Companies & Industries

The Ethics of Tipping and Regifting


Yes, you should show gratitude to those who help you throughout the year, but do so with sense and sensitivity

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.

Tipping Tips

Many people help you in your professional and personal life: the high school student who babysits your kids when you go out on the town, the doorman who welcomes you home every night with a friendly greeting, the person who cleans your house every other week. Face it—you couldn't enjoy your privileges or do your job as successfully without your network of helpers. John Donne's observation that "no man is an island" is particularly evident at the holidays.

So too is Fred Ebb's lyric, "Money makes the world go around." 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 (BusinessWeek.com, 8/16/07) 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 a fair way to honor one's debt of gratitude. 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.

Tips for Your Own Piggy Bank

But what if your business did poorly this year, or you were laid off, or your job was outsourced in May and you've been unsuccessfully looking for a job ever since? 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 (BusinessWeek.com, 2/8/07) 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 (most notably the U.S. 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.

Regifting Is Acceptable

Along with the phrases "low talker," and "not that there's anything wrong with that," Seinfeld introduced the term "regifting" into the popular lexicon. However, the practice of giving an unwanted gift to someone else is surely as old as the custom of gift giving.

Thus, one may legitimately ask: "Is it ethical to give someone else a present I was given but don't need or want?" The answer may surprise you: 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. As the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows wider, we have an ever stronger obligation to ensure that others benefit from our blessings. 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. If you're a huge fan of The Andy Griffith Show and you already have the complete series on DVD, regifting a duplicate of season three to your friend who also loves the show is just another way of saying, "Thanks for being my friend." And meaning it.

Rules of Regifting

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 (BusinessWeek.com, 1/10/07) 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. Nevertheless, we all have people in our lives with this need, and, if we truly care about them, we should honor this wish, as unpleasant as it may be to wear that bizarre tie or display the cheap plastic cuckoo clock with Erik Estrada's picture on it—at least when we invite the gift giver over for dinner.

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.


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