How to address an offensive gift at office holiday party: Ask HR

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
Special to USA TODAY
People should aim to avoid gifts given in a workplace setting that are intimate and personal, Johnny C. Taylor Jr. advises.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: At a company holiday party, there was a White Elephant gift exchange with a $5 limit. One of the gifts was inappropriate for the workplace and the recipient was embarrassed. No action was taken by the company. What do you think should have been done? – Weland S.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: An offensive gift can ruin the fun of an office party pretty quickly – especially when the recipient of the gift is upset. And while the intention might have been light-hearted, that doesn’t necessarily mean the offense should be treated as such.

I’ll start by saying any action depends on why the gift was inappropriate – and if it violated company policy. For instance, if the gift was offensive to someone in a protected class or regarding race, disability, or religion, it could result in workplace harassment claims and should be handled with serious consideration.

As a rule of thumb, people should aim to avoid gifts given in a workplace setting that are intimate and personal, as well as gag gifts that could potentially be hurtful or seen as insensitive. Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable giving the CEO of the company this gift?”

While I can’t speak to the specifics, if a people manager was present at the gift exchange, hopefully, he or she handled the situation appropriately. If you know the incident was not addressed, express your concerns to HR after checking your workplace policies.

Many employers have policies addressing appropriate workplace behavior. Depending on how offensive the gift was, there may be consequences to the gift-giver, such as sensitivity or harassment training.

Ultimately, the outcome should mean a similar gift doesn’t make an appearance at any future gift exchanges. 

Giving gifts at work can be a fun and thoughtful way to celebrate holidays and show appreciation to colleagues, but it can be tricky. At the end of the day, it’s best to err on the side of caution and stick with a present you would feel comfortable giving to someone at any level of the organization.

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Q: I'm the manager of a small nonprofit. My newest employee has shown an attendance problem since the first week. She is either late, has to leave early, or doesn't show up. Since this is a small team, I need her to be present to help get our work done. What should I do? – Anonymous

Taylor: Attendance issues can be frustrating. This is especially true when many of our workplaces have been busier than ever. Everyone’s time should be respected – and that extends to both employers and employees.

As a people manager, you have an opportunity to set clear expectations about your company’s attendance protocols. For example, saying something along the lines of, “It’s really important we’re in the office by 9 a.m. to attend a daily meeting with a client,” or, “Since we’re a small team, it’s crucial to communicate your schedule so we can ensure we’re fully staffed,” can convey the necessity of arriving in a timely manner and staying until the work is complete.

Use this conversation as a chance to level-set with your employee about office culture and procedures. I don’t know the details of the situation, but if absences are related to a medical condition, HR may need to determine eligibility for reasonable accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act. This could include a modified schedule, telework, or intermittent leave.

If the attendance issues aren’t medically related, and your report isn’t eligible for any other accommodation under state laws or company policy, then you may be able to take disciplinary action up to and including termination.

But before you cross that bridge, it could be worth taking a step back. You mention this is a new employee. Is there a chance miscommunication is the cause? Be respectful, but firm, and remind them about the company’s attendance policies and why it’s critical to be present. Not only can absences impact a company’s bottom line, but they can also affect workplace dynamics and relationships with a team.

I’ll also emphasize the importance of leading with empathy. We are still in a pandemic, and everyone is balancing new personal and professional responsibilities. 

I hope you can come to a solution that helps you, your employee, and the organization!