In December people get a little weird

It's December, which means gift baskets in the office, which means people are going to get a little weird. Do everyone a favor and be the exception to the rule.

A business owner once told me that every year at Christmas, he sent a box of liqueur-filled chocolate champagne corks to one of his corporate customers, with an enclosed note: "For all our friends at ___ Corp., Best wishes, etc...." One day he mentioned the candy in a meeting with representatives from that company. It seemed none had ever laid eyes on the bonbons. "I can only assume the boss kept them for himself," said the business owner. "I can't blame him. They were very good chocolates."

It is the season--and that means your company is probably awash in cookie baskets, tins of flavored popcorn, and sausage samplers with multiple dipping mustards.

Food--particularly office food--makes people behave strangely. Place the cocoa-dusted truffles next to the printer and see how many employees suddenly require hard copies of the staff directory. Count how often one person strolls casually up to the table bearing pumpkin bread, cuts off a wafer-thin slice, and then hurries back to her desk as though suddenly remembering an urgent call.

The greatest temptations are baskets of gourmet goodies in individual jars or packets designed to be taken home rather than consumed on-site. In offices there exists an unspoken protocol for handling such manna, which most often arrives from vendors or business partners. After collecting the package from reception, the designated recipient hastens back to his workspace to unwrap it in privacy. If it is a gift basket, he skims off one or two premium items (definitely the bottle of Bordeaux; maybe the chocolate-dipped strawberries, too) and secretes them in his bag or briefcase to take home. He rearranges the remaining articles to conceal the gaps and carries the basket out to the office's established depository of communal swag. Back at his desk, he broadcasts an e-mail: "Treats, courtesy of our friends at Falldaroll Inc., are available first come, first served in the kitchenette."

Free food is fun--it may be equally fun for your sales manager and your receptionist. However, the former can afford to buy such treats for herself. So consider telling those on your executive team that when gifts arrive in the office they should steer clear until everyone else has taken what he or she wants. (That applies to nonfood items as well.) You might also suggest that when managers receive presents they bring the goodies around and offer them to everyone, starting with the lowest-paid employees. That tactic also avoids penalizing hard workers who sit for hours engrossed in their jobs, finally emerging to find a box of Styrofoam peanuts. If an employee is absent, be sure a choice item is left on his desk.

The CEO, of course, will be the last to partake of holiday treats--unless it's food prepared by a staff member as a gift for the office. In that case, the boss should be first in line and loudest in her praise.