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Insulted by the Crummy Gift

Dear Office-Politics,

For 14 months, I worked at an office, under two contracts.

During my time there I worked on 2 different projects. My first contract expired, but then it was extended to complete my project. I also had a newly hired co-worker for this second project who was also under contract. Both projects were to do research.

On my last day of work, the office took my coworker and myself out to lunch. We were each presented with gifts of a card signed by all the staff, a mug with our company logo, and a $20 gift certificate issued by our company. We also had to pay for our own lunches. I thought the gift was a little odd because it was basically just taken out of the company promotional items cabinet. I had been to other last day lunches where gifts were purchased from a collection taken from staff. But I also thought that this may have been because my coworker had only been there 2 months and they couldn’t give us different gifts.

In mid August I found out that for their summer students last day of work, the staff pitched in to get him a $100 gift certificate at Ikea. They have the same summer student this year and got him the same present. Part of the work their summer student was hired to do was to continue the research that I had started. We live in a fairly small community, so I know that he wasn’t doing this properly.

Anyway, does the quality of the gift that I received for my last day reflect how my co-workers felt about me? Did I get get a crummy gift because they think I did a crummy job or because they just didn’t like me? I honestly thought I did a good job, good enough to get hired for a second contract and I still talk to a lot of my former coworkers in a friendly manner? What’s up with that?


Confused by Gift

franke james

Dear Confused by Gift,

Gifts can be a very touchy subject. Ironically, they say more about the giver, than the receiver. Your question revolves around interpreting the meaning of gifts in the workplace, and whether your coworkers were sending you a message in their choice of gift.

Let’s try to get some perspective on this by imagining you as the gift-giver…

If you gave an expensive fountain pen to one coworker and a dime-store pen to another, would that mean anything? You would automatically say, ‘Of course!’ But both gifts share the same function. Each can be used to write, but obviously one has more monetary value than the other. We would therefore assume that the coworker receiving the fountain pen is more ‘valued’ by you than the one receiving the dime-store pen.

If however you had substituted a heartfelt letter for the dime-store pen, then we would draw an entirely different conclusion. We would not be talking about money but the desire for you to express appreciation as the inspiration for the gift. We would probably surmise that both people are valued by you, but in different ways. And that giving a letter for a job well done may have more meaning to some people, and be more appropriate, than a fountain pen.

In your real life situation, you are upset because you perceived that the gift-givers threw your gift together at the last minute (pulling it from a supply cupboard), and made it identical to your co-workers. And then later, another worker, who doesn’t perform as well as you, is rewarded even more handsomely. Where’s the sense in that? No wonder you are confused.

Although your feelings were hurt is there any point in letting everyone know your disappointment? No. It won’t earn you extra points. It won’t get you a better gift next time around. All it will do is stir up resentment and gossip. You can observe and learn from this experience but don’t make an issue of it. Even though you were hurt you don’t want to show that vulnerability. Your message should be, “That was very nice of my coworkers to take us out to lunch and show their appreciation.” The gift was just a small gesture and you didn’t think twice about it.

It is a good reminder for all of us that gifts carry a message. For better or worse they are symbols of how the gift giver feels toward the recipient. They can show who is the ‘favorite’ and who is not. But it’s good to remember that it’s up to the recipient to decide whether to accept or reject the gift giver’s message! Gifts can come with a lot of strings attached. Maybe you didn’t pull the right strings to get the best gift? But then again maybe you don’t want to be that kind of person…

Is there anything positive that can come from this experience? Yes. You can be more sensitive and empathetic about the gifts you give in the future (whether to coworkers, friends or family). You can remember that you felt a bit slighted when the gift given did not symbolize to you genuine appreciation for your efforts. I would say chalk it up to experience. Don’t take it personally. You know that you did a good job, but your coworkers, for whatever reason, did not take the time, or thought, to acknowledge your efforts. That’s office politics for you… Life is not fair. But try to use this as a lesson to make you more a considerate and caring person.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

Publication note: This letter was originally published in September 2006. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.

  1. One Answer to “Insulted by the Crummy Gift”

  2. I really appreciated the response that I got to my question. It was quick and detailed. It sort of confirmed some of what I suspected already, but it also provided alternate, maybe more rational explainations, for what happened.


    By Letter-writer on Mar 18, 2007

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