how can I tell my staff not to give me holiday gifts?

by Ask a Manager on December 16, 2013

Here are two letters asking about the same thing.

The first letter:

I was so glad to see you tackle gift-giving issues, as I once was strong-armed into helping buy a Tiffany necklace for my then-CEO. Ever since, I’ve resented the holiday office collection and tried to put a stop to it.

My husband’s employees just presented him with a generous gift card to a store that’s related to one of his favorite down-time activities. It was a surprise, and although we know gifts aren’t supposed to flow up, he couldn’t help but be touched.

We’re wondering two things. First, now that he has received the gift, is it sufficient to respond with a simple thank-you? He doesn’t typically present staff with gifts, as it would be financially challenging for us to give gifts to all of his direct reports. Additionally, the payment structure at his company is heavily weighted toward bonuses, so it feels excessive to add personal gifts on top.

Second, how does he discourage this sort of thing in the future, without appearing ungrateful for the gift? He thought about quietly inquiring as to who spearheaded the collection, but that wouldn’t prevent another member of the team from taking up the post. Is it best to just let it go for now, and make a note to let people know his stance on this next November?

And the second letter:

I saw your post on the CEO getting a ski trip last month, and it prompted a follow up question:

I manage a team of four people, and I would like to give them a gift to show my appreciation for their efforts this year. I do NOT want them to feel pressured into giving me a gift back, but knowing my team, I know that they will probably try to do something for me.

How can I, as a manager, nip that in the bud gracefully?

For the manager who has already received a gift from his employees, I’d say to just be gracious and thank them in a sincere way. He doesn’t need to now run out and buy them all gifts too just because of this, but he should think about other ways to show some holiday appreciation in return. Bringing in delicious holiday food for everyone? Writing each of them a note with specifics about what he appreciated about their performance this year? There are nice things that he can do that won’t just keep the gift-giving cycle going.

Then, next year, before any gift collections are likely to have started, he can say something like to everyone: “I know this is the season of office gift-giving, so I want to say up-front that simply doing your jobs well is enough of a gift for me. Please spend your money on your family or yourself, and know that I’m incredibly grateful to have a staff like you.” (He can say this in the context of talking about other office holiday plans, so it’s not a random, stand-alone pronouncement.)

The second letter-writer can also say something like this to her staff.

And if either are worried that their staff will ignore this and feel obligated to get a gift anyway — or if there’s likely to be a lone employee who pressures others into contributing for a gift — you can strengthen this message a bit: “I don’t want to assume anyone is thinking of getting me a gift, but just in case, I want to say that (a) that is very kind of you, but (b) I firmly believe that gifts should flow downward, not upward, in a workplace, so please put that toward family and friends instead.”

All this said, it’s entirely possible that someone will give you something anyway. And as long as it’s small — food, a trinket, or so forth — you should accept it graciously. The point here isn’t to make people feel bad (which you will do if you refuse to accept a small gift on principle); rather, it’s to ensure that your staff doesn’t feel obligated to use their money to buy you things.

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{ 102 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric December 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for a great answer. One comment, however, if I heard from my boss “I firmly believe that gifts should flow downward, not upward”, I would then expect a gift from them. So I would avoid this language if you aren’t planning on getting them gifts.


Ask a Manager December 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm

That’s true! In that case, I might revise the second set of wording (the one where you want to be firmer) to: “I don’t want to assume anyone is thinking of getting me a gift, but just in case, I want to say that that is very kind of you, but I don’t believe anyone should have to give gifts to their boss, so please put that toward family and friends instead.”


VictoriaHR December 16, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Letter #1 – is there something that he was planning on buying himself from that store anyway? If so, he could go ahead and use the gift card to buy it, then use the money he would have spent on that item to buy a big snack basket or pizza party for his employees. People always love food.


some1 December 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I was thinking Pizza Party, too.


NoPizzaPartyPlease December 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Surprisingly, there are people who don’t like pizza or cookies or whatever. If someone is going the food route for gift-giving they should know if what they’re getting is acceptable for everyone.


Jen in RO December 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

If it’s one thing this blog has taught me is that not everyone loves food! Billy is on a diet and Mary is allergic to candy and Julie is vegan and John only eats white food and and…

Sorry for being negative – OP, I think this is a great idea and I hope there aren’t many dietary restrictions in your team! (In my former, small team, pizza was a cause for celebration.)


TL December 16, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Meh. If you’ve got a good admin or event planner with a small team in a reasonably accommodating area of town, it’s really not that big of a deal (they can just order one or two separate meals or make sure there’s a vegetarian gluten-free pizza or something. Gluten-free pizza crusts are actually decent.)



Bean December 16, 2013 at 2:24 pm

I really dislike it when people create their own dietary restrictions (something that is not a religious belief or allergy) and make things difficult for people when hosting events. My sister just became a vegan, but is eating turkey on Christmas but is requesting me to have a vegan dish on Christmas Eve so she can eat dinner…wtf?


RG December 16, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Tell her to bring a vegan dish to share :)


TL December 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm


or even just to bring her own meal – I do that all the time. :)


Bean December 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm

RG and TL, that is what I would do if I had a dietary restriction! Unfortunately, when I told her I will not be making a special dish for her and politely told her she is more than welcome to bring her own meal or a dish for everyone to try she said it was rude and will not be attending if there is nothing for her to eat…but she will be eating turkey (as well as items with milk, egg etc.) the next day.


tesyaa December 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I don’t know the etiquette for part-time veganism.


Josh S December 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm

She is clearly the rude one.

A host should make reasonable accommodations for their guests, but guests should also not go out of their way to inconvenience their hosts.

In your case, it is a reasonable accommodation to invite your sister to make a dish for herself (or better yet, one to share!), and it is really a rather selfish thing for her to suggest that if you do not accommodate her preferences that she will not attend.


Liz in a library December 16, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Seriously! I’ve got a weird food issue (that isn’t an allergy, but that is a strong intolerance), and I have always volunteered to bring something to a party if I thought it would be a problem. I think it’s great if the host has time to make something for you, but it isn’t their job to watch out for your food choices.

TL December 16, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Use the Dear Prudence method of “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. We’ll miss you.”

Or, if you’re feeling particularly deviant, buy a super-large bag of Skittles and serve that as a dish. :P

(Mind you, I just emailed my mother asking if she would make gluten-free, corn-free tiramisu for Christmas and she said yes plus she’s going to leave the almonds out of one of the green bean casseroles. But I wouldn’t’ve been upset if she said no.)


KJR December 16, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Moms will do stuff like that! :)

TL December 16, 2013 at 5:39 pm

@KJR – yeah! Moms are awesome. :)

life's a beach December 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm

my mom would always set aside a small bowl of Potato salad (without pickles and celery) for me. I never asked for it, She knew that I just don’t care for the taste and texture of those items in my food. It wasn’t a big deal, she just set it aside before adding those to the rest. My older sister, used to get upset with her, for treating me special!! Once is a while she would forget, but no big, I just didn’t eat potato salad that day. MOMS ARE THE BEST!

Vee December 17, 2013 at 8:19 am

My mom will always set aside a clump of chocolate chip cookie dough before she puts the chocolate chips in. I like the cookie part best and am sad when all I taste are chocolate chips, so she’ll make them without chips or, if she’s feeling particularly motherly, with only 2 or 3 in each cookie. :)

Now I want cookies. Sigh.

Jamie December 17, 2013 at 10:15 am

my mom would always set aside a small bowl of Potato salad (without pickles and celery) for me.

This made me smile. My potato salad consists of potatoes, diced celery, diced onions, bacon, and Miracle Whip. It is perfect in every way and one of my kids eats it that way.

I make a seperate bowl for another son without celery or bacon. Another for my daughter who won’t do onions or bacon. Another for my husband who won’t do onions or celery…but I refuse to add mustard to the Miracle Whip because that’s just gross and if he wants it he can do it himself.

But yeah – if it’s not your mom either ask if you can supply your own food or politely decline.

LPBB December 17, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Some moms are awesome! My mom refused to accommodate, and sometimes even acknowledge, my vegetarianism for the first 8 years. I think it was only when she realized that there was some potential martyrdom attached — because it was complicated having to accommodate everybody’s food preferences and my vegetarianism and the holidays are just so stressful — that she even started paying attention. To be clear, I always brought my own food for the holidays and never asked for any special treatment.

My dad, on the other hand, accepted it from the word Go and always tried to make foods I could eat or go to restaurants that had vegetarian options. Sometimes it’s the dads who are awesome like that!

Kate December 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm

i don’t know, something like veganism or vegetarianism that’s not health-related could be the result of ethical beliefs that are as deeply held as religion. is it that hard to roast some potatoes and brussels sprouts?


Ask a Manager December 16, 2013 at 3:34 pm

In this case, though, she’s eating turkey the very next day, so it’s hard to see it as a particularly deeply held belief.


Kate December 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Maybe she’s just starting out and figured that while Christmas would be really inconvenient, Christmas Eve is less big of a deal? I can’t speak for the sister (nor do I wish to judge her negatively), but I am a little surprised by the resistance to veganism I’m seeing here. Making vegan food is easy! You don’t have to buy expensive meat and dairy substitutes. A lot of people have vegan side dishes on their table anyway at holidays (mashed potatoes, salad, roast asparagus, etc), surely an accommodating host could make a few of those and an accommodating guest could piece them together into a meal.


Kate December 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm

or not necessarily just resistance to veganism, but resistance to special diets? maybe I just love to cook, and i can see how cooking to accommodate multiple diets could unreasonable, but for one person, making gluten free or nut free or dairy free or vegetarian or you-name-it dishes doesn’t have to be complicated. the guest may have to accept not being able to eat everything on the table, but that’s not the end of the world.


TL December 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm

It depends – lots of people put bacon in their green beans, butter in their mashed potatoes (butter in everything!), mix meat into their side dishes, bacon bits or ham in the salad, only have creamy dressing… And then you change up the recipe and now nobody likes it and it goes unfinished except for one or two servings.

And honestly, it’s not other people’s job to manage your diet, no matter how “easy” it is. If you have a dietary restriction, let them know and offer to bring your own dish so you’re guaranteed something to eat. If they offer to make food for you, that’s lovely, but I would easily understand someone whose already undertaking a huge meal prep not having the energy to do more.


Kate December 16, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d feel uncomfortable saying I am going to host a dinner and then asking a guest to bring their own food to it.

I should probably also disclose that while not myself having any dietary restrictions, I have a friend group that largely tends toward alternative diets for health (though not life-and-death health) and ethical reasons, and tend to agree with those/eat largely vegetarian myself, so I’m used to it.

TL December 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I would feel very uncomfortable asking someone to cook special for me, especially if they’re cooking for a large family gathering – I’ll ask for the menu beforehand though.

Sure, if 50% of your friends are vegan/vegetarian, than it makes sense to offer mostly vegan/vegetarian dishes.
Or if you’re inviting just one friend over for dinner, you should cook a meal they can eat.

But if it’s just one person in a larger gathering and especially if it’s an “at-whim” dietary restriction, I don’t think it’s rude. I agree with fposte – a person’s house is not a restaurant.

On top of that, it’s a holiday meal for (it sounds like) family, which often means traditional family recipes, which means that if they aren’t cooked as they’ve always been cooked, you’re going to get some very sad family members. (Nothing at our family table is vegan!)

TL December 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Well. I will say, I asked my mom if she would be willing to do a separate dessert for me at Christmas and when I asked her for the ingredients for our dishes, she offered to make one dish without almonds, which was very nice of her. (Had she said no, I would’ve contented myself with chocolate milk, yum.)

Christmas is only for our immediate family, though. Our Thanksgivings are much larger and my mom tends to spend two days in the kitchen for them, so I didn’t ask her then for a special dessert.

Tasha December 16, 2013 at 5:12 pm

I agree. Allergies and medical issues do need accommodation, but if the host can’t reasonably meet the guest’s needs, it’s the guest’s responsibility to 1) bring something s/he can eat or 2) stay home. My personal feeling is that simple dietary preferences, if not religious, can usually be abandoned once or twice a year at, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s not the end of the world.

99% of the time, I’m vegetarian. There are one or two times every year where I meet the rest of my family, including my very traditional grandparents, for a holiday meal. Then, I swallow my ethical and taste preferences and politely* have a few bites of whatever meat is served at the table in the name of family comity.

Others might approach the issue differently, but I feel like I have two jobs as a guest: to help other guests have a pleasant evening by being gracious, and to not make the party any more complicated for the hosts than it already is. (Wow, that’s long. I’m not this loquacious in person, I swear.)

*By which I mean I say absolutely nothing about what I normally eat or do not eat, much less why I’ve made that decision. There are far more entertaining topics of conversation.

Jamie December 17, 2013 at 10:20 am

A lot of people have vegan side dishes on their table anyway at holidays (mashed potatoes, salad, roast asparagus, etc),

I’m not saying it’s not easy to adapt those thing, and if I were hosting I certainly would – but a lot of people put butter on vegetables (I don’t – but most people I know do esp at holidays). And mashed potatoes? I think for most non-vegan people the vast majority of mashed potatoes on their table will have been mashed with butter and milk or cream.

And a lot of people use chicken broth instead of water for a lot of thing you wouldn’t necessarily think about…so I wouldn’t assume just because I didn’t see meat that it was a vegan dish.

Jessa December 17, 2013 at 1:41 am

Not necessarily vegan, vegetarian probably, but a lot of pre made mash has butter in it. Salads often have dressings that are NOT vegan, most store bought croutons aren’t either. You’re asking them to check every single line ingredient on something to make sure it’s not listing hidden non-vegan things (ingredients that they may have never heard of.) Some things that look vegetarian are not vegan.


fposte December 16, 2013 at 3:53 pm

It’s not a resistance to veganism. It’s a resistance to cooking something specially for somebody because of their whim, because the person here apparently isn’t actually vegan. (And given that in just about any gathering there will be other dietary needs in attendance, it’s not just about making something vegan–it’s also about just making something gluten free, and just making something with no tree nuts, and just making something without eggs.)

And plus being a guest doesn’t give you the right to order as if you’re in a restaurant. It’s fine if your friends and relatives choose to cook special dishes for you, but that’s up to them to offer.


Kate December 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I’m more taking issue with the point being advanced in this discussion that people with particular diets, including optional ones like veganism but also more firm allergy-related ones, should bring their own food to events. Most people I know with dietary restrictions feel pretty left out by that expectation, which in my view equates to rudeness on the part of the host.


TL December 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Really? It doesn’t bother me at all – mind you, I’ve got a list of allergies a million miles long, so accommodating them is not feasible.

But most of my friends who do have dietary restrictions don’t expect others to accommodate their diets, especially if it’s an inconsistent thing. ( I have a friend who’s a part-time vegetarian and it’s not something I have any interest in trying to keep up with.)

And honestly, the more severe the restriction or allergy, the less likely they are to let others manage a meal – most vegans I know don’t eat at other people’s places because animal products tend to sneak in.

fposte December 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Then we probably just disagree. I think it’s fine for the host to expand a repertory to include a variety of guests’s diets if s/he chooses, and it’s fine for a guest to opt to go elsewhere (and even to say that it’s because they’re vegan/Atkins/whatever, allowing the host to offer to accommodate), but unless you’re at a restaurant you don’t get to place orders.

I also think people have fallen into a restaurant pattern that makes them unfamiliar with how different being a guest in a private home is, and how much social occasions are supposed to be about people rather than food anyway.

Kate December 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm

fposte, I’m not saying anything about placing orders. I’m saying that if you invite your gluten-intolerant cousin to a dinner (or vegetarian, or nut-allergic, or whatever), it’s pretty darn rude to then have not one thing on your table without gluten in it. I’m assuming that if you’re inviting close friends and family into your home, you have some idea about their dietary needs/preferences. If we disagree, then ok, we disagree.

We’re really far off the original comment anyway (as I mentioned, I don’t know this sister and am not going to speculate on her), and I’m (genuinely, not-snarkily) sorry about that.

Callie December 17, 2013 at 11:28 am

I have a friend who is gluten free due to severe GI issues. I do not even attempt to cook gluten free for her because the level of gluten free she needs is such that I would have to basically sterilize my kitchen and buy new utensils in order to get there. I don’t want to be responsible for a tiny bit of gluten getting into her food and making her sick, I would feel like crap and she would feel worse. It would be MORE rude of me to assure her something is GF and then it not really be and make her sick.

Anonymous December 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm

@Callie – this is exactly what I thought of reading this thread. I have a friend who’s gluten free due to Celiac disease, and she had to get rid of all of her cookware and utensils when she got the diagnosis to make sure all of the gluten was out of her kitchen. I wouldn’t want to attempt to cook for her since my kitchen is not gluten free and therefore there’s a potential for cross contamination. Along those lines, having had to be on a couple of fairly restricted diets in the past (wheat-free, corn-free, and diary-free), I personally preferred to just bring my own food or not eat at parties/get-togethers. There are tons of ingredients in different things with names that seem like they’re safe that could be easily overlooked if you don’t know what to look for.

Ask a Manager December 16, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Yeah, I’m not seeing any resistance to veganism here (speaking as a former long-time vegan). The sister ISN’T vegan; if she were, she wouldn’t be eating the turkey. (Certainly not if her veganism is based in ethical beliefs. You don’t compromise that just because it would be easier to eat turkey for a single meal.)


Kate December 16, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Since I’m pretty much the only dissenting voice, I should clarify that I’m debating a seeming hesitance to accommodate alternative diets, not just this sister’s wavering veganism. Looking back, I wasn’t very clear about that. I agree that her case looks sketchy, and I don’t doubt that Bean is busy already and doesn’t have time to plan/make more dishes. I’m debating the broader role of the host in how to deal with guests who have different dietary needs or wishes. But this doesn’t have much to do with the general subject matter of AAM, or the original comment anymore, so I’m fine dropping it. :)

straws December 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm

As someone who can’t eat dairy (lactose intolerant), this is such a difficult topic. I wholeheartedly agree that guests shouldn’t treat a host as their personal chef. But I also know the severe discomfort of being invited to a house for a meal and being unable to eat anything.


Julie December 16, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Because that can happen fairly easily (being invited to a friend’s home for dinner and not being able to eat anything), I carry protein bars with me that I can eat (and if I need to eat one, I do it very discreetly – I don’t want to call attention to it or hurt anyone’s feelings). If I’m pretty sure beforehand that there won’t be anything I can eat, I eat something before I go (this is good for dieting, too). And if there’s salad or something else I can eat, I won’t be too full to have some. BTW, I’m allergic to wheat and a bunch of other things, and like some of the other commenters have mentioned, it’s too long a list to get into with a host. I’d rather just deal with it myself. I also feel a little embarrassed about the long list of things I can’t eat.

I’ve just been realizing that I might have the same issues as my great aunt, who always brought her own food to Sunday lunch with my grandmother and her other sisters. I always thought it was funny that she also brought a thermos of hot water (because she can’t drink coffee, tea, etc.) – as if my grandmother wouldn’t have hot water available! But maybe she is embarrassed about it, too. She always changes the subject when anyone brings it up. And she’s 101, so it’s not like she grew up in a time when anyone/everyone talked about their food allergies.

tcookson December 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm

I would have no problem at all accommodating a guest’s real dietary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, any kind of allergy or intolerance, etc.), but for one of them to expect me to make special accommodations for what is only a whim to them (like the sister) would chap my hide.


KellyK December 16, 2013 at 4:00 pm

It would irritate me too if someone suddenly came up with a new food restriction when I already had dinner planned. Especially when it seems like they don’t necessarily take it that seriously themselves.

“Not a religious belief” includes pretty much all vegans and vegetarians who aren’t doing it for religious reasons, though. People can have all kinds of moral or ethical beliefs about food that might not be religious, but that still deserve to be taken seriously.

The fact that she’s going to be eating turkey the next day, so it sounds like she’s not exactly committed to veganism, but she still wants you to accommodate it, is what I’d find the most annoying. Did you ask her why she’s okay with turkey on Christmas but not on Christmas Eve? I mean, there could be some logic behind it, and it’s not just flakiness on her part.

If I were in your shoes, I’d tell her that it was too late in my planning to change things up and offer a whole separate protein that’s vegan-friendly, but I’d keep animal products separate from the sides as much as is reasonable on short notice (e.g., butter goes on veggies at the table, stuffing uses veggie stock instead of chicken stock, etc.).

(I don’t think she’s being rude by not bringing a dish herself—she’s not hosting. But at the same time, I think you’re not obligated to take someone’s self-imposed dietary restrictions any more seriously as they take them themselves.)


jesicka309 December 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm

OMG my sister in law does this. She’s gluten intolerant…when it suits her.
When MIL makes a huge family dinner. she kicks up a stink about having gluten free chips, gluten free dessert, etc. But when we go out as a group (SIL and BIL, SO and I), she’s happily chow down on Chinese food and beer.
Just recently at a family Christmas function, she brought along a Toblerone cheesecake that she’s made several times that she claims is gluten free. Well, a family friend who is actually gluten intolerant totally called her out and told her that Toblerone has plenty of gluten, and sorry, she can’t have any.
I was strangley satisfed to see her finally shut down for her stupid attention seeking habits.


TL December 16, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Arg, people like that drive me crazy.

Not only because it’s really rude and inconsiderate but because if you’re out at a restaurant or with friends and make a big deal about being gluten intolerant and then someone you chowing down on your friend’s cheesecake or the rolls – well, they’re probably not going to be very careful with the next person who comes along who asks for the same thing (and may legitimately need their food not to get cross-contaminated.)


littlemoose December 16, 2013 at 10:33 pm

I actually have celiac disease and this nonsense drives me nuts. It does make me worry that other people won’t take me seriously when I ask about gluten ingredients, etc. It’s not a whim, it’s a necessity. A crappy necessity, because bread is awesome.


veggie December 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Your sister sounds like she is being ridiculous, but if you want an easy way to take the high road, pick up a Tofurkey dinner in a box. It’s very easy to prepare and includes stuffing, gravy, and dessert.


Joey December 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I know people like this. Non-holiday vegetarians/vegans. Its sort of equivalent to my friends who don’t drink, but will indulge on special occasions .


Jamie December 17, 2013 at 10:24 am

Yep – or the non-smokers except when they are drinking. Then they are social smokers, just non-buyers.

I remember them well from my party days.


hamster December 16, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I agre. In my teams we had at least one vegetarian, one vegan, one raw vegan, one person juice cleansing, one eating Atkins, one Dukan, one not liking coconut, allergies and preferences all over the way. That said, pizza day was usually a day for celebration, since you can almost always customize it :)


Bean December 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm

I work until noon on Christmas Eve, and I have many other social events leading up to Christmas so the fact that I have been able to find time to make dinner for my family is amazing. I really do not have the time to make a special dish for her, and considering that she has 2 weeks off at Christmas (including Christmas Eve) and she is unwilling to make a dish for herself, I really do not see why I should have to accommodate somebody who A) does not take veganism seriously (her eating the turkey is because it’s a “Christmas tradition” btw) and B) is not even willing to accommodate herself.

Kate mentioned sides that are vegan, but they really are not; mashed potatoes have butter and sour cream, asparagus can have butter, salads may have dressings that have dairy or cheese. I offered to give her a plain salad and she said she would go hungry if that’s all she had.


TL December 16, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Honestly, if she finds a yummy vegan dish and makes it a few holiday dinners in a row, it’ll probably become part of the family recipe book and people will start to make it unprompted. :)


Zed December 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm

You can always set aside some mashed potatoes before anything is added. Same with the asparagus, green beans, etc–serve them with butter on the side. This is what my family does for people on special diets.


Jessa December 17, 2013 at 1:48 am

Presuming you do not COOK them in the butter, etc. Or use some kind of prepared mash (you can now buy some pretty good mash at the store made by various companies and not have to go through the work.)


Allison December 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm

This is why a holiday potluck may be a good idea, at least for individual teams. People with an intolerance to this or that can make something they *can* eat, you can request people be considerate of this or that intolerance, but no one is *required* to make a dish everyone can eat an you don’t have one host trying to accommodate everyone.


veggie December 16, 2013 at 4:32 pm

+1 to potlucks with good labels. Each person should get a label for their contribution, and check off whether it is vegetarian, vegan, GF, contains nuts, etc.


fposte December 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Potlucks are fabulous that way. (And this Thanksgiving I went out to a restaurant that does a holiday buffet and it was *packed*–it’s clearly a favored solution to the situation as well.) The particular advantage to a potluck is that most people who host have limited time, budget, and cooking utensils and resources, so it’s a nice way to get that dietary variety without expecting the host to do more work and pay more money.


The Wife December 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I responded below, but wanted to comment here, as well. Unfortunately a potluck isn’t feasible, because none of these people work out of the same location.


littlemoose December 16, 2013 at 10:39 pm

As I mentioned downthread, I have celiac disease, and I’ve never begrudged our bosses for providing pizza, bagels, or other food as a thank-you or a celebration. I don’t expect to be accommodated in settings like that, where out of 60+ people I’m the only one with a stupid food allergy. Maybe I would feel differently if I worked in a small office or on a small team, but with such a big group, I don’t feel put out. Them’s the breaks sometimes. I understand everyone’s caveats, but I still think your idea of using the already-purchased gift card to obtain something for all of the office is a nice one.

And YES to potluck! We do that in my office, and I love it because I can bring something that I know I can eat. A couple of my coworkers will inform me about ingredients so I know whether I can eat what they brought too. For our upcoming holiday potluck, I won’t be able to eat the main dish that management is providing, so I’ll bring a side to share that I can eat, and bring my own little entree for myself.


tesyaa December 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm

These questions arise when people think they have to blindly abide by a rule that “gifts should never flow up” instead of using common sense and good judgment. Sometimes an employee or group of employees might really want to give their boss a gift – and (wait for it) that’s ok. If it’s not over the top or coerced, accept it and move on.


Ask a Manager December 16, 2013 at 1:36 pm

The problem, I think, is that you don’t want some of the employees to feel pressured into doing that, and you want to give them the cover to safely bow out of a group collection, if one is happening.

If they still do it, so be it (as long as it’s not something extravagant like that ski trip), as I said in my last paragraph.

I don’t think it’s about blindly abiding by etiquette, but etiquette does exist to make people more comfortable, and it seems reasonable to me to ask this kind of question.


tesyaa December 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I agree that with a group gift, some people might feel pressured. But individual gifts (unless, in a totally different vein, they’re given obviously to curry favor) should not be a problem.


John December 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm

But then I would argue that if one of my peers were to give my boss a nice gift, it would make me and my other peers feel like we should be doing something, either because it’s expected or we’re afraid the gift-giver will move to the head of the class.

So it’s about the comfort of everyone in the group, not just you and your boss.

And it’s about propriety. It can put a boss in an uncomfortable position, especially when the giver is an underperformer and he has to make decisions about their comp and future.


ExceptionToTheRule December 16, 2013 at 2:06 pm



Bean December 16, 2013 at 2:26 pm

I understand this concern and there are people who will purposely give the gift in front of their peers or make everyone aware of it so that they look good and the other employees feel bad. I think it’s okay to give your boss a present if you do it discretely (and of course if it’s not an extravagant gift)


tesyaa December 16, 2013 at 2:26 pm

These are real issues. The only way to address them is to ban gifts in the workplace entirely. (I don’t have a problem with that). You can’t expect people to abide by unwritten rules, however sensible they are.


fposte December 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I think there are plenty of other ways to address the situation, though, and many of them are mentioned in this post and comments.

And unfortunately, until mind-reading is perfected (which I hope it never will be), you really have no idea whether a co-worker is going along willingly or because she feels pressured. And as a boss, I think it’s more important that my people don’t feel pressured to spend extra money at work than they feel free to give gifts there.


kristinyc December 16, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I first read that as “curry flavor” and was wondering what kind of person would give specifically curry flavored gifts. (An awesome one, no doubt!


B December 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm

For #1 he could give his employees a pizza lunch. Pizza, salad, soda/water, and some cookies, cupcakes, cookie cake, etc. Or even just have a lot of cookies brought in for a 3:00pm holiday snack. It will not be that expensive but is a very nice gesture that many will appreciate. Personally, I think this is one of those things more departments should do as a small thank you. Yes, being paid is thank you but a little bit extra goes a long way.


The Wife December 16, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I agree in theory, but the husband manages multiple locations. Each location has the option to organize a holiday party or a potluck — that’s left up to his direct reports and their staff. And potlucks happen quite frequently during the year, so these little extras are a part of company culture.

Sometimes we bake cookies and other treats for our families, but giving each direct report a suitable number of cookies when he sees them means I’ll be baking batches and batches (you can’t exactly give one person a tin of cookies and only include four or five, after all). It adds up fast, so I was very relieved to see Alison recommend he write a note.


B December 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

You could purchase a big cookie cake for each department/location that says thank you. This way it is not individual.

While they have the option to organize it, it is nice if the boss gives a bit of something towards it.


Steve December 16, 2013 at 1:59 pm

My company sends out a reminder around Thanksgiving about our company policy on accepting gifts from vendors (it’s not allowed). This year it was late going out as they were trying to find some business etiquette rules on how to decline these gifts without offending anyone. Someone quite brilliant (not me!) made it a gift giving etiquette guide for everyday use and included the “Dear Prudence” article that Alison and all of us discussed here a few weeks ago. I swear I heard a collective sigh of relief as the company wide email was read.


Elizabeth West December 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Exjob had a lot of generous vendors. The policy was that if a customer or vendor gave you a gift, it was yours, but most people shared if they got a gift basket or a box of candy. There were a couple who gave stuff like an entire ham and sandwich fixings, or frozen custard, which was clearly meant for the entire group.

We also got a ton of cards, although we never sent any. I hung them up front on ribbons so people could look through them. Our Japanese vendor always sent really pretty ones. :)


Jamie December 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

I don’t think there is anything rude about telling a vendor you can’t accept gifts due to policy.

We can’t accept vendor gifts of any value for ourselves, so our vendors know they go into the Christmas raffle. And although I read here recently a comment about getting vendor crap in their raffle, I’m not talking about pens, or keychains, or the little incidental stuff. If a vendor gives me a post-it note pad with their name on it I’m free to keep it (YAY!). But for the good stuff like the spendy gift baskets, tins of the good cookies and candy…the sports tickets…some vendors do give some nice stuff.

Our philosophy is that the company as a whole works together to provide business for the vendor so we should all share in their generosity…not just those of us with budgets and purchasing authority.

(And is it just me, but my IT vendors…not big on the gift thing. At this point I think Dell ought to send me a new car. Material vendors for production – now those people must have buyers on their payroll just to pick out awesome gifts.)


Yup December 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm

“All this said, it’s entirely possible that someone will give you something anyway. And as long as it’s small — food, a trinket, or so forth — you should accept it graciously. The point here isn’t to make people feel bad (which you will do if you refuse to accept a small gift on principle); rather, it’s to ensure that your staff doesn’t feel obligated to use their money to buy you things.”

I wholeheartedly second the spirit of this, times infinity. IMO, if everyone were simply exchanging cards or little tokens of the season, 99% of the giving-gifts-at-work problems (upwards, downwards, and sideways) would simply disappear.

I long ago decided to sidestep the whole thing by baking a big tray of cookies for my dept/office and inviting everyone to partake as they wish, and just giving my boss a card.


fposte December 16, 2013 at 2:50 pm

That’s what led us to doing a (opt-in) gift exchange in the first place–to have a clear direction for gift-giving and avoid the problem of feeling pressured to get something for everyone or for the boss.


Elizabeth West December 16, 2013 at 2:13 pm

I’d like to send e-cards to my bosses–is that cool?

I sent them thank-you emails on Boss’s Day with nice pictures and they really appreciated it.


Joey December 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm

No. Theses are the equivalent of junk mail at work. And fwiw the whole bosses day is a crock and we know anyone who actually openly observes it without using it as fodder for jokes is faking it.


AJ-in-Memphis December 16, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I think it depends on who’s getting it and how they feel about celebrating holidays. There’s no hard and fast rule there. If they like it and you want to, then by all means. And yes, it is corny but there people out there who love and appreciate corny.


Elizabeth West December 16, 2013 at 4:49 pm

I’ll just email them with a picture like I did before.

The reason I sent the Boss’s Day emails was because I wanted to let my direct boss and the manager know I appreciate them. My boss lets me know she appreciates me all the time.


Jamie December 17, 2013 at 10:43 am

I think it’s nice, the only concern about doing on bosses day would be they might think they need to do something on the professional day that applies to you – kind of setting up an obligatory thing.

Just doing it because you felt it and were thinking about it would be awesome, though.


Elizabeth West December 18, 2013 at 9:30 pm

That’s why I did an email and not a card. I’ll just do the email again, and send it to everyone.


Jamie December 17, 2013 at 10:37 am

I think the sentiment is what’s appreciated – but I do know a lot of people who love and get a huge kick out of cards. I’m not one of them, I send when I remember to, but I’m a big card person.

I think it’s always nice to express appreciation – although I’ve never worked with anyone who mentioned bosses day and I couldn’t tell you when it is. The only time I hear it discussed is here – it’s not really a thing a lot of places.


Joey December 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm

#1. If I were him I’d use it to buy stuff to donate and make it from the whole team. Then he can say that he doesn’t want gifts from his staff, but if they’re set on giving please donate instead.


AJ-in-Memphis December 16, 2013 at 3:21 pm

I just told them not to get me anything and that if they wanted to get each other something that was entirely up to them. I didn’t mention that I am getting them something because they’ll find that out when they get.


Joey December 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm

I told mine with a straight face they’d be fired on the spot if they got me anything.


Marcy December 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm

That’s kind-of what I did. On the first Christmas for each new hire I tell them that we don’t do gift exchanges in our department. I say it loud enough to remind the veterans, too. This year, one of my staff protested saying “But you don’t follow your own rule!” My answer was “There is no exchange- it is simply a thank you from me to you for your hard work during the year”.


hamster December 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Unrelated but i have an interesting similar story. During high-school ( in my country age 14-18 just below college , middle education level) one year, we as a class decided to buy a small gift for each of our teaches. We bought one small angel tree ornament ( 30 kids in a class maybe 10 teachers, not a big effort financially, it was opt in , etc ) and a card. Since we weren’t the kind big on gifts and flowers for teachers ( part of the culture in ro) the gift was well appreciated by most teachers. However, my physycs teachers, which I RESPECTED the most ( i looked up to him, very VERY smart guy, very fair, the best teacher ever, thought as logic and experiments to theory, accuracy and a lot others) REFUSED our gift. I was delegated to present him the card and the angel ( and as he sang in a church choir we thought he might like it) and he told me not to get it personally but : 1. he doesn’t think teachers should accept gifts from students and 2. he feels that my class hasn’t got such a great relationship with him during the year and he is not going to accept a gift from everyone as that would send a wrong message. I was so hurt. It really felt Grinchy to refuse a small trinket and a card .


Del December 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Wow, yeah, that is tough :( And it’s doubly harder on kids than on adults, because kids are still learning all the unspoken etiquette rules that adults are expected to know. That’s not something that should be stepped on! I’m sorry your teacher did that.


fposte December 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Well, and that’s not exactly great etiquette itself, so it’s not like he has the social high ground there.


Anonymous December 16, 2013 at 4:19 pm

That was rude of him to do that.

I had a teacher years ago who wore a different tacky tie everyday so the class would get him funny ties for all kinds of occasions- the poor guy probably has a million ties by now but he never turned them down.


annie December 16, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Ha, I have a family member who is a teacher and she has enough apple ornaments to fill an entire Christmas tree just with them!


hamster December 17, 2013 at 3:45 am

I feel more validated in being hurt right now. I wouldn’t have killed him to accept it :)


Ruffingit December 16, 2013 at 6:33 pm

It’s a shame he didn’t accept it, very rude on his part. Not exactly the same, but I have a friend who graduated with a master’s degree. She and her classmates were separated into four cohorts, all of whom had a lead professor. So there were four professors. At the graduation, each cohort presented their professor with a gift (bottle of wine, etc) for helping them through the almost two-year program. Each cohort that is, except for one. My friend and I both felt so badly for the one guy who didn’t get a gift from his cohort because it was so glaringly obvious that he received nothing since all other gifts were presented at the graduation in front of everyone.


Callie December 17, 2013 at 11:36 am

I loved getting ornaments from my students. Half my tree has ornaments from students–I play the flute, and my students knew it, and they would find ornaments of angels, Mickey Mouse, Santa, bears, etc playing the flute (or other instruments) and give them to me. Now I have stopped teaching young children and have moved across the country and I still remember the kids who gave me those ornaments.


Gene December 16, 2013 at 5:03 pm

Small office of 5 males, manager and 4 same-level reports. We typically each give all the others something small; but something that has some thought behind it. There have been years where one person or another hasn’t gotten anything for anyone, that’s OK. After all, the season is about giving, not getting.

I think the most I spent on someone this year was $20 and the smallest was about $4.


The Wife December 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm

I’m the wife that sent in the first question. Thanks, Alison, for this great advice. I especially like the idea of writing individual notes thanking his reports for their hard work.

Unfortunately, the potluck idea is great in theory but won’t work in practice. All his direct reports are based in different locations, and they come together as a group very infrequently.


Amy December 16, 2013 at 9:43 pm

My wonderful boss handled the gift receiving/giving scenario very well. She sent her direct reports an email stating that she already has everything she could possibly want, so if someone insisted on giving her a present, they should make a donation to a charity of their choosing in her name. It was very classy and genuine.


Working Girl December 27, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Say thank you for the generous gift but that it is not necessary so you can not accept it and don’t accept it. Have them return the gift and if they can’t donate it to a worthy cause or let them deal with it themselves. When they see you are not taking the gift they will not do so again the next year. If you take the gift they believe you wanted it and will do it again and again. Don’t give mixed messages, don’t take the gift.


Heather December 29, 2013 at 7:19 pm

At my office this year, instead of giving gifts, we donated to a charity (voluntarily). I thought that was cool.


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