From the December 2001 issue of Startups

For many entrepreneurs, the holiday season is typically fraught with decisions about what gifts to give your clients and employees. But this season, coming just a few months after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, the idea of gift-giving is taking on a whole new dimension.

Now more than ever, you need to be especially sensitive to clients' and employees' emotions, regardless of whether your recipients were personally affected by the tragedy. "I anticipate corporate gift-giving this Christmas to be very understated," says Joan Lindsey-Mullikin, assistant professor of marketing at Babson College. Gift-giving in general would have been curtailed, at least to some degree, due to the recession-but add to that the severity of the situation as a result of the terrorist attacks, and this no doubt will be a solemn holiday season."

Many businesses have even decided to give to charities in lieu of gifts this season, particularly if they give gifts to clients. When it comes to employees, though, you might be better off consulting with them first. Says Charlotte Ford, author of 21st Century Etiquette, "You can ask [employees] if they would rather that you took the money that you were going to give them and give it to a [charitable] organization."

If your employees prefer to receive a gift, though, having already donated money to different charities themselves, don't fight it, says Marjorie Brody, a motivational speaker and president and founder of Brody Communications Ltd., a Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, business consulting firm. "Everyone is so unhappy right now and concerned about jobs and everything, I think to give gifts to them is still going to be important," she says.

Gift Ideas
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So what kinds of gifts are appropriate? Says Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career, "It might be a holiday candle they could burn when the family is together, something that gives light and warmth and conveys togetherness and thoughtfulness." "Comfort" gifts, such as spa treatments and massages, are also good, and will surely help reduce stress levels at work.

If you choose to give gifts to clients instead of donations in their name, gifts with a patriotic theme are likely to be well-received this season. "We're getting a big interest in anything that's patriotic-anything with a flag on it is selling a lot," says Lori Humphrey, president of advertising specialty firm AdGap Integrated Marketing.

Joan Killian Gallagher, president and founder of Warden Brooks Ltd., a Stratford, Connecticut, maker of corporate gifts, has combined patriotic gifts with a donation to a charitable organization, and many of her clients have decided to do the same.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is the spirit of the season. Gifts are important, but what's more important, as Casperson puts it, "is to [verbally] express appreciation for [your] staff. It's an appropriate time to get people together and express appreciation for their efforts."