How to Resist Office Gift-Fund Pressure

Posted December 22, 2017 5:00 p.m. EST

Q: Recently I was asked to contribute to buy gifts for two co-workers, one who is retiring, the other a longtime manager who has been promoted. The requests were made via group email from my manager. The suggested amounts were $50 and $100, which in one case would add up to over $1,000 if everyone contributed. I felt this was excessive and that I was being coerced, given the way the money was being collected. It was even more irksome because I had issues with how both of these individuals had done their jobs.

Is there any recourse in a situation like this? Should I donate what I want and run the risk of appearing cheap and not a team player? Or just go along with the suggested amounts? — Anonymous

A: I think it’s fine to give as much or as little as you want or nothing at all. But yes, you do risk others passing judgment on you. Whether that’s really consequential will depend on your office culture, which you will have to judge yourself. But you can mitigate the risk if you find a polite but firm way of explaining.

Keep the part about having “issues” with these co-workers to yourself. In fact, stress that there’s nothing personal in your decision. Explain instead that you are only able to give $X amount, in line with your personal budgetary rules, or something along those lines. Thank your manager for understanding. (And remember to stick to this policy in the future.) In short, while that suggestion applies subtle pressure on everyone to conform, you can still call that bluff.

You should also probably avoid expressing any views about whether these gifts are excessive — but for the record, $1,000 does strike me as surprisingly generous. I’m not a fan of pressuring employees into gift schemes in general, and I think having a target amount in mind at the outset is a particularly bad idea. (As I’ve suggested in the past, a better practice for any workplace fundraising effort is some version of passing an envelope, letting people give what they want and making do with the result. A manager or organizer can try to set a tone by saying “I’m giving $50,” but the final decision should be up to the employee.)

Still, there’s one last thing to consider. Think of it as the cost of being right: the mental and emotional energy that goes into sorting out what’s wrong with this gift system, determining a more suitable alternative, defending your views, worrying about what your peers think and so on. Worth it? If so, stand your ground. But if this is a one-off, you might decide there are more useful ways to spend your time, and just chip in and forget about it.

Q: I recently had a job offer rescinded for unlikely — but technically plausible — reasons after I mentioned, while negotiating vacation details, that I am an Orthodox Jew. (I don’t think it would be worth the cost and time to sue.)

I wouldn’t want to work for a company that treats me poorly because of my religion. But I also want to find a job without facing discrimination. When is a good time to tell a potential employer about religious requirements? — Boston

A: While there’s no perfect moment to have this conversation, the answer may turn on how strongly you feel about the specific opportunity. There’s no reason to blurt out such details at the beginning of every interview. But if you’re deeper into the process for something that feels like a potential dream gig, it could be to your advantage to be proactive about raising any issue that’s important to you but that the employer might not anticipate — including religious requirements.

You avoid blindsiding people you’re interested in working with, and you can pre-emptively spin any possible snags — like how a vacation policy could be made to work with religious holidays. This gives you more control over how that discussion plays out.

You’re not obligated to make such disclosures, however. And it’s true that (as this column has noted before) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religion-based employment discrimination, so in this case, you could go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But bear in mind that employers are generally required to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs and practices “unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship,” as the EEOC site puts it. That could mean anything from compromised safety standards to “costing the employer more than a minimal amount.” The ambiguity in that language helps explain why religious-discrimination legal disputes have been on the rise.

So both job-seekers and employers should approach these matters with a spirit of open communication and mutual respect. Be clear about what’s important to you, but signal that you also understand what’s important to the company.