Sometimes no gift is the best choice

It's the season of gift-giving. And it's not just for close friends and family. We often give presents to employees or other co-workers. But that's not always a good idea. Sometimes no gift is the best choice.

So you probably have a pretty good idea what the kids want or your spouse. Or even what your in-laws might need. And of course, you are close enough to some friends to know what kind of gift will make them laugh. But beyond that gift-giving gets trickier.

I popped over to Emory University's Goizueta Business School where they're looking at this very topic. Assistant Professor Morgan Ward starts with this --- gift givers are motivated to please, but that's not enough.

"They want to make the recipient feel known and loved. Often times they give gifts, despite having the best intentions, that end of being pretty disappointing to recipients because of those two motivations," said Morgan Ward.

Here's the problem. This gift to your employees or a co-worker sends a relationship signal, and too often that gift ends up making the recipient feel bad or creeped out. Your gift to a co-worker might be saying, 'Hey I think we're closer than we really are.' Then the recipient is embarrassed and often ends up avoiding you afterward.

And bosses -- too often research shows your gift sends the signal that you don't really know that employee at all. For example, you give a gift certificate to a steak house and the employee is a vegetarian.  Or your gift card is to a restaurant that is not in the area where your employee actually lives.  That falls flat.

"What we found is that it's worse than giving nothing at all, said Ward. We feel devalued."

So what are you supposed to do? Well, again, the marketing research they're working on at Goizueta Business School shows, people prefer acknowledgment. Write your employees letters or cards and talk about how much you appreciate them. Details though. Mention something specific about a project and who that employee made it a success. They want to feel appreciated more than having a gift that attaches a monetary value to the relationship.