Thou shalt not be cheap

Nail clippers, a crystal healing tree, and other things not to give. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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Update on Behind the Scenes … I’ll just keep this in the headers for a couple more days…

I’ll be interviewing World Cup and Olympic gold medalist skier Bode Miller next Monday, December 14, 2020 at 10 a.m. ET. If you’d like to be on the Zoom call, please reply to this email by the end of the day Friday to let me know, and I’ll send a calendar link with details. (Those who already did reply—you’re covered.) This is the first time I’ve tried something like this, but I think it will work well. It should be fun, he’s an interesting person.


A bit of a breezy one today. I once asked readers about the best and worst employee holiday gifts they'd ever received at work.

Now, I don’t want to be negative, but let’s just admit that a list of bad-but-true gifts will probably draw people’s attention more than a list of good ones.

What surprised me most how many people remembered these bad gifts, in some cases decades after the fact.

It's a stressful enough time without falling into these kinds of traps. So, let’s all do one of my favorite things, which is learn from other people’s mistakes.

For amusement’s sake, I boiled these down to five key rules.

Rule No. 1: Thou shall not be cheap.

Meet David Viggiano. Years ago, he was a TV reporter in Chicago, where, as he recalled, his company’s holiday gifts “got smaller and cheaper” each year.

The nadir, which would have been around the turn of the Millennium?

“A nail clipper. Yup, a nail clipper.”

Or else, let’s hear from Adina Sweitzer, who once worked for a company where the owner's holiday gift to employees was a $10 concessions voucher at a local sporting event.

“Out of the 75 employees, only three were redeemed. He sure saved a lot of money,” she said.

Actually, I had something similar at the first newspaper I worked at, where our holiday gift was a discount for $10 off a turkey at the local supermarket.

As a 22-year-old guy who was traveling home to Rhode Island for Christmas, I wasn’t going to buy a turkey anyway. My parents still handled that.

I think employees understand that in rough times — maybe this year, even — forgoing employee holiday gifts might be required. But, it’s also kind of like the opposite of “it’s the thought that counts” when it comes to employers.

If someone is just “checking the box,” I think you can do more harm than good by giving an obviously cheapskate business-related gift.

Rule No. 2: Beware of branding.

Charles Tran recalled what he described as the worst business holiday gift ever: an extra-large jacket with a big corporate logo.

“I felt like if I wore the jacket, I'd be a walking billboard,” said Tran. “Plus, it wasn't even in my size, which made the gift feel more corporate and less personalized.”

I don’t think it’s always a mistake to include a logo on a custom gift for clients or employees.

I still wear a couple of t-shirts sometimes from Scary Mommy and Stay Tuned With Preet, which are brands owned by one of my former companies.

I suppose the key is to keep it subtle and useful. Ask yourself, would I use or wear this gift? What if I didn’t own the company?

Rule No. 3: Keep it friendly, but not personal.

Anita Mahaffey is the CEO and founder of Cool-jams, Inc., a San Diego company that makes specialty sleepwear.

Among her company's products, she explains, are pajamas for menopausal women. So, she said she was surprised when a customer explained that she was buying the pajamas for her boss for Christmas.

“In the end her boss thanked her,” Mahaffey said, “but that could have gone either way.”

I think it’s topped by this one however:

Gail Miller, CEO and chief staffing strategist at Consultnetworx, told me the worst gift she ever saw a colleague give was a bottle of wine ... to someone who had been vocal about their experiences as a recovering alcoholic.

Rule No. 4: Re-gift with caution.

Ian Aronovich, president and co-founder of GovernmentAuctions.org, remembers getting an odd business gift from an employee: some kind of contraption to flush a toilet ... with your foot.

Aronovich said it was clear that the employee just felt obligated to give “something.”

Margo Schlossberg, a marketing director in Maryland, previously worked for a telecommunications company in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

One year, a coworker gave her a "crystal healing tree" as a present, which Schlossberg found bizarre. Then, her company held its holiday party in a bowling alley and she bowled poorly enough to cost her team the prize of a paid day off.

Blaming the crystal healing tree for the incident, Schlossberg said she “ran it over with my car.”

Rule No. 5: Thou shall not be tone deaf.

Finally, long ago, Dan O'Connell worked for an advertising and public relations firm that laid off 80 percent of its employees in a single year.

When all was said and done, the agency owner announced that there would be no bonuses or holiday party. That made sense; things were tight.

But then, in an ill-advised attempt to improve the mood, O'Connell recalled, the owner said he wanted to share a presentation about the great European vacation he and his wife had taken.

“He then proceeded to give us a 20 minute slide show on Paris, Rome, etc. to cheer us all up,” O'Connell said. “I later skipped off with a few clients and started my own agency.”


7 other things worth your time


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of my friends at Pixabay. I’ve written before about some of these bad ideas at Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. 

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