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Holiday Regifting: What's the Ethical Thing to Do?

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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.

Still, 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. It's the ethically intelligent thing to do.

Second, as we saw with the tipping issue from my last blog post, 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 for Regifting
There are several caveats to keep in mind before you regift:

  • Do it soon. There is a statute of limitations for regifting. If the gizmo in question is old, dusty or out of season, you're out of luck. Next time, give it away right away.
  • Do it to someone who is 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 of all is do no harm, and since hurting someone's feelings harms that person (or at least your relationship with him or her), 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. (That clock actually sounds like something Quentin Tarantino would love, so you could always give it to him, which the person who gave you the gift would certainly find cool.)

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.

This was originally published in a slightly different form on Bloomberg Businessweek Online. See my additional comments to ABC News here about the ethics of regifting.

Watch excerpts from my keynote speech on ethical intelligence here.