November 26th, 2008
04:19 PM ET

Tipping & Regifting: What to do this year?

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Editor's Note: Dr. Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy, writes the ethics column for BusinessWeek Online.

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

It's the most wonderful time of the year, indeed. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's you will face two ethical questions: 1) How much should you tip the people who have helped you during the past 12 months? 2) Is it right to give someone a gift you received but don't want?

Here's some guidance grounded in basic ethical principles so you can handle these tricky matters in the right way and enjoy the holiday season, even during this financially stressful time.

Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the spirituality of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other seasonal celebrations with the crass commercialism that seems to grow every year. Nevertheless, because we have an ethical obligation to express our gratitude where appropriate, and money is one of the most appreciated of all gifts, it can be fitting to give cash to the helpers in our life.

How much you should give depends on three factors:
• How much the person has helped you
• What the relationship means to you
• Your financial position

For someone who looked after your pet only once this year, a handwritten thank-you note or holiday card is appropriate. The person who did this five or six times during your business trips and vacations deserves more than that, so including cash or a check with the note is fair. If your doorman, mechanic, or lawn cutter went above and beyond the call of duty in some way, this too can justify a monetary thank-you.

If you don't have the financial resources to say "thanks" with cash, you have a right and an obligation not to give money as a gift. The ethical principle of fairness requires, in part, that we allocate scarce resources appropriately.

While most people would prefer to receive money, the following are acceptable options if you're not in a position to dole out the ducats:

• Write a detailed letter to their bosses, explaining exactly how they helped you. Give them a copy of the letter, which could help them earn a promotion or raise.

• Provide services free of charge for a specific project or a finite amount of time. Surely there is something you can do that would be appreciated and doesn't involve spending money.

• Ask your helpers how you can help them. They may surprise you with something you wouldn't have considered but are in a position to do.

After all, some employers (like the federal government) prohibit some or all of their employees from accepting gifts of cash or noncash gifts worth more than a small amount of money.

Bottom line: Find a way to honor both your duty to express gratitude and your responsibility to avoid running up personal debt. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others, and be as good to others as you are to yourself.

Yes, it is right to regift. In fact, we have a duty to do so. Here's why.

First, we have an ethical obligation not to be wasteful. You may not have a need for another wool sweater, but there are many people who do. To shove the sweater into the bottom of your drawer and forget about it denies someone else the chance to stay warm. Beyond giving charitably, however, you probably have a friend or colleague who would like the gifts you don't want or need. Giving them the things you don't plan to use isn't just acceptable—it's the right thing to do.

Second, as we saw with the tipping issue, we have a duty to express our thanks to the many people who have aided us throughout the year, or who enrich our lives with the gift of friendship or familial love.

There are several caveats to keep in mind before you regift:

• Do it soon. There is a statute of limitations for regifting. If it's old, dusty, or out of season, you're out of luck. Next time, give it away right away.

• Do it out of town. The person to whom you are regifting an article of clothing shouldn't run the risk of running into the original giver of the gift. The most fundamental ethical principle of all is Do No Harm, and since hurting someone's feelings harms that person, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid the possibility of an unwelcome surprise.

• Don't use it first. This is just basic decency.

• Sometimes you shouldn't regift at all. If someone gives you an unwelcome gift but expects to see you using it, the ethical obligations to avoid causing harm and to respect others require you to bite the bullet and go along with it. These situations are unfortunate, since the purpose of giving a gift is to give pleasure to someone else, not to bolster one's own pride or self-esteem.

You may wonder how it can be justified to practice deception. Unless your friend is the kind of (rare) person who would not be offended to know that she is receiving a regift, the practice of passing on an unwelcome present to someone who might want it falls under the category of a "benevolent deception."

"But any kind of deception is wrong!" you might argue.

Really? So it was unethical for your parents to tell you about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy? Come on! In ethics, as in all other issues we confront, we have to pick our battles—and this isn't one of them.

Thus, you may regift with a cheerful soul and a clear conscience. Of course, sometime this season, you will surely get a regift yourself, and you will probably give a present that will get regifted, too.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Economy • Finance
soundoff (One Response)
  1. kelly

    mr weinstien. talking about micheal jackson is not too much like you stated, I always rush to come home and turn my tv on to see the latest news about mr jackson he was a wonderful man and his kids should see on tv how important their dad was, so keep it up cnn. we want to hear and see more

    July 10, 2009 at 9:43 am |

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