Gift Exchange Rituals in the Workplace:
A Social Roles Interpretation
Julie A. Ruth
Consumer research on gift giving has focused on the ritual as a means of creating and maintaining family and friendship relationships (Belk, 1976; Belk & Coon, 1993; Cheal, 1988; Ruth, Otnes, & Brunei, 1999). The scant research in workplace contexts has typically examined interorganizational gifts exchanged between a firm, or its representatives, and those outside of the firm such as suppliers or customers (Beltramini, 1992, 1996; Dorsch, Grove, Pickett, & Kelley, 1997).
Omitted from inquiry has been research on consumption rituals among intraorganizational representatives in the form of gift giving among a firm's employees or coworkers, such as those to mark coworker birthdays or retirements. The term coworker is used broadly here to denote any type of giver or recipient within the firm, including an employee, supervisor, subordinate, or peer. Gifts among coworkers can be distinguished from those among non-coworker friends and family because kinship ties typically do not exist to support the obligation to give. Moreover, participation in gifting activities in the workplace may require dual performance roles (e.g., the giver and recipient in an interpersonal relationship such as friend or acquaintance, as well as that same person in the role of employee with work roles and responsibilities). As such, gifting rituals among coworkers may blend rules-of-friendship and rules-of-work because intraorganizational gift givers and recipients are likely to hold beliefs about organizational culture and work role responsibilities (O'Reilly, Chatman, & Caldwell, 1991), as well as norms believed to underlie gift giving such as reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960; Mauss, 1954). Gifts within the firm can also be distinguished from gifts between firms because of the shared cultural meanings held by employees of the same firm (Schein, 1992; Trice & Beyer, 1984). Further, gifts between firms are often viewed as means of gaining future business (Dorsch & Kelley, 1994; Dorsch et al., 1997), an objective that does not necessarily apply to within-firm gift practices.