My Co-Worker Gave me a $1000 Present

I need some advice on the topics of work appropriate gifts. I work in a large international company, and recently became friends with a male coworker. I am married, and so is he. What is considered an appropriate gift for a coworker? He recently gave me something designer that was over $1000 and it doesn’t make me comfortable at all, and I expressed to him that it doesn’t and I find it inappropriate. I am happily married, and he knows I am. He said it wasn’t meant to be inappropriate, but it makes me so uncomfortable. He won’t take it back and I have already tried to express my concerns and discomfort to him twice. How do I give it back to him without causing drama? I don’t really want to go to HR yet without making it clear first.

First, to be clear, you’re not causing the drama. He’s causing the drama. A gift of this sort is 100 percent inappropriate between co-workers, especially ones that are married to other people. Even if you were both single this type of gift is inappropriate. Why? Because you are co-workers, not boyfriend and girlfriend.

So, here’s what you do. You say he won’t take it back, but he doesn’t have all the power. You don’t have to take it. Get a friend to go with you, hand him the item and say, “I cannot accept this gift.” Then walk away. If he refuses to take it out of your hands, set it on his desk and walk away. It is his. You are under no obligation to accept it.

Then, you need to report it to HR. I know, I  know, drama. But, here’s why. His gift may have been genuinely sweet and he may be a multi-millionaire who just works for fun and spending $1000 is like buying someone a candy bar, and I’d still want to know about it.

Here’s why:

Because it’s not an appropriate gift* between co-workers, this guy needs some training. Now, if he is wealthy or if he’s from a culture where those types of gifts are appropriate he’s not being sleazy or forward or what have you, he’s just made a mistake. In this case, there should be a short discussion that gifts like this are inappropriate because they change the relationship from a professional one to a personal one. Because of the huge amount of money involved it puts you in his debt. That’s not a peer relationship.

If his culture is okay with this, that’s great. But while we respect his home country culture, he needs to respect his local culture as well, and that means not giving expensive gifts to other people unless you have a serious established romantic or familial relationship.

Now, if he was trying to win your favor or begin a romantic relationship, this is a failed way to do it. You’re both married to other people so that’s inappropriate in and of itself, but if you were both single it would still be inappropriate. Again, because the present is so extravagant it can create feelings of obligation. That’s a big nope in the workplace.

So, the guy may not be in need of discipline, but he is in need of some instruction that this is not proper workplace behavior. Period.

*What is an appropriate co-worker gift? The following:

  • I just got back from Hawaii and I brought everyone in the department a lei!
  • I brought in donuts from Krispy Kreme! They are in the kitchen, help yourself!
  • Thanks for handling that crazy client for me yesterday. I picked you up your favorite Starbucks drink!
  • I got your name in the Secret Santa. Here is a gift that cost less than $20, is not rude, crude, or socially unacceptable, and there’s a good chance you will like it.
  • Congratulations on the new baby! Here’s a package of onesies and a stuffed toy!
  • Congratulations on the wedding! Here’s a gift I selected from your registry!

Feel free to refer to this list should you ever feel the urge to buy an expensive gift for a co-worker.


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20 thoughts on “My Co-Worker Gave me a $1000 Present

  1. I’ll take it! Sure, it’s inappropriate, but if it’s really only a co-worker — and not someone in a reporting relationship to her — the real inappropriateness only begins if and when he attempts to exploit the gift for an improper purpose, such as: grounds for blackmail or for pursuing a further (non-coworker) relationship. For all she knows, he may be re-gifting something his wife received and didn’t want or something he won in a raffle.

    1. The optics are still very bad at least in USA Work Culture. If you work somewhere this is okay great, but you start out saying it’s inappropriate. Which means you know this. And not knowing his motive this can be a bad thing. What happens down the line if he expected favours at work from you to the tune of that gift (and I don’t even mean something romantic, just that you put his needs first on your task list even if someone needs you more.) Unless you find out it’s a 20 buck knock off you need to listen to yourself where you say it’s wrong.

    2. I probably should have added that I had a co-worker give me a car once. Granted, it was a 9-year-old car with a lot of body damage that hadn’t run in 2 years. However, she got it in working order for me — basically, all it needed was a new battery (which she refused to allow me to pay her for) — and gave me clear title, reciting that I had paid $1 for it (which she also would not accept). The car ran quietly, smoothly and powerfully for 7 years, with the only major repair being replacing the radiator, which had gotten badly clogged during the 2 years it had “sat in the barn.” I barely knew her when she offered me the car; she had just seen me waiting at the bus stop after my previous car had “died.” Her gift was a major blessing in my life, and she and I became good friends for many years thereafter, during which I was able to repay her kindness by mentoring her in her career, providing job references, etc. I asked her why she had given me the car, rather than selling it or donating it to some non-profit for the tax deduction. She explained that she and her husband were in the process of moving across country — he delivered the car to me on her last day at work — and that the “book value” of the car, due to its age and condition was so low that it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to sell, and the tax deduction from a donation would probably be limited to the bare-bones salvage value. She said it was worth more to them to see it go to someone who really needed it and would get all of the possible value out of it. They were thrilled that I got more than 100,000 more miles out of a vehicle that they had assumed was “on its last legs.”

      1. I think you lucked out Grannybunny…not in terms of getting a car when you really needed one. But in terms of your co-worker not using her gift as a power play. There are plenty of people who give gifts under the guise of being charitable or “just wanting to help” who turn around and expect some quid-pro-quo. As in “If it weren’t for me, you’d still be X so now you owe me Y.” Suzanne’s advice is sound.

        1. And let’s face it – this guy WILL use the gift against her in some way. The fact that he is refusing to take it back tells you something about his attitude towards what other people want.

        2. I don’t doubt one bit what you are saying. However, if the giver later attempted some type of power play, the power to thwart that lies in the hands of the recipient. For example, had my co-worker later claimed that I “owed” her something in exchange for the car, I would have called her bluff by offering to immediately return it. Because we worked together in a small office, there were several co-workers who became aware — at the time the car was delivered to me — that it was an outright gift, which was also confirmed by the clear title she signed over to me. But, even if there had been zero witnesses, I would never acquiesce to any type of blackmail, emotional or otherwise.

      2. I think this is a lovely story, and I would be okay with it as an HR person. Since the giver was leaving, there were no strings attached, and it wasn’t a frivolous designer gift. It was meeting a real need.

        What a wonderful person she was!

    3. I also wondered if it was something that was being re-gifted or perhaps it was a sample or super sale item. When I worked in merchandising, I’d give $200 purses that were samples so they didn’t cost me anything.
      But, if that is the case then the gift giver needs to speak up and admit that he spent $15 on it or that the wife didn’t like it and told him to give it to someone at work (so the original gift giver would never know it was re-gifted). It’s the difference between a power dynamic and a thoughtful gesture.

      1. All of that could be true. However, she expressed discomfort and tried to return it. His attitude of basically forcing the gift on her when she said she is uncomfortable is a red flag.

  2. Holy no, Batman.

    Do what Suzanne says–give it back. This is WILDLY inappropriate. Even if you decide not to go to HR, you really need to draw a boundary here, regardless of the intent of the gift.

    Remember, you haven’t done anything wrong here–the awkward is all on him. You can do it kindly but you need to be firm that it’s inappropriate for him to give you a gift like this and you cannot now nor ever accept it.

  3. If you really want to be mean, donate it to a charity – in his wife’s name. Make sure she gets the thank-you card.

  4. I’m still scratching my head that the OP didn’t just leave it on the gifter’s desk (before being told to by EHRL), while saying loudly enough for others to hear, “I’m returning this to you, it’s inappropriate.” So many women are unprepared or unwilling to be assertive or even risk being offensive if they need to draw a boundary.

    Personally? I think the OP was letting other feelings stop her from doing what she knew was right. Maybe she was flattered or is secretly attracted to him, despite her protestations. People are complicated and not always self-aware.

    1. If I were in this situation, I’d be worried about being polite, so that option would need to be pointed out to me.

      1. Kali,

        I think your reaction is normal. We, especially women, are conditioned to be nice, and we’re so nice that people take advantage of us.

        it’s so much easier to give advice in a situation like this than figure out what to do yourself.

        1. I received a very nice and expensive gift one Christmas but everyone in the office received the same thing.

        2. Yes, it is easier to think of the proper response afterwards!

          One office I worked at years ago while in college, we had a secret Santa gift exchange. I got the secret Santa gift which was a gag gift (all very fine) and an extra gift from one of the middle-aged women in the office.

          She had just gone through a divorce and took the trouble to make a special gift for me! What could I say? How should I have responded? Not only was it embarrassing to be given this extra gift which no one else recevied; but, it was also something that a middle-school girl might make for her crush – a cheap mirror with glued-on glitter and hearts written on it using lipstick!

          And, it isn’t just women who are conditioned to be “nice.” I didn’t know what to do or say; so, I thanked her for being so thoughtful and said I was embarrassed as I didn’t think we were exchanging anything but the secret Santa gifts. She said that was okay and that she just wanted me to know that she was thinking of me.

          So, yea, thinking about it afterwards is one thing; but, when it comes out of the blue no one really knows what to do or say.

          At the time, *I* was totally embarrassed for myself. Today, I am more embarrassed for her – what was she thinking giving such a gift to the college kid that worked in her office. I didn’t report to her or anything like that; but still it was awkward.

      2. I think it’s because women who do protest “too loudly” are said to be causing drama. We are conditioned to be polite, so when something like this happens, we don’t want to make a fuss about it to avoid “offending” the other person–and as the OP mentioned, to avoid “causing drama.” Suzanne is right: HE is the one creating drama here, but SHE is the one worried about being seen as the drama llama. Hmmmm…

  5. My boss received an expensive piece of tech swag (think tablet) as a freebie for sitting through a demo from a Major Internet Company We All Know. He (single male) reached out to me (married female) via email and said “I have too many of these already — is it something your kids would like?”

    I felt zero qualms about accepting it because I knew it was genuinely unwanted, it was swag rather than a purchase, it was obviously something nice he wanted to do for my kids, and he gave me an option to decline gracefully (and not on the spot face-to-face). My kids did indeed enjoy it, and it wasn’t awkward in the slightest. There are ways it could have been, but it wasn’t. If I’d declined it, I feel sure he would’ve offered to the next closest male coworker.

    I mention the genders several times because that’s the real issue here, not the gift. I’m willing to bet this isn’t the first inappropriate thing OP’s boss has done, just the most deniable. Somehow these kinds of bosses never do these things for their male junior colleagues…

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