Appropriate gift giving at work Appropriate gift giving at work

Appropriate gift giving at work

15 December 2020 | Employment and Safety

As we approach the end of the year and with Christmas and New Year’s Eve just around the corner, festive spirit might often translate into risk-taking behaviour and things can easily get out of hand at work.

The festive season - Appropriate gift giving at work

As we approach the end of the year, there is a risk that the festive spirit may translate into risk-taking behaviour and things can easily get out of hand in the workplace, with possible legal consequences for employers.

During the festive season there are often displays of kindness through gift giving between colleagues, or even a Secret Santa.

If done thoughtlessly (or maliciously) gift giving can have disastrous consequences including allegations of bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment and findings of employee misconduct. 

Gifting – what to do 

Be careful not to cross professional boundaries

The case of Pintley v Secretary, NSW Department of Education [2019] NSWIRComm 1085 demonstrates that you should not give gifts that cross professional boundaries. An assistant principal engaged in conduct including professing love for her students and giving students. Giving gifts to clients, colleagues, (or in this instance students) or others you know through work needs to be carefully considered.  

Avoid certain types of gifts

Avoid gifts of a sexual nature – such as underwear, personal items or items which connote intimacy. Even if such a gift is exchanged between two willing participants, other co-workers who witness the gift may reasonable take offence, which in turn may constitute unwelcome conduct resulting in claims of sexual harassment.

For example, this issue was explored in the case of Shea v Energy Australia Services Pty Ltd (No 7) whereby one colleague gifted book of a sexual nature to the other. It was also alleged that the gift was displayed in the workplace. Although the claim of sexual harassment was not made out due to the nature of the relationship between the parties and that the gift was not actually circulated or discussed in the workplace, this should still serve as a reminder that private gifts should be avoided to reduce risk.

Similarly, gifts which make jokes including explicit language or offensive tag lines should also be avoided.

Be mindful of your recipient

Just because you think it is funny, does not mean it will be funny for everyone.

Avoid religiously offensive gifts – for example, banners, jokes about religious beliefs or crucifixes and religious paraphernalia generally. These are higher risk, and could be considered discriminatory.

Avoid suggestive gifts – for example, a weight loss campaign for larger employees, or a hair growth serum for balding male employees. These may cause offence and result in complaints of bullying.

Implications for employers

Whether gift giving is sanctioned by the employer or not, it is important that employees are made aware of appropriate gift giving in the workplace. In order to prevent the possibility of bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination, employers can implement gifting policies which set out the expected behaviours.

The last thing anyone wants is to ruin the festive season for others, or themselves through thoughtless or malicious gift giving. Remember; now is not the time to lose your job.

You do not want celebration to turn into termination, be sensible!

This article was authored by Laura Sowden & Theresa Au.

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Laura Sowden

Laura Sowden

Special Counsel