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I work as the team lead for my team. Today I received a gift of boxed wine from a fellow team lead of another team that I worked closely with for the past year, as a symbol of goodwill for the upcoming holidays.

Last year, I lost my girlfriend to a DWI driver and as a result personally feel very uncomfortable accepting this gift. I do not drink, and the gift brings back painful memories.

I simply said I do not drink and that personal for reasons, I cannot accept the gift. I also stressed I appreciated the show of goodwill and thanked him for his intentions. However, my coworker appeared embarrassed which I did not intend. This is an issue I am not willing to compromise on and want to remain firm.

Could there be better ways of declining a gift from a coworker due to a personal reason?

How could I have mitigated any discomfort for the coworker?

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    However, my coworker appeared embarrassed This seem more like he his embarrassed not because the declined gift, but because he brought it back bad memories. (Sure a lot of us have unfurtunly go through that) – William-H-M Dec 21 '17 at 12:53
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    I don't see why people are suggesting re-gifting. Just getting the gift brought back painful memories. I can't imagine what giving it to someone else would bring back. – mikeazo Dec 21 '17 at 17:10
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    I would not bring up the issue with the coworker. Accept the gift graciously and dispose of it as you see fit. Also - I suggest grief counseling by a licensed professional. To blame an inanimate object for the negligent, horrible actions of another person is not healthy. The alcohol didn't cause the death. The other driver's car didn't cause the death. The other driver's criminal negligence did. – Wesley Long Dec 21 '17 at 19:21
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    Note that it is absolutely, totally normal to decline gifts of alcohol, for folks who do not drink alcohol. Many times in my life I have given a gift of alcohol (perhaps to a business colleague) and they have very simply said "Oh, thanks but I don't drink." You take it back and say "Oh sorry!" and move along. it's nothing. This is completely commonplace and normal. Indeed, if the other party was "embarrassed" that person is at fault and is being bizarre. (Realize that, just to begin with, about half the world belongs to religions forbiding alcohol.) So ... – Fattie Dec 22 '17 at 11:20
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    .. again, it is absolutely, totally normal to decline gifts of alcohol. Indeed, alcohol as a gift is basically inappropriate in a business setting, it's a tricky one. So if the other person was "embarrassed" they are completely silly and inappropriate. End of story. – Fattie Dec 22 '17 at 11:22
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You handled this well. A colleague's understandable embarrassment at unintentionally committing a faux pas is not something you can control. If you have to decline a gift, whatever it is, you only have to do so professionally and respectfully and it sounds like you did that. It's not unsurprising that your colleague had an unpolished reaction to a rejected gift or he may have simply realised in the moment that alcohol in particular makes for a bad gift to people you don't know well. About the only thing you could or should do in that situation is to move on by changing the topic to something work-related or ending the conversation. After thanking your coworker for the gift of course.

It sounds like you didn't have any trouble with how to phrase your reply when you declined this gift, but the below is a general script you could follow, adapted from Alison Green:

This was very kind / thoughtful of you. You couldn't have known but I can't accept this [/ I don't drink] for personal reasons so I’m going to give this back to you and hope you’ll give it to a loved one or even use it yourself. You’ve already given me the best gift just by [your excellent input on Project X / being awesome to work with / being such an asset to the team]. Thank you and I hope [we can continue to work well together / I can count on you for Project Y / ...].

The key points are to express the appropriate amount of thankfulness, make it clear you can't and won't accept the gift, don't go into any detail about the reason that you're rejecting it, if possible thank them for a specific case where they helped you, and if relevant express that you'd like to continue your cooperation in the future.

The nature of the gift is ultimately not relevant. Plenty of cultures, religions or people have issues with accepting gifts. For other people in a similar situation: if you're willing to discuss the details on why you can't accept a gift you can do so but you never have to. "Personal reasons" is really enough. Anyone who keeps asking after that is simply being nosy to the point of rudeness.

  • "A colleague's understandable embarrassment at unintentionally committing a faux pas is not something you can control." I can't really agree with you on that point Lilienthal. Say I give a gift of a big pork roast to a colleague. The colleague says: "Heh! Actually I'm Jewish!" Obviously, I reply "Oh! Sorry man, heh!" and obviously take it back and obviously that's the end of it. In that example scenario: if I act all "embarrassed" and cause further problems - I'm a total ass. It would be unforgivable. – Fattie Dec 22 '17 at 11:28
  • Lilienthal absolutely hits the nail on the head with don't go into any detail about the reason. I find this QA quite confusing, particularly given how many USA folks are on the list. Given the large number of people from religions like Mormon, Muslim, Hindu etc in the US, not to mention political sensitivity to various sexual/political groups - it's an utterly commonplace thing in the workplace that certain gifts are politely turned down. – Fattie Dec 22 '17 at 11:30
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When I used to go to church, the priest was an ex abusive alcoholic. Some people didn't realise so he often had bottles of whiskey and re-donate them to other people.

I wouldn't have rejected the gift, I would have just donated it to my team, and thanked the team leader. My feelings on alcohol shouldn't affect other peoples (most people don't commit DWI).

If my colleague had remarked on why i'd donated it, depending on the situation, I would have explained a combination of (A) How my whole team deserved recognition for their good-work and (B) how i don't touch alcohol due to personal reasons (expanding on that as appropriate, either by explaining the DWI issue, or not, depending on my relation to that person, how public knowledge that was anyway and how I felt on sharing personal info - I might leave B out if i didn't want to bring it up).

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    I appreciate looking at other comments that "I couldn't accept the gift" is a firm point, if you can't compromise on that then you handled it as best you could already. – Tim Dec 21 '17 at 9:58
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Since you clearly mentioned you do not drink, I am sure he did not expect you to start drinking wine just because he gifted you. I think he was more embarrassed by the fact that his gift was returned.

How could I have mitigated any discomfort for the coworker?

One thing you could have probably asked him (if you were okay with it), that if you could re-gift it to someone else (maybe someone who cannot afford it otherwise and someone you know WOULD drink). That way you would not have declined the gift and at the same time you would have made it clear that you cannot keep the gift. He would also be happy at the that the gift was not returned back to him. 'Donating' it could give a sense of joy to both of you (and to the receiver!).

  • Somehow I doubt the OP would feel very comfortable (re)gifting wine to someone when they dislike alcohol so much... – AllTheKingsHorses Dec 21 '17 at 9:16
  • @AllTheKingsHorses. Yes that is surely possible. At the same time, he did not mention he is discouraging anyone else to drink. I am just going with latter assumption. – PagMax Dec 21 '17 at 11:32
  • @PagMax If that was true, accepting the gift and then throwing it away at home would have been the best solution. – Jeroen Dec 21 '17 at 15:07
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    @Jeroen, I disagree that accepting and throwing it away would have been the best solution. Because then next year the colleague gives you another bottle of wine and you get all those painful memories back. – mikeazo Dec 21 '17 at 17:11
  • @Jeroen if WHAT is true, throwing away the gift after accepting is the “best” solution ? – PagMax Dec 22 '17 at 7:04
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I'm very sorry for your loss. However, I think you should've accepted. That's how you wouldn't have hurt your colleague's feelings. It is the gesture you accept, not the alcohol. You can get rid of the box afterwards, you don't have to keep it or give it away.

That said, if you are determined to reject it anyway, I think you have handled it in the best way possible. You explained your reasons, and expressed the due gratitude.

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    OP has clearly mentioned 'accepting' the gift was not an option and he is not willing to compromise on that. – PagMax Dec 21 '17 at 5:39
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    Yes, I'm suggesting a different idea of what the gift is. Surely, the OP is against accepting alcohol, but if the gesture and the time their colleague spent on the present are perceived as the true gift, then they might reconsider their reaction. To me, gift giving should be about the giver, and the receiver should always show their gratitude. I would express my deeper feelings about it only to people who are really close to me. But that's just my two cents. – JohnSomeone Dec 21 '17 at 5:53
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    I would have done it this way as well. Accept the gift, acted very happy, maybe said a few nice things to him, then tossed it out later. While I understand it is a painful memory, the other person doesn't know that and will only remember you didn't accept the gift. If he holds resentment, then explaining it later won't help then since the feeling set in. – Dan Dec 21 '17 at 14:07
  • @PagMax Giving a wine bottle is a common gift during Christmas. I don't think the co-worker is expecting you to chug it all down right there. How would he know you tossed it out? Plus I don't think you can return alcohol so he's out of money and left embarrassed. – Dan Dec 21 '17 at 14:09
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    @Dan i don’t think it matters if the gifter knows what he has done with the wine later. It matters that the OP has accepted the gift and from what I understand OP does not want to send that message. Whether he uses it later or not is not important here – PagMax Dec 21 '17 at 14:25
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Sorry about your loss. I am very particular about accepting food/drink gifts from individuals unless it is in a factory wrapped condition. I had bad experience as a child that carried over to my adult life.

As such whenever individuals give me gift of food that they made and wrapped, I always accept it and be very happy about it. I don't eat it and toss it out, and feel a little guilty about it. However, the individual never knows that, and I never explain it to them.

If it is a group gift giving, then I can understand rejecting certain gifts since none of them were intended for you and you can easily explain it without hurt feelings. However, if a individual picked you out a gift, then I would accept the gift. If you must reject it, I think you handled it as best as you can. There's no way to explain it without going into your personal life. Maybe even write them up a nice card later on to say happy holidays and you wish them well. Maybe that will set things right that while you didn't accept their gift, you did so because you really can't drink alcohol for whatever reason.

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This is nothing really to worry about. From your colleagues point of view, he or she bought a well-meant present, which didn’t go down well for reasons your colleague couldn’t foresee, so he felt bad about this - but that’s just life. And of the “feeling bad” 90% is feeling bad for your loss, and 10% is about the unfortunate choice of present.

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