8 Tips for Choosing Retirement Gifts

How to honor valued colleagues when they retire.


As the oldest baby boomers enter their mid-60s this year, there will be plenty of retirement celebrations. Although you may not have much extra pocket change, it's still important to let coworkers know how much you enjoyed working with them. "Doing nothing to note a person's retirement is a serious faux pas," says Lillian Chaney, coauthor of The Essential Guide to Business Etiquette. Here's how to honor a valued colleague's retirement.

Consider group gifts. Asking colleagues to chip in can cut down on cost and may also be more appropriate. "Retirement gifts are often joint gifts unless you have a really close relationship," says Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and coauthor of The Etiquette Advantage in Business. Make sure everyone signs a card with individual messages. "Sometimes a really nice heartfelt note means a lot to that person," says Post. "Even if you buy a preprinted card, write something on it."

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Think about hobbies. Buy a gift related to a hobby your retiring coworker has expressed interest in pursuing in retirement. When Tom Filesi, former CEO of lighting company Optek Technology, retired in 2000, his employees pooled their money to buy him a piece of handmade pottery. "They knew that I had Santa Clara pottery, and they knew that we collected it," says Filesi, 74, of Phoenix. "It's the centerpiece of a collection of Santa Clara pottery that my wife and I have." Thoughtful gifts include sports equipment for athletic enthusiasts, show tickets for music lovers, or gadgets for techies.

Check with a spouse. A spouse, significant other, or close friend can be a good source of gift ideas for your retiring coworker. "Find out exactly what they are going to be doing in retirement," advises Jeanette Martin, a University of Mississippi business professor and coauthor of Global Business Etiquette: A Guide to International Communication and Customs. A spouse may recommend gas cards for a planned RV trip across the country, some golf balls and tees, or gardening utensils.

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Get creative. Come up with a gift that makes reference to things the retiree created, bought, or sold on the job. When Edward Mueller, 75, a former engineer for IBM who marketed disk drives, retired in 1996, his coworkers presented him with a clock they constructed out of scrap disks. The shiny, battery-operated clock still ticks and hangs in his San Jose home office, reminding him of his working years.

Think small. Lavish gifts aren't necessary. If you don't know a colleague or client very well, a simple card or understated gift is usually appropriate. "Sending them a handwritten note wishing them well is never going to hurt," says Leah Ingram, author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less. She also suggests making a nominal donation to a charity the person supports.

Be sensitive to unplanned retirements. Retirement isn't always a happy occasion. Some people are apprehensive about separating from the working world and worry that they will no longer feel useful. Forced and unplanned retirements are increasingly common because of layoffs, buyouts, and business closures. "Stay away from saying 'congratulations' or 'condolences.' You want to stay out of that," says Judith Bowman, president of Judith Bowman Enterprises and author of Don't Take the Last Donut: New Rules of Business Etiquette. Bowman recommends that you instead say, "I'm so happy to have had the chance to have met you and worked with you." Consider a coworker's retirement a life transition rather than an exit from the workforce.

[See 8 Retirement Gift Ideas.]

Avoid gag and age-related gifts. Steer clear of gifts that comment on the retiree's age or newfound free time. "I would stay away from all those gag and over-the-hill gifts," says Beverly Langford, author of The Etiquette Edge: The Unspoken Rules for Business Success. "The only people those are funny to are under 40." Many retirees, especially those who don't have traditional pensions, may not have a leisurely retirement. They may be taking on part-time work or starting a small business. "Retirement today is a myth. People are not just relaxing on the golf course," says Langford. "A lot of times, they are moving into another field of endeavor."