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business gift guide

Business Gift-Giving 101 — Your Guide to Gifting With Style and Strategy

The fundamental objective of gift-giving is to foster relationships between giver and receiver.

Employees that receive, give back. As the saying goes, “Give, and you shall receive.”

Gift-giving in a corporate setting showcases that you both know and care about the people behind the operations. There’s an element of surprise that leaves an indelible and remarkable impression on the recipient.

In business gift-giving, this is relationship resting on goodwill, rather than one based simply on a reward-and-punishment system or a transactional exchange.

But even when you’re gifting internal employees and teams, the business of business gift-giving comes with its own set of rules, including:

  • When it’s appropriate to gift in business and to whom
  • Business gift-giving etiquette
  • Choosing the right gifts, for the right occasion, to convey the right message
  • Strategic gift-giving ideas

Business gifts can enhance workplace relationships between both colleagues and employers, bringing in greater revenue, productivity, performance, and loyalty. That’s why we’ve created this handy guide — so you can gift with strategy and style!

Why Are Business Gifts Important?

Business gifts can strike a chord in the hearts’ of your employees and clients when you get them right. In 2018, 63% of companies attributed better relationships to gift-giving, and 24% say gift giving resulted in successful word-of-mouth referrals.

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But why does it work so well?

Have you ever examined what you feel when you give a gift? How about when you receive one?

Like all persuasive, social exchanges, there’s a psychology behind gift-giving that’s been at play since man first organized into civilized groups. Fast forward to today, of course, and the types and practices of gift-giving have changed.  

But the initial impetus remains the same: To create a bond.  

A Short-and-Sweet Peek at the Psychology of Gift-Giving

One reason gifts are so effective is that they are an experience of gratitude. Researchers say that gifts are a symbol of spontaneous gratitude, gift-giving is way more effective than a material token.

Renowned French anthropologist Marcel Mauss backs up this sociological and psychological view.

He focused his 1925 study, aptly named The Gift, on the conventions of exchange — why we do it, what we hope to feel, and why, exactly, gift-giving can be so fraught with social anxiety.

What he found is that the way everyone — businesses, their employees, and their clients — approach gift giving is complicated. And that complicated mass is ultimately a way to create the basis for strong relationships relationship.

In the case of business gift-giving, these relationships are all about internal workplace culture and external, client-facing brand culture.

And the rules of gift giving are as rigorous as the rules and etiquette for receiving.

“These…are systems of gift-giving that aren’t just about gifts but carry a legal, economic, spiritual, and moral significance that saturate the whole social fabric. [Gift giving] is neither voluntary or altruistic. There’s an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation repay…[Gift giving] is a formal pretense and social deception.” — Marcel Mauss, The Gift

That’s why business gift-giving teeters so delicately on maintaining a balance between employers, business owners, and managers. As a social action, gift-giving:

  • Is more than just a thought. It demands reciprocity and equality (think about the asymmetry of gifting a diamond bracelet and receiving a lukewarm, polite sweater)
  • Is about the groups we belong to: This includes our work groups and how employees identify their role and performance, as part of that group, via commensurate appreciation
  • Ensures reciprocity: Until the gesture of the gift can be returned with something in kind, the two sides of giver and receiver will remain unbalanced; the gift itself propels the receiver to try and return the gesture or follow-up
  • Is about relationship-building: Because the experience of gratitude, as it were, transforms an otherwise impersonal commodity into a gift, something worthy and significant in personal meaning

Leah Ingram, an etiquette specialist, backs up this view by translating the “experience of gratitude” to the tangible.

“There are two very real reasons to buy business gifts…One is obviously to thank someone for their business. The other is to make sure you remain top of mind…”

Company Culture, Attracting Talent, and Gift-Giving

It’s often the giver, not the receiver, that reaps the greatest tangible and intangible rewards from gift-giving.

However, many people view gift-giving as simply what you do — or is expected of you — when participating in a culture. And nowhere is that culture more apparent today than in businesses of any size.

Why? Because top talent is scarce on the ground.

Companies like Google, Airbnb, and even smaller SaaS outfits are scrambling to offer benefits or perks to their recruits. These benefits build a culture that seems welcoming, progressive, and geared towards the employee’s professional advancement.

This attention to detail is all so that employees feel invested in and, in return, are willing and enthusiastic to give back to the bottom line through time, creative ideas, sales, performance, productivity, and more.

According to a Gallup poll, employees that remain satisfied and “engaged” outperform their peers for 147% in earnings per share.

Strategically investing in employees helps businesses retain the best candidates. And, In the workplace, appreciation and gratitude need to expressly communicate. The numbers prove as much:

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Notice that 64% of surveyed workers respond that they would leave their job to work for a company that clearly recognized contributions. It’s a very detailed requirement.

And this turnover issue is real: 40% of dissatisfied employees leave their jobs, and disengaged employees cost employers up to $450 – $550 billion in lost productivity, annually.

But as a means of expressed gratitude, then, business gifts can combat this trend, since they help in these areas:

  • Drive loyalty
  • Improve morale
  • Boost your reputation as an employee (being seen as an employer that readily prioritizes workplace culture
  • Supports employees so they feel drive to outperform peers and innovate on projects

So ask yourself: What does business gift-giving really mean for your bottom line?

Pro-Tip: Be selective. It’s okay (and sometimes necessary) to have a “cut-off” for employee gift-giving. You can use your own metric for justifying value (such as seniority/legacy, performance, notable achievements this year, etc.)

The Two W’s: When To Gift, and Who To Gift To

For both employees and clients, receiving a gift is about recognition. When employees receive gifts, they feel as though their employers tangibly expressed gratitude for their hard work.

When clients receive gifts, it builds a relationship because there’s a sense of reciprocity and exchange. You’re thanking them for doing business with you, which inspires them to feel valued and return with repeat business.

A rather beneficial self-fulfilling prophecy, right?

Before sending out business gifts, however, take the time to decide when you’ll be doling out these tokens of gratitude. Who your receivers are also matters because, in the context of your business, roles justify reward types.

Insiders

Insiders are those on the operations side of your business. Giving gifts to employees, sub-contractors, and peripheral support staff (like janitors or the cleaning crew), can help boost morale, productivity, and overall goodwill.

According to the Millennial Impact Report, 53% of employees say that their top reason for staying with their companies is the fact that their passions and talents are recognized and rewarded.

Employees have come to expect rewards tied to performances, as well as unique gifts of recognition when:

  • It’s the end of the year, during the holiday season
  • A particularly large-scale or complex project closes, in both celebration and recognition
  • An employee has been at the company for a preset number of years, as a distinguishment for their service and loyalty
  • Employees earn promotions

Especially around the holiday season, a survey by PureProfile shows that the holiday season is an ideal time to give and receive because individuals are already in this mode. 15% of receivers don’t even mind what they receive!

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For businesses looking to give employees a token of appreciation, items like gift cards (40%) can go a long way since 31% are hoping to receive this anyway.

The Middle Ground: A Note on Sub-Contractors and Service Providers

Think about those individuals you want to say “thanks!” to, who don’t necessarily show up as part of your company’s payroll.

Maybe they’re categorized as expenses — integral in their functionality but not a steady part of your workplace.

Virtual assistants, ad-hoc IT specialists, remote accountants and lawyers, couriers, and even consultants are crucial as service providers, of course, but they’re not quite employees.  

Do you go about the business of gift-giving in these situations?

In a word, yes.

But, there are some caveats. First off, certain positions like couriers or postal service individuals can’t accept gifts beyond a particular monetary value (usually above $20).

Secondly, you want to base the value of your gift on whether or not you see a long-term relationship with this sub-contractor. If you’re gifting them during the holidays, gift cards or gifts tailored to their profession (or their personal likes) are the best choices.

If you’re gifting them at the end of a big project, or to say thanks for going above and beyond, then gift cards or cash are your best bet.

Outsiders

When you think about outsiders, you instantly think of clients. As the bread-and-butter of your business, client relationships call for consistent maintenance.

Once a year, it’s good practice to give a small token of your appreciation to “outsiders” — and this includes vendors and suppliers. However, the size (monetary value) of the gift and the type of gift should directly match the value of your customer/client or vendor/supplier brings.

In the case of insiders, your “gift” is a token of appreciation and gratitude.

But with “outsiders,” the giving of gifts is intended as another function: as a means of reciprocity and exchange.

There’s real significance behind your choice of gift, of course. If you can learn more about your clients’ personal preferences, that’s even better, because there is a genuine desire to give back.

To enhance the meaning, you can also personalize or customize the gift, choosing such details as engravings or monograms on items that would be joyously welcome.

However, there’s an added dimension of strategy to client gift-giving — as with any level of client interaction. Giving out client gifts helps you to remain top-of-mind. It creates an incentive to stay on, bring in more business, and tells the client you value them.

While many Western-based companies and businesses choose the holiday season that falls at the end of the calendar year as the best time to give out gifts, that’s not a hard and fast rule.

Consider, for example, the significance of the Chinese Lunar New Year for Asian and South East Asian-based businesses. In Chinese culture, it’s customary to give out cash or bonuses through a red packet or envelope known as lai see.

But even this expected custom comes with its own set of rules, as all gift-giving does:

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Cultures around the world vary their gift-giving season — and their gift-giving reason. For example, you can just as legitimately send your client a business gift when they complete a big project with you, or they reach a particular dollar amount in expenses.

You could also send clients a gift at varying times in the year, at a point that’s significant for them. Just reached a major growth milestone? That’s when you send them a gift? Expanded to a new location? ‘Tis the season!

Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind when gifting to outsiders:

  • Small doesn’t have to mean cheap
  • Gifting during the holiday is a-ok but make your messaging as holiday-neutral as you can
  • Always check compliance laws, especially if your potential contacts or clients are government officials

Is Re-Gifting Ever Okay?

Re-gifting.

We’re notorious for it. We all do it. A survey of 1,200 Americans reveals that 63% have re-gifted a present and 30% of these plan to do it once more, this holiday season.

Re-gifting behavior is not exactly a “no.” The practice is common enough. According to a survey on gifting behavior, co-workers are being targeted for re-gifting more frequently than anyone else.

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In general, re-gifting is okay — as long as you have a company policy intact. Re-gifting can be a bit of a sticky wicket, and before any issues arise, you might consider putting rules in place around:

  • The value of the gift
  • Whether colleagues can re-gift within the company at all
  • If there’s a policy around holiday gift-giving of White Elephant or Secret Santa
  • Packaging/wrapping (can’t be promotional or have branded messages), and the nature of the gift (e.g., no alcohol permitted)
  • Donating of gifts (31% of individuals will donate their gift if it’s not their preference)

Establishing an inter-office policy for re-gifting is valuable if you want to avoid awkward situations. You should also make it very clear within your company handbook that there can be no re-gifting to vendors, suppliers, and/or business partners.

5 Definitive Rules to Business Gift-Giving Etiquette

Speaking of policies and rules around re-gifting, let’s take a more detailed look at gift-giving etiquette — business gifts in particular.

Rule #1: Avoid Humorous Gifts

Humor, like art, is entirely subjective.

And, in a professional context, humor is tricky — it’s a valuable connector and it forges a warm and positive relationship between giver and receiver.

But humor is also about value: What one party values and finds humorous, the other may think of as crass, rude, or just plain unclassy.

If you’re ever concerned about the interpretation of a gift, it’s best to consult with your HR department. In general, HR really should be involved with corporate gift-giving — both internally and externally.

Your marketing department may disagree, however, especially when it comes to client gifts. But it’s also the job of your HR department to outline a cohesive guideline for you, the business, as a giver of external gifts.

This policy should also include rules on receiving gifts, as a corporate entity.

Rule #2: Keep Your Goal in Mind

This applies to both internal and external parties.

Internally, your goals with your employees could include:

  • Showing gratitude
  • Rewarding performance for the year
  • Recognizing talent
  • Creating incentive for innovation through further training, mentoring, and development activities
  • Creating a relaxed, but professional, and creative workplace culture among co-workers
  • Fostering inter-team creativity and communication

You’ll notice that the nature of the goal steers your choice in a gift. For example, a goal of team-building might mean that your gift to your employees is to put together an afternoon out at an Escape Room event, or all-expenses-paid for a conference, out of state.

Rewarding performance could also call for a similarly experiential gift — such as giving an employee a gift card for a spa day. It doesn’t have to be a material thing.

Recognizing talent, again, could include a gift of spending the day with a coveted mentor.

Are you seeing a theme here? Your goal should be in keeping with the nature of the gift — you don’t need to make it a one-size-fits-all giving. Not all employees will receive the same thing when the goal (or the time of year, for example) varies.

The same goes for your clients, business partners, prospects, and suppliers/vendors.

These are all external parties, but they call for different gifts — not least because of your relationship with each social group varies in nature.

Likewise, “goals” for these external parties could include:

  • Maintaining communication and excellent customer relations
  • Expressing gratitude for a particular amount of business received
  • Trying to convert the prospect by highlighting how valuable they are
  • Incentivizing return business

Again, these goals — along with your HR department — will guide you on the kinds of gifts that align with your strategic purchases.

Rule #3: Make it Tailored To Your Receiver’s Needs or Interests

Speaking of strategy, your deep knowledge of your clients and customers should tell you what kinds of gifts will evoke the most joy, surprise, or delight.

Many businesses take “tailored” or “personalized” to simply mean having an item monogrammed or engraved. All this does is make it less likely that your recipient will throw away the gift — not that they’ll find it of value.

The best strategy? Choose gifts that form an emotional connection. This means it’s not just a preference for particular colors or a gadget over a gift card. Instead, you want to show your client you have a relationship — almost akin to friendship.

You know what’s meaningful to them and your gift choice should, as much as possible, reflect this significance.

The truth is that any business could gift a fancy chef knife set or a beautiful, professional pen. But you’re going to only stand out when you go beyond preference, weaving meaning and significance together.

Rule #4: Group Gifts Call for Generosity

Pretty early on in the year — and in your gift-giving strategy — you’ll need to sit down and decide what the protocol is for group gifts.

Group gifts are a little tricky because they all need to be of the same value. You’re not intending to single anyone out. Through this gifting action, the goal is simply to express gratitude — usually, at the end of the year or the close of a big project.

This might be a fancy steak dinner at a local restaurant. Here, each individual might get the same gift card as thanks.

If the group gift is for employees, it’s for a team effort, not necessarily for performance or individual recognition.

There’s another way group gifts could go: It’s one large gift that everyone can partake in.

For example, if you’re rewarding your lean, but effective, three-person accounting team, consider a large gift — in value — that all three of them could avail of, such as a gift basket or gift certificate for lunch.

Rule #5: You Always Need to Check Compliance Laws

It’s not just your jurisdiction — compliance laws also mean your industry and your clients’ industries.

There are certain rules and/or thresholds that are pre-established when it comes to corporate gift-giving. You need to make sure that both your total expenditure and those individual gift choices are appropriate, running by the letter of the law.

Pro-Tip: Gifts for the boss? Consider doing a pool, instead, since her/his salary likely outmatches your own, they’ll end up with a great gift, and no one will seem as though they’re trying to curry favor

Innovative and Creative Corporate Gift Ideas

And now, for the fun part — choosing those gifts!

If you’re naturally gregarious or love the giving spirit, you’ll enjoy learning more about your employees and external stakeholders, to find out just how to “wow” them.

Besides the usual suspects of electronics and housewares, Americans are also pretty into gifting from the following categories:

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Pro-tip: Avoid branded or promotional merchandise. Things like t-shirts and water bottles with your brand, logo or slogan on them have a place — but it’s not here. This gesture of gifting is about your receiver, not your company.

And what about gifts to clients? So far, the most popular are “chocolate gifts,” at 29%, with fruit baskets coming in second, at 22%.

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Fruit baskets and edible food items are a popular gift around the holiday season, however, and it’s just as appropriate and quite welcome! to gift these out to employees at the end of another year.

Subscription Boxes

Subscription boxes are a great way to customize a gift to a receiver’s preferences because these boxes are always themed. Every month, the receiver gets something new as part of the subscription box.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

The best part about it is that there are subscription boxes for literally every niche. From fitness to essential oils, cigars, shaving kits, and even socks, subscription boxes say to your recipient, “Have an amazing year!”

SaaS Subscriptions/App Subscriptions

This is a great idea if you’re working with a smaller, leaner team.

Especially if they’re a team that has gone above and beyond for you and your business has seen value thanks to their work, consider offsetting some of their expenses.

In a classy way, of course. Enterprise software can be a pricey thing to invest in — so why not give the gift of an entirely new annual subscription? This says you support their operations and their growth.

Win-win!

Gifts of Appreciation (Travel perks, gift certificates to a spa, a watch, etc.)

Gift certificates are among the most favorite kinds of gifts to give — and one of the most popular types of gifts to receive.

Why? Because, to the receiver, it feels like they’re basically getting gifts at two separate moments — the moment they receive the certificate, and the moment they redeem it.

And for gift givers, one of the appeals is the convenience. They don’t need to spend too much time worrying about choosing the right gift (or fretting about giving the wrong one).

But what they don’t know is that the benefit goes well beyond convenience. Since the receiver feels like they’re getting “two” gifts, the result is that the gratitude related to the gift is elongated. You get more of the benefits of gift-giving with one simple gift.

The kind of delight a receiver experiences when actually buying something they want is unparalleled. In fact, 54% of individuals opt for gift cards or gift certificates when buying gifts for others.

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What’s more, the receiver’s satisfaction indirectly means there are a whole lot fewer exchange lines to stand in the next day.

And, keeping with our business gift etiquette, gift cards and gift certifications level the playing field.

You can ensure that everyone gets the same amount but that no one actually gets the same gift.

In true gifting form, you were simply the facilitator for their joy. What could be better?

Conclusion

Planning for and buying business gifts is much more involved an endeavor than it seems. Many business owners get hung up on the legal and compliance issues.

As long as you have some kind of company policy in place regarding gift-giving, you should be fine. The true task begins when you’re trying to choose the right gift for the individual and the relationship you’re trying to build.

Of course, this guide to business gifts is the perfect starting point from which to craft a more cohesive corporate policy. Remember that It’s never the actual gift itself but the meaning and gesture that take over your receiver’s perception.

So make the motion count!