I remember my first job in a small newsroom. About a week before Christmas, the managing editor handed me a sealed envelope, and with a smile said, "Happy holidays!"
My hands actually trembled with excitement as I tore open the envelope,envisioning a nice holiday bonus, something with at least a couple of zeros.
Imagine my stunned surprise to find not a nice chunk of change, but a gift certificate for a turkey from the local Piggly-Wiggly. The turkey price limit, according to the gift certificate, was $20.
Being that I was a 22-year-old single woman with a geriatric cat, a car that refused to start when it was too cold or too hot or too windy, I was a bit deflated.
That's why I'm always amazed to hear about holiday bonuses on Wall Street with six zeros (!) attached, and not even a hint about a turkey. Other people have told me that they've gotten everything from a trip to Hawaii to a week at Disney World for the entire family.
While many of us won't be seeing those kinds of holiday goodies, there are times when a client or customer or other business contact will hand us a gift that sort of takes us aback, and we do an internal "Whoa."
It's at those times you really need to do a gut check, says Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, a Los-Angeles based company that advises employers and employees on ethics.
Seidman says that if you're offered a gift that is more than you could ever begin to buy for yourself, or if it somehow makes you obligated in some way to that business contact, the best response is to be gracious but say "no thanks."
The reason? Once you start to fudge on your ethics, once you put your personal integrity up for sale for season tickets to the Knicks or some other gift, then some day you're going to realize that you've gone down an ethical abyss that may be hard to climb out of.
"This isn't about what you can do, it's about what you should do," he says. "And making the right decision is often an inconvenience."
So, this holiday season, look at how and why you accept gifts all year long. Set some standards about when and how you'll accept a gift and remember that it's not just about the gift -- but how it looks to others.