and happy. I know we are all trying to reduce the hustle and bustle of the season–as well as the cost. This year, I thought, instead of our usual gift exchange, we could combine those resources and bring some fruit or similar treat for the staff. What do you think of that idea? Let me know and I’ll be happy to pick up whatever you think would be appropriate for the break room.” That might not fit your work situation, but perhaps a variation would be possible.

If previous gifts were mid-range to nice quality, consider getting her something that is less personal, less expensive and that doesn’t reflect a closer friendship you no longer feel: A bottle of wine, a fruit and nut basket, a potted plant, a modest gift certificate at a bookstore, a modest gift certificate at the place she gets coffee or bagels.

The least personal gifts are wine or a fruit basket. And, in answer to your unspoken question: No, don’t get a fruitcake! (I enjoy many of them very much, but apparently they fall in the realm of–literally–a gag gift!)If you ever watched Seinfeld you recall the episode where George told everyone that he donated money in their names instead of buying a Christmas gift for them. Everyone was touched–until they found out the charity didn’t exist. I don’t suggest that either! 2. My second thought is this:

Do you really want to choose this time to stand on your principles about gift giving? Likely you have given gifts to people–even relatives–you were not very close to. At work we often sing happy birthday and have cake for people we don’t much care for. We go to retirement functions for people we’re happy to see leave. We chip in for flowers when a co-worker’s loved one passes away–even though we heartily dislike the co-worker. We buy bagels for the office, even though some of the people who will be enjoying them are among our least favorite people. Many of us have received cards signed by everyone for various occasions–even though not everyone has a friendly feeling about us.

Those are not hypocritical acts–they are the actions of people who realize that there are some ceremonial and commemorative events that transcend our sometimes biased feelings.You say that your boss has pressures on her and that the two of you aren’t as close as you used to be. It seems to me that she–and you–have had enough fun taken out of your work lives already. Why take away the little bit that Christmas provides? If the gifts you have exchanged in the past were very expensive, you might want to tone that down. If you gave gifts that reflected inside-jokes and a close relationship, you might want to stick to more generic gifts this time.

But really, in the whole, grand, cosmic scheme of things–how much would it hurt to buy your boss a small gift you know she would enjoy, to mark the season?You’ll get the gift, wrap it, give it, hear the thanks and it will be over in a few minutes. But there will have been smiles exchanged and you will know you have extended yourself to be kind and–for a few moments–forgiving of the things that have created a barrier between the two of you. Perhaps you could use this small gift as a way to bring some peace on earth–if not between you and your boss, then within your own spirit. If your boss is a mean-spirited, vindictive, lying, cheating, back-stabbing, hateful person–well, then maybe you don’t want to support her in even the smallest way, and I could understand that.

But if, for the most part, you think she is struggling to do the best she can, given the situation, and if she doesn’t go out of her way to create grief for you and others–why not allow this season to come and go without additional stress for either of you? If you choose not to give a gift and she does–it will be noticed by her and wondered about. You’ll be thinking about it too and wondering how she is reacting. There’s no Holly Jolly Christmas about that!

My advice is to have something on hand and wait to see if she gives you a gift. If she does, give her one in return and wish her well during the season. You know you won’t regret it. You don’t have to be effusive or give insincere speeches–just give a small gift and enjoy the moment. You will truly be living the “spirit” of the season. If you have the time and wish to, please let us know how the situation works out. A giving and forgiving spirit is what WEGO can be about.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.