Holiday gifts that can open doors — without looking like bribery

By D. Parvaz, Seattle Post – 02/01/2003 – 12:00am


“A man’s gift maketh room for him,
and bringeth him before great men.”

— Proverbs 18:16

You see that? Although selfless gifting is deemed ideal, it’s totally realistic to assume that many of us use seasonal gift giving as a way to curry favor with a boss, an in-law, or whoever the great person is we’d like to bringeth ourselves before.

In doing so, keep in mind that the whole “It’s the thought that counts” really matters. As in, it’s really, really important to think about what you’re giving the person to whom you’re sucking up.

Sue Fox, etiquette expert and the author of “Etiquette for Dummies” and “Business Etiquette for Dummies,” warns that giving suck-up gifts could “veer into undue influence and bribery.”

That may be precisely what you want to achieve, but you don’t want to get called out on it. Here, Fox offers some advice to those of you in dire need of ingratiating yourselves to someone:

The boss

While a simple “Hey, Merry Christmas!” or a card might do, some of you might feel moved to buy a little sumthin’ sumthin’ for the office big shot.

According to a 2000 survey by vault.com (a corporate job-search Web site), 46 percent of employees buy their bosses gifts. Thirty-three percent spend $30 to $50, but 13 percent spend more than $50.

Fox recommends that you stick with the simple stuff — nothing pricey.

“Because you never know what people know or see,” she says, referring to the piranha tank that is office politics.

If your boss has done something ultra cool for you — given you extra time off or a to-die-for promotion, then Fox figures you can openly gift him or her.

“Like a bottle of wine, but not a very expensive one, unless you’re an executive reporting to a VP or a president,” says Fox. A 1998 Oregon pinot noir — about $48 for a bottle of Rex Hill’s Reserve (available at better supermarkets and most wine shops) — should do more than nicely.

Otherwise, sucking up on the down-low is the way to go. This means buying the boss tickets to a sporting event or concert and discreetly tucking them into an envelope. You also don’t have to break the bank with this gift. Sonics tickets, for example, go for anywhere from $9-$129 (www.nba.com/sonics/, 206-283-3865, or Ticketmaster). Midrange $60 tickets would be good idea, because you don’t want to seat your boss in the nosebleed section.

You might be tempted to buy your boss a luxe pen set (the better to sign your paychecks with!) but Fox advises against doing that.

“Anything materialistic that sits in the office and looks expensive is going to look bad. If it buys you a promotion or a trip or a perk, then it’s going to come back to haunt you.”

If you decide to buy the big cheese something that won’t fit into an envelope, then find out what his or her interests are. Oh, and never, ever buy anything like jewelry, fragrance or clothing. Fox says that’s way too personal.

In-laws and other feared relatives

This one’s a little tricky. Fox doesn’t make any particular recommendations here. Instead, she gives us a lecture.

“I just think it’s OK as long as it’s obvious that you’re not sucking up, that you’re not trying to buy their love, their affection, their attention,” says Fox.

“Material things are not the way to do that.” She did add that the thing to do here is the exact opposite of what you’d do for your boss — make it personal, so it seems from the heart even if it’s actually from your scheming left-brain region. Find out what their favorite restaurant is and give them a gift certificate or make arrangements with the restaurant itself for
a special night. You get the idea.

Fox also says that you have to be careful not to spend too much on this gift. “You don’t want to hurt the feelings of those who can’t afford as much.” After all, there’s no point in making your in-laws love you if it means totally ticking off the rest of clan.

Landlords/apartment managers/auto mechanics

If you want that leaky sink taken care of lickety-split, you need to find a way to distinguish yourself from the other 249 people who live in your gigantic apartment complex. Ditto for car issues, assuming you have a regular mechanic you (tragically) must see on a regular basis.

“If you know that they have an interest or something, fine, get them a gift — novels, gift certificate,” says Fox. But don’t spend too much on these folks.

“Sometimes you can be insulted if people try to buy you or influence you in some way,” said Fox. The idea is to make them like you, not feel indebted to you. Giving someone something a little too nice can just freak them out or embarrass them.

Spending up to $60 is acceptable, says Fox, depending on how well you know your landlord. But spending more might give him or her the heebie-jeebies.

Maitre d’s and others more powerful than you’d think

Then there are those who don’t wield an enormous amount of influence in your day-to-day life, but still can make it a living hell should they decide to. Like, say they can make you wait an eternity for a table — or just flat-out refuse to give you one.

Bluenile.com, a Seattle-based luxury gift Web site, offers tips on how to bribe a maitre d’ after you’ve been declined a table.

“Skin Lincoln, Skip Hamilton. Go straight for Jackson. Shake hands with the man in question, and simply slide the folded bill into his palm. Then ask him, if it would not be a bother, to please check one more time . . .”

“The basis of etiquette is that it changes with the time, but this is one of those things that doesn’t change. It’s still OK to slip them a $20 but it’s better to get to know them by building a rapport with the maitre d’ or a manager,” says Fox. While this sort of palm-greasing is quite effective, never underestimate the power of a nice gift at a time of year when most restaurant folks are run off their feet.

“A really wonderful wine — because they’re usually wine connoisseurs, but nothing outrageously expensive. Theater tickets also would be fine,” says Fox. There are loads of local theater companies with affordable shows, but if you want to play it safe, go with the Seattle Repertory Theatre (www.seattlerep.org/home.html or 206-443-2222). The Rep has tickets from $15-$46, and it sells tickets for both the Bagley Wright as well as the Leo K theaters.

For other people in the service industry — from your massage therapist to the receptionist at the only salon that seems to know how to tame your hair — Fox recommends a box of cookies or candies.

“I take my nail salon a big basket of fruit or something like that, that everyone can enjoy and share,” says Fox. She does this out of appreciation for good service, but says that giving gifts also can pay other divi-dends.

“I have friends who give their hairstylist gifts and always seem to get appointments whenever they want.”

P-I reporter D. Parvaz can be reached at 206-448-8095 or dparvaz@seattlepi.com.

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