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The Family Gives You a Gift…What Do You Do?

You walk into your last visit with Brayden’s family before the holidays. The visit goes well, and as you are wrapping up, Brayden’s mother hands you a giftwrapped gift and wishes you “Happy Holidays.” On the outside, you’re smiling and thanking her, but on the inside, you’re stumbling because your agency has a policy against employees accepting gifts from families. In that moment, you aren’t sure what to do. Do you graciously accept the gift to avoid offending the family, or do you politely decline, stating that unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to accept gifts.

What do you do?

Two Responsibilities to Keep in Mind

This is a hard one because you can feel torn between two very important responsibilities. First, you don’t want to offend the family, who has been kind enough to think of you during the holiday season. A key aspect of your work is building rapport with families, and you worry that declining their gift will affect this. In giving you a gift, the parent is likely sending you a message of gratitude for the work you do. Knowing this, it can be especially awkward to have to enforce an agency policy to avoid accepting gifts, which you also have a responsibility to follow.

Agency policies against accepting gifts are usually designed to help avoid conflicts of interest. By declaring such a policy, the agency is hoping to protect staff and families from situations where favors are expected for gifts. Just avoiding gifts completely is the policy of choice for many agencies, but following the policy is not always easy in the “real world.”

Considerations around Gift Giving and Receiving

So how do you manage both responsibilities? Consider these strategies:

Find out about the specifics of your agency’s policy – I’ve worked in programs that had blanket “no gift” policies, had loose policies that allowed providers to make the call, or allowed gifts under a certain dollar amount. I’ve also heard of a policy under which all gifts had to be shared program wide. For example, if a family gave a gift certificate to a restaurant, then the provider would use it to buy food for a staff meeting or to take the group out to lunch. Be sure that you know the specific expectations of your agency’s policy because this can guide what you do and help you avoid any problems.

Share the policy expectation with families early – Let families know about this policy early in their enrollment in your program. Put it in writing in the context of expectations for family participation in the program. Get it out in the open from the beginning, so families understand and providers can reference it. It is easier to decline a gift when the first time the parent hears about the policy is not when the gift is exchanging hands.

Be honest in the moment – If you really cannot accept the gift, graciously decline but let the parent know why. Tell her that, while you appreciate her thoughtfulness and are very touched by her generosity, unfortunately your agency policy prevents you from accepting the gift. Yes, it will still be awkward, but if you must decline, do it gracefully.

If you feel you must accept the gift… – If you must accept because you’re concerned about offending the family, accept and then let your supervisor know why you did. If possible, share the gift with your colleagues. If the parent made you cookies, put them in a common area and invite others to enjoy them. If you are given a gift that cannot be shared (like a basket of soaps), ask your supervisor for advice. If you accept a gift and don’t realize it (like I did when I accepted a Christmas card and opened it back in the office to find a gift card inside), let your supervisor know and share it with the program.

From the other perspective, don’t give gifts to families – You may feel generous yourself and want to give the children you work with a small token at the holidays or at birthdays. As a general rule, this is probably not a good idea because your generosity could have side effects such as the parent thinking she needs to reciprocate (but maybe she cannot afford it). Word could get out that you gave certain gifts to certain families, or to some families and not all, etc. Really, the best gift you can give to the child and family is your time, attention, and support, so stick with that. 🙂

How have you handled the gift giving or receiving situation? Do you have an agency policy, or have you had to make the decision for yourself? What did you do?

Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!

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