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Julie Blais Comeau

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Sticky Situation: Declining an Inappropriate Gift

Posted: 12/28/2012 8:15 am

Sticky Situation:

Traditionally to celebrate Christmas our law firm holds a Secret Santa. This year, it was held during our holiday luncheon, just before we closed the office for the holiday break. As I was shutting down my computer to attend the celebration, my phone rang.

One of my recently divorced clients was having a little legal trouble over his holiday child custody arrangements. I immediately left the office to meet with him. I ended up spending the afternoon negotiating with his ex-wife's lawyer.

When I got back to the office, most of the staff had left and the receptionist handed me my Secret Santa gift. I took it home with me and opened it up on Christmas day. It was a $50 Victoria's Secret gift card. The note read: 'Whatever you choose, you will look great in. John." (Yes I have changed the name.)

John is the newest member to our firm's team of lawyers. He has only been with us for a few months. Like me, he is single. We have shared a couple of coffees and laughed during after-work drinks. We have a lot in common, but I never thought there was anything more brewing between us.

I am very uncomfortable with this gift and especially the note. It is also double the agreed upon amount for the gift exchange. I can't imagine having opened this gift in front of the entire office. I am now dreading heading back to work and seeing my colleague. How should I handle this sticky situation?


Gift giving at the office is generally a sticky situation in itself. For that reason, many companies now have policies that prohibit its practice.

Please allow me for a moment to play devil's advocate and give "John" the benefit of the doubt about his gift choice. He could have genuinely wanted you to treat yourself, innocently thinking that every woman can find something that she likes or needs at VS.

With a more generic note like "Happy holidays!" he might have maintained your professional distance. By doubling the gift amount, he leaves little room for interpretation about his sentiments. The only way to re-establish your professional relationship is to address it with him, one-on-one.

At your earliest convenience, and at a mutually suitable time, meet with John in private. Do not ask for this meeting via email. The added challenge with this situation is that because of the nature of the game, by the end of the Secret Santa, your colleagues were also in the loop as to whom had picked you. Some curious colleagues will probably inquire about the gift that you received when you return to work. Your strategy should also cover this aspect of the situation.

Your conversation could sound something like this:

''John, I know that you probably meant well but I cannot accept your Secret Santa gift. A gift card from a lingerie store is too personal and it will certainly get the rumour mill started at the office. How about you just exchange it and offer me a $25 Chapters gift card?'
No matter what words you choose, you must indicate that you wish to only have a professional relationship with him and return the gift.

I know that this may be difficult to do, but ignoring the situation and not addressing it could lead to an even stickier situation. John could want to know about your purchase or he could have told another colleague about his gift to you. More importantly, think of the uneasiness that you will feel when you interact with him at the office.

This type of situation is not better left unsaid. The sooner you deal with it the sooner you can carry on your professional relationship.

Have a Sticky Situation yourself, write to julie@etiquettejulie.com and Julie will reply promptly. You can also ask your questions on her Facebook page.

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