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I'm a manager of a mid-sized team. I sent each of them a small Christmas gift worth about $20. (We're all remote due to COVID). All members of my team sent me a nice thank you e-mail.

Separately, my wife ordered another gift through our account. She intended this gift go to my daughter, but it wound up going to one of my employees. (Probably my employee's address was in our account's recent history, and my wife picked it without even realizing it). The gift that was accidentally sent to my employee was worth about $920.

It took me a while to realize this, and my employee has had this gift for a good week and has already sent me a very nice thank you note. This is extremely awkward, but I need to explain to her to return this item to me. What is the most polite and professional way of asking her to return this item, which she has likely already been using?

UPDATE

Well, I spoke with her on the phone and explained the situation. She was understanding and agreed to return the item. We were supposed to meet at a parking lot near her house (she didn't want me at her house, due to COVID). I waited there for almost 6 hours, and she didn't show up, and she didn't respond to my calls or texts. Today, she's officially on vacation and not working.

Good grief, this is a mess!

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – DarkCygnus Dec 23 '20 at 3:22
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    Sorry if my question sounds silly. Do you mean USD by using the $ sign? – iBug Dec 23 '20 at 3:42
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    @iBug yes, it is USD. – NKB Dec 24 '20 at 17:30
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    (re: you waited for 6 hours at the agreed meeting spot, then she ghosted your calls and texts) Is it possible that she's already sold the item on? – seventyeightist Dec 27 '20 at 20:55
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    @TymoteuszPaul I wondered, but based on the information presented I think it's unlikely to a wind-up, based on my intuition, primarily because "what's the motive"? (i.e. I couldn't think of one). So I think, for whatever reason, they did wait around – seventyeightist Dec 30 '20 at 22:34

12 Answers 12

106

I'm going to leave this as-is, but suffice to say it was written against an earlier version of the question with less context. Specifically, before the value of the gift was known.


I disagree with both other answers. I think you should let the employee know it was sent to them in error, and assuming it’s feasible then let them keep it anyway.

Trying to find some work-related justification is going to open up a whole host of potential problems, from accusations of favouritism/tokenism through to more damaging rumours (depending on the type/value of the gift, you being a man and their boss, them being a woman, well, I’m sure you get the idea).

Letting them keep the gift still gets you most of the appreciation that actually gifting it would have, and then you can laugh this off as a funny mistake if anyone asks.

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    Yes, it's important to let the recipient know it's a mistake to avoid future confusion and rumors, and relieves the awkwardness perfectly. – iBug Dec 22 '20 at 15:33
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    the favoritism concern is big – New Alexandria Dec 22 '20 at 15:48
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    With the edit to the question including the amount, this is the way to go, and honesty is what saves the day here. This is just a silly mistake, and most reasonable people will return it without blinking. – Joel Etherton Dec 22 '20 at 21:15
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    @Kaz You may want to edit the "Both Other Answers" part - there's significantly more than 3 answers now. – Zibbobz Dec 23 '20 at 2:39
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    Considering the price, I do not think letting them keep the item is "feasible". While it will be disappointing for you to ask for it back, if they're a reasonable person they should understand the mistake and be willing to let you take it back. – Herohtar Dec 23 '20 at 15:59
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When in doubt; be open, be honest, and take responsibility for your own actions.

Since you already received a thank-you note for the item, send a response to them clarifying what occurred so that no misunderstanding takes place. Explain to them the following things:

  • You are happy to receive their thank-you note
  • You sent the item in error (do not bother explaining your wife's involvement, just tell them it was an error)
  • Tell them they can keep the item - you do not want to put this responsibility on them. Absolve them of it.
  • Of course, purchase a new gift for your daughter.

It's important in this process to explain to your employee the error - otherwise there is a big possibility they will tell your other employees about it, and there will be jealousy among your employees.

This way, they may mention the mistake and have a small laugh about it among each other, but will not harbor any ill will towards you.

In short, there was a mistake made, and you should own it. Do not demand the gift back, but let them know about the mistake, and get your daughter a new gift.

Edit: As mentioned in the comments, the only exception I might make is if this is an exceptionally expensive gift - in which case I would recommend instead privately asking for it back, after fully explaining the situation. Be sure to apologize too - this is a mistake on your part, after all.

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    Do you still think letting them keep the item is the best course of action for something that costs almost $1000? I would agree with your answer if the gift was an order of magnitude cheaper, but this feels like quite a lot of money to me (perhaps I'm just not bringing enough bacon home). – TooTea Dec 23 '20 at 20:40
  • @TooTea If it were such an extremely expensive gift, I might consider requesting it back- as the extraordinary cost of it might warrant returning it. Otherwise, I would not suggest asking for it back. – Zibbobz Dec 24 '20 at 0:33
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The update with the price of the gift changes this question's premise significantly. A gift that's almost a thousand dollars likely is a high value consumer electronics good, like a high-end smartphone or tablet or a midrange laptop. A gift of that type is something that's generally not gifted to employees for Christmas unless it's a big company and the employees are mid tier executives or higher.

Call your employee, because this is something you need to do as personally as possible. Tell her that you're sorry, that there has been a mix-up in your Christmas shopping and a gift meant for your daughter was accidentally sent to her. Tell her that you'd like her to send the gift back to your house in the original packaging so you can then send it to your daughter. Tell her that if necessary, you will come pick up the gift at her house or another location that's acceptable to her, or otherwise reimburse the shipping costs if not possible.

This is a very delicate situation, but hopefully your employee will understand that you made a mistake. Depending on how well you get along with your employee, you might have to make costs, either for an alternative gift to make it up to her or for some sort of legal procedure to get her to return it, but hopefully neither will be necessary.

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    "Tell her that you'd like her to send the gift back to your house in the original packaging so you can then send it to your daughter." Nope. Try to arrange a time that you can collect the gift. Your end made the mistake, your end needs to go out of its way. Failing that, I'd agree to send it for 10x what it would cost me. – enhzflep Dec 23 '20 at 0:07
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    I agree that he should try to pick it up. And he should not ask for the original packaging. He should expect to get it back in whatever condition is most convenient for the employee. – csjacobs24 Dec 23 '20 at 0:15
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    That. But not this : "Tell her that you'd like her to send the gift back". Instead make a plea : ... was a mistake. Would it be possible for you to send it back... - Other than that you're SoL w/o lawyers if the goal is to be polite, +1 – Mazura Dec 23 '20 at 2:45
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    At a minimum, if picking it up at a convenient time for the employee is impossible (such as if they're far away), it's on you to make it as easy as possible to ship it; the employee certainly shouldn't have to pay for the shipping or have kept the packaging, and ideally shouldn't have to track down suitable packaging during a pandemic. I'd at least try to send a shipping label and packaging (USPS lets you order boxes online, and you could separately order cushioning material if needed) or hire a messenger to pick up the item or otherwise make it as hassle-free as possible. – Zach Lipton Dec 23 '20 at 6:32
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    upvote for addressing the question instead of saying "just let them keep it" like the top voted answers do. I agree with the comments about making it easier on the employee. – Dean MacGregor Dec 23 '20 at 13:16
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In light of the high value edit (and I am presuming this is a piece of diamond jewellery or similar), my advice is:

Raise a concern in a slightly ambiguous email / message to set expectations in advance, and then ask to phone to explain the situation.

If you phone her up and ask for it back, you're going to shock her and put her on the spot. It would be better to indicate in an email first that there is a problem, and then explain over the phone what the problem is. Something vaguely along the lines of:

Hi ...,

I've got a delicate problem of my own making I need to talk with you about. It concerns the recent Christmas gifts I gave to everyone in the team and it is causing me a great deal of consternation at the moment. Would you be free sometime this afternoon for a phone call to talk about it?

Thank you, ...

This hopefully hints enough at the problem that she'll start putting two and two together, and will already start considering possibly giving you the gift back, or something of that nature. Then the phone call won't be so much of a shock, and will probably go well.

Then on the phone call apologise profusely, explain completely and exactly and honestly what has happened, that it's very substantially expensive and that you really can't afford to give away that much, and ask whether she'd be willing to send it back in exchange for the gift you intended to give.

Then send her the cheap glass jewellery or whatever - some equivalent but cheaper gift.

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    This is the best answer in my opinion. This is exactly what I would do, and I think it'll avoid most awkwardness. She's probably been wondering why the heck you sent her a $920 gift all along and will immediately offer to return it to you. – csjacobs24 Dec 23 '20 at 0:12
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    It might be a good idea to mention already in the email that one of the packages was sent to her by accident. "I need to talk to you about the Christmas gift" sounds a bit ambiguous, the employee might think that the OP wants to ask for a favor in return, or whatever. – lawful_neutral Dec 23 '20 at 1:28
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    @csjacobs24 One of the reasons I suspect it may be jewellery is that unless you're skilled and knowledgeable it's actually quite difficult to guess how much it costs. Telling apart a steel ring from different grades of real silver / white gold, or cut glass from cubic zirconium or real (natural/industrial) diamond isn't trivial. She might have been handed a white gold ring with a large natural diamond and assumed it's steel and glass. – niemiro Dec 23 '20 at 11:25
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    I agree with @lawful_neutral's comment. As worded here, the email is ambiguous enough that if forwarded out of context, it could support allegations of impropriety. Better to avoid the email, or spell out the problem in it, IMHO. – bob Jan 12 at 16:27
  • 'Shock her and put her on the spot' - don't you think that happened when she received the 'gift'? The norm is $20 so she gets a gift worth nearly 50 times as much. Even someone of average intelligence would have found a way of questioning that. – Tim Jan 13 at 12:57
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Don't. (EDIT2: If it's $20 to $50, it's not worth getting into an argument just before a holiday over a cheap gift, if the gift is $900, then you'll take a different strategy)

It's going to annoy your employee and you probably won't even get the gift back with enough time to re-gift it. You'll become a punch-line to a joke. The best way to handle this is to buy a new gift for your daughter and possibly re-order another one of the gift that went out by accident for her. Don't let them find out they were gifted in error and just make up a reason why their performance deserved a reward. If your manager asks, then you can tell them the full story. (EDIT2: I'm not saying to lie blatantly, but a gift is like a performance bonus or an award, finding out you got it by accident is going to sting, even if they let you keep it. If the gift is cheap enough it's worth it to just keep the good will and deflect when the person asks, possibly sending a note to HR letting them know what happened.)

Of course if you absolutely have to get the gift back, then call up the employee and grovel hard. "I'm really, really sorry, I know this is stupid but that gift was intended for my daughter and it went to the wrong address, if you're willing to (drop it off / ship it back / let us pick it up) I'll replace it later and gift you 'y' as well." Make sure they know that they don't have to, as they might have given it to one of their kids by now... Don't try to send a "serious" email, as that ship has long sailed.

EDIT: If the gift was not a $20 gift card but a $920 laptop, then the phone conversation you're going to have is going to be more awkward, but if you must get it back then the advice is the same. Make sure you call them on the phone and have the conversation live.

Be aware that you still probably won't get it back in any reasonable time as calling someone up just before Christmas to get a gift back off them is hardly going to fill them with enthusiasm, especially if they've been using it for over a week. Odds are that even if they stop using it, they won't postpone their holiday plans to help you ship this thing so you won't get it before middle of January unless you drive over there yourself.

One other thing, in regards to dealing with cheap gifts given by accident, in my opinion it's like giving a performance trophy by accident; it's better for morale to say something like "You helped me with x, and that saved at least a day or so / helped me get a bonus / etc..." than to try and pry it back off them. Especially if they have already bragged to others about their performance being recognized, if you make them take that back and humiliate them in front of others, most people are going to carry a grudge.

This applies here as we don't know what the gift is, but if it's something like a console then taking it back might mean that they employee will have to take a gift from their children that they can't just swap out. They're going to hate you for putting them in this position and they won't forget it. In that instance, I'd let them keep it, even if it's $920; even if you have to explain it was an accident.

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    Why are people assuming that OPs Daughter is a child? It makes more sense that the daughter is an adult as this would explain why the wife was picking an address to send the gift to (instead of just using their own home address) – EdHunter Dec 22 '20 at 8:37
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    I would upvote but for the "Don't let them find out they were gifted in error...make up a reason" This is awful advice. – SiHa Dec 22 '20 at 10:35
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    @SiHa If I found out that I'd gotten a gift by accident I'd feel awful, telling them it was a mistake removes all the good feelings of gifting them, and you still probably won't get your gift back. What's your suggestion for fielding this question from them, what would you suggest telling the receiver? – Rastilin Dec 22 '20 at 10:43
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    @Rastilin Lying to them is just compounding the two errors you have already made (sending it to the wrong place, and not immediately contacting them about it). In the end, it could all blow up. Better to have a slightly wounded pride now that a lawsuit later. Lying (in a professional relationship) is never ever the answer. – SiHa Dec 22 '20 at 11:37
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    With OP's recent edit about the worth of item, letting him keep the item is probably off limits. – Neinstein Dec 22 '20 at 21:18
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In my opinion, the amount of rudeness of asking for the gift back is inversely proportional to the value of the gift. An employee is more likely to be skeptical of their gift if it is more expensive, like "really is this for me?" kind of thing, and so when you explain "no, that's not really for you", it's less awkward. Since $920 is a lot of money (I presume; it's a lot of money for me but maybe you're uber-rich or something XD), the amount of awkward of explaining the situation is likely to be less (it will still exist, but you're likely to get more understanding, on balance, than if it was a less expensive gift).

That said, the longer you wait, the more weight you give to the "yes, it really is for you" explanation, and the more reluctant the employee will be to return it to you. To take an extreme example, if it's been like a year, then they may have already used the gift extensively and may not want to give it back because it's "theirs". So, the sooner you explain it, the better.

The other thing to note is that, if you do not explain the situation, this might come up as favouratism in the office. In the best case scenario, if the employee brings up this issue in the office, it will make you look bad for giving one employee a very expensive gift, and the other members of the team will feel demoralized, like they are not being recognized. In the worst case scenario, if the employee is of the opposite sex, it could get really questionable.

Basically, you should talk to that employee, by voice helps a lot (phone or in person, email is not the best for this) and explain the situation. Don't get too deep into that it was your wife if you can, just explain you misclicked when making the order and the gift was supposed to be for your daughter. Ask nicely for it to be returned to you, and probably it will be; no self-respecting person really wants to steal from another person's child.

  • "the amount of rudeness of asking for the gift back is inversely proportional to the value of the gift" - that's a good point missing from the other answers. Asking back a $5 gift is embarassing and rude. Not asking back a $1000 gift is weird - all kinds of favoritism, bribery and tax evasion concerns may arise. – sleske Jan 14 at 10:13
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I would first consider all possible alternatives to asking for the item back.

Is the item so expensive that it can't sensibly be written off? I would suggest that anything worth (to you) a good day's pay or less can be written off.

Secondly, is the item still going to be giftable to your daughter once it is unwrapped, manhandled, used, and the box or wrapping potentially thrown away? There's no point asking for second-hand goods back.

Thirdly, if the gift can't be replaced in time for Xmas, is your daughter old enough to have a sense of humour about the situation and wait for a new order to be delivered to you after Xmas? A wry honesty about the situation would likely be the best policy.

Others have mentioned the potential for workplace issues to arise, such as a perception of favouritism that may arise if the gift is of obviously higher value than the others.

if special treatment of this one employee can't be retrospectively justified (e.g. by being the only woman on the team, by being lower paid than others, by long service, by her particular role and closeness to you, or by a genuinely outstanding work ethic), then once again honesty and humour may be the best policy.

Let her know that there was an ordering error by your wife, but that you'd like her to keep the gift anyway. Perhaps you can couch the approach in terms that you wouldn't want the outsized value of the gift to look unseemly - you still want to collect the gratitude for gladly making the gift, you just wouldn't want it to imply an unprofessional motive, but rather that a blunder has put you in the position of being able to make a randomly chosen employee extra happy this Xmas.

If you still find a compelling reason to ask for the return of the item (and it would be interesting to hear that reason), then the only possible thing to do is to be braced for the mild ill-will you might create, explain the situation, and ask when you may be able to collect.

EDIT In light of the clarification that the item sent in error is worth almost $1k, that is obviously far too much to disregard, and you are well into territory where the beneficiary might reasonably have raised questions.

It is now obviously a straightforward matter of explaining how the mistake came about, apologising for the hassle caused, and asking for the item to be returned to you as soon as they can.

Make clear, if there is any doubt about it, that all gifts were from your personal funds and personal account, and that is how the confusion arose, as people will usually be more sympathetic to a manager who is acting from goodwill in a personal capacity, than one who is putting it all on the company credit card.

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    I think "justifying" the extra gift by saying "she's the only woman on the team, so I gave her an extra" is going to make things a lot worse... – Erik Dec 22 '20 at 9:58
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    @Erik, you wouldn't say that explicitly, good grief no, but if three fellas get a cheap packet of socks each and the only woman on the team gets a £100 makeup set, you've less to worry about than if three women got a cheap packet of socks each then a fourth got the £100 makeup set. I'm not endorsing that as a proper order of things, I'm just suggesting that the margin of appreciation may be larger and the scrutiny less - it needn't even be attributed to a specific intent to give women extra, but to a fumbling male boss just doubling up on what he bought his own daughter(!). – Steve Dec 22 '20 at 10:58
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    "you've less to worry about than if three women got a cheap packet of socks each then a fourth got the £100 makeup set" Not sure about that, in the first case (with 1 woman and 3 men) it would be sexism, in the second case it would be favoritism. – lawful_neutral Dec 23 '20 at 2:11
  • @Steve might want to update your answer since OPs edit as it seems it can't be easily written off – Fred Stark Dec 23 '20 at 3:54
  • @FredStark, thanks for pointing out the change. – Steve Dec 23 '20 at 6:24
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The edit to the post (with the price) changes everything and IMO makes old answers less relevant.

my employee has had this gift for a good week and has already sent me a very nice thank you note

This is a mistake on the employee's side as well. In a lot of countries and companies it's considered to be very unprofessional to keep a gift that is so expensive (if it's coming from a person like their manager and not the company itself). The professional behavior would be to call the manager to make sure it's really intended for her, refuse the gift because of its price and, if the manager insists that she keeps it, contact the company's compliance officer/HR/whomever in the company is responsible for this.

Of course, in your case one call would resolve this since it's actually a mistake.

This makes it perfectly fine to just call her, explain that one of the packages was sent to her address by accident and ask to send it back or let you pick it up. Of course you should reimburse shipping costs. You can say something like:

Hi [employee name], sorry to disturb you, but I've just realized I made a big mistake while ordering Christmas presents. I forgot to change the shipping address and a present that was intended for my daughter went to you instead. You've been probably already wondering why you received two presents. Can I drop by and pick it up when it's convenient to you?

It's better to do it as soon as possible, she might give this item to somebody else as a Christmas present.

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    It depends what the gift is -- she may not have realized it is a $1000 gift, e.g. if it's a piece of jewellery and she doesn't know much about that (I'm a jewellery noob and couldn't necessarily distinguish one that cost $1000 from one that cost $50 e.g. if the expensive one was diamond/platinum and the cheaper one was a diamond-looking stone that is actually much cheaper and silver-plated!). – seventyeightist Dec 27 '20 at 20:47
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Honestly, I don't see any problem with this. You should just ask for it back. No point in beating around the bush, that would make it weirder. If you don't like where something is heading, then don't let it just happen. Also, it's a 900$ gift. It may seem pretty weird to them that you sent a gift like that to an employee, like you might have an ulterior motive or something.

If I were your employee, I would personally completely understand if you wanted it back, as would any sensible person. So don't fuss about it too much, don't make it a big deal, and just ask for it back.

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Maybe I am just dense but I do not see why you need to tip toe around this and the longer you wait the weirder it is going to be. I don't think this is a situation that needs to be handled delicately at all (not that you have to be rude, but I don't think you have to go out of your way to be extra polite). Not only did the gift go to the wrong person but it was really expensive to begin with. I don't see why any reasonable person would be offended even if you asked for it back. It wasn't even you who made the mistake to begin with.

I worked at a place where laptops and tablets were being gifted at Christmas to people who had worked there more than two years. One guy was 2 months short of 2 years but the owner decided he was close enough so he got the gift anyways. But he quit the company 3 months later and the boss asked for the gift back before he left. These were personal gifts but were also being justified as tax-deductable for business expenses in that employees could use them when working away from home at client sites in addition to their regularly supplied work laptop. That was probably the justification used to ask for the gift back. Anyways, at the time, we all agreed that was a dick move, but I don't think any of us in that office would think that you asking for the gift back in your scenario is rude.

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(Based on your latest edit / revision 5 of the question)

Honestly, it's quite absurd for a suggestion of over-escalating, but you really should consider it this time. Tough times call for tough measures.

Please always be careful and cautious, and it never hurts to spend some time reviewing your company's policies and local laws about overly expensive gifts under work relationships and within a work-related context. Look for the term Unjust Enrichment.

Send an additional email or whatever formal form of document to this employee. Warn them that keeping the $920 item may constitute an Unjust Enrichment and discuss another time for the return of the item. You want to get the item back as soon as possible but do be respectful and try to make the situation convenient for the employee. Demand the item returned in the most suitable state and don't expect too much of it. If they still play hide-and-seek with you, it's time to stop "being nice" and pay a visit to your local police station. In many jurisdictions such behavior may be considered fraud so police can help.

Keep in mind that this is entirely a personal situation and avoid involving other colleagues than those in the legal department in your company. You do not want to mess your workplace up just for this one-off mistake. Do not respond to rumors and gossips until a resolution is reached. Depending on the complexity and time required (and how costly $920 is to you), you may or may not want to escalate this too much, up to a suing for the return or equivalent reimbursement if they disposed of the item improperly.

Meanwhile, you may order another gift for your daughter for the new year so that she receives it in time, and find a way to dispose of the returned item properly (like selling it on eBay).

  • Before you go to a lawyer it may be worth while stopping by a police station, in many jurisdictions refusing to return an incorrect gift like this may be regarded as fraud and a visit from the police might do the trick .... – Alan Dev Dec 29 '20 at 20:09
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    This is an utterly absurd escalation. The recipient may have had no idea of the value of the gift and may have re-gifted it. This was entirely the OP's mistake and may have caused severe hardship and inconvenience for the recipient who similarly may have had to ask for the gift back and may be undergoing similar problems. Why should the innocent gift recipient eat the loss (assuming the gift can't be recovered, which is completely plausible) rather than the person who made the mistake in giving it to them? – David Schwartz Jan 12 at 14:18
  • @DavidSchwartz Given OP's update (they discussed and agreed on a time for return but the recipient let the OP wait for 6 hours), I assume it's reasonable to call for additional forces to get the wrong corrected. – iBug Jan 12 at 16:13
  • @iBug I guess it depends how you construe that. Give other attributes of the OP's behavior, I tend to suspect the OP caused that situation by ignoring the protests coming from the other side. The OP may have agreed. ;) – David Schwartz Jan 12 at 18:42
  • @DavidSchwartz Nevertheless, I'm leaving this answer here in case a future reader that stumbles upon this question may find this helpful. That's how Stack Exchange works, after all :) – iBug Jan 12 at 18:46
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For a $920 gift that your wife bought for your daughter and sent by mistake to the wrong address, you send an email "I'm sorry, but my wife sent a $920 present meant for our daughter to your address by mistake. Could you please sent the package to <your daughter's address>?"

The recipient will obviously know that someone sent that package by mistake. They might not have realised that it was their manager's wife that sent it, especially since it wasn't your wife who sent it, but some internet company, and may have decided to just keep it. 95% they will just send it on to your daughter, and you should obviously refund any cost.

There's a 5% chance that someone tries to be clever and keep it. In that case your next email would be less polite.

  • I would be thinking of divorce for a $920 error. – Michael Harvey Dec 23 '20 at 9:31
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    @MichaelHarvey I'm sorry to hear that. If it's true, and you're not already married, please warn any potential partners of this before the relationship goes too far. – mwfearnley Dec 23 '20 at 15:19
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    @mwfearnley: I agree. Thinking of divorce over such an error sounds..uncommon, to say the least. – guest Dec 23 '20 at 21:06
  • I see two possible outcomes: a. Husband gets the present back. B. wife explains to daughter why she gets no Christmas present. Divorce? Not for something like this. – gnasher729 Dec 24 '20 at 10:54

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