12/14/2012 02:29 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Holiday Tipping Guide

Many people help you in your professional and personal life: the high-school student who babysits your kids when you go out on the town, the doorman who welcomes you home every night with a friendly greeting, the person who cleans your house every other week. Face it -- you couldn't enjoy your privileges or do your job as successfully without your network of helpers. John Donne's observation that "no man is an island" is particularly evident at the holidays.

So, too, is Fred Ebb's lyric, "Money makes the world go around." Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the spirituality of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other seasonal celebrations with the crass commercialism that seems to grow every year. Nevertheless, because we have an ethical obligation to express our gratitude where appropriate, and money is one of the most appreciated of all gifts, it can be fitting to give cash to the helpers in our life.

How much you should give depends on three factors:

  • How much the person has helped you
  • What the relationship means to you
  • Your financial position

For someone who looked after your pet only once this year, a handwritten thank-you note or holiday card is appropriate. The person who did this five or six times during your business trips and vacations deserves more than that, so including cash or a check with the note is a fair way to honor one's debt of gratitude. If your doorman, mechanic or lawn cutter went above and beyond the call of duty in some way, this too can justify a monetary thank-you.

Tips for Your Own Piggy Bank

But what if your business did poorly this year, you were laid off or your job was outsourced in May and you've been unsuccessfully looking for a job ever since? If you don't have the financial resources to say "thanks" with cash, you have a right and an obligation not to give money as a gift. The ethical principle of fairness requires, in part, that we allocate scarce resources appropriately.

While most people would prefer to receive money, the following are acceptable options if you're not in a position to dole out the ducats:

  • Write a detailed letter to their bosses, explaining exactly how they helped you. Give them a copy of the letter, which could help them earn a promotion or raise.
  • Provide services free of charge for a specific project or a finite amount of time. Surely there is something you can do that would be appreciated and doesn't involve spending money.
  • Ask your helpers how you can help them. They may surprise you with something you wouldn't have considered but are in a position to do.

After all, some employers (most notably the U.S. federal government) prohibit some or all of their employees from accepting gifts of cash or non-cash gifts worth more than a small amount of money.

Bottom line: Find a way to honor both your duty to express gratitude and your responsibility to avoid running up personal debt. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others, and be as good to others as you are to yourself.

This was published originally on Bloomberg Businessweek Online.

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