10 rules for holiday gift-giving at the office

Finding the right gifts for friends and family is hard enough. Being expected to get something for your co-workers and your boss on top of that and navigating how much money to spend is a good way to lose your holiday cheer entirely.

Here are 10 rules for holiday gift-giving at the office. Follow them and you’ll keep your workplace merry this year.

1. Be aware that many people would rather not give gifts at work around the holidays. They might have a tight budget that would make even inexpensive gift-buying a strain, or they might not want one more thing to take care of when the holidays are already so busy. Or they might not celebrate the holidays at all and feel uncomfortable being expected to participate.

2. If gifts are given, they should flow downward, not upward. This means that gifts from bosses to employees are fine, but employees should not be expected to give gifts to those above them. Many people resent being expected to give a gift to someone who presumably makes significantly more money than they do. Relatedly…

3. Don’t solicit financial donations for a group gift for the boss. Not only does this violate rule No. 2 above, but employees may worry that not participating could affect the way they’re perceived by the person who signs their paycheck. That’s closer to extortion than a true gift. (Besides, the best gift you can give your boss is being an excellent employee.)

4. If your office organizes a gift exchange, make it opt-in rather than opt-out. Most people feel awkward declining to participate, so asking people to sign up if they’re interested is more considerate than making someone announce that they don’t want to take part.

5. Office gift exchanges should set a low dollar limit so that people who do want to take part can do so, no matter what their budgets. You might even consider a lower-cost, less traditional event like a sock exchange, where everyone buys one pair of the most garish socks they can find.

6. Stay away from gifts that are too personal for the workplace. Perfume, clothing, jewelry, and Fifty Shades of Grey are all inappropriate gifts for the office. And save the gag gifts for friends and family; the risk of a misunderstood joke giving offense in the office is too high.

7. When in doubt, go with food. If you’re looking for a way to participate in holiday celebrations at work without breaking the bank, food items are often low-cost—and more appreciated than most office gifts. Consider leaving a treat in the kitchen for the whole office to share or bringing individually wrapped baked goods.

8. Extravagant gifts are out of place at work. If you’ve ever been to an office gift exchange where everyone brought gifts that cost less than $15 except one guy who gifted an iPod or an expensive sweater, you know that overly expensive gifts can make others feel uncomfortable and will create the sense that you’re trying to show off or curry favor.

9. Companies that give gifts to employees should be thoughtful about them. Giving wine to Muslims, turkeys to vegetarians, or cookies to diabetics is a good way to undo the whole point of gift-giving and leave recipients feeling that they’ve been treated impersonally. Besides, most employees would rather get a bonus or an extra day off than whatever gift the company picks out anyway.

10. Never feel pressured into spending money you can’t afford. No matter how gung-ho your office is about holiday gifting, stand firm if participating would strain your budget. It’s fine to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t participate this year.”

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    The issue with office rules is they only work if people in your office are all aware of them. It doesn’t matter what you want if they all want something else. Bah.

  2. LL*

    My last two employers have done the white elephant gift exchange with great success. The gifts are small, inexpensive or used, and always humorous.

  3. Anonymous*

    My office does a white elephant gift exchange, that I’ve always found really fun. The max is set at either $10 or $15 and people are also invited to bring in something from home. People tend to bring in either food, gift cards to Starbucks or target, or practical things that can be used at the office–special pens, coffee mugs, a mouse pad customized with the picture of a coworkers cat, etc. The boss usually brings in wine and hot cocoa and we sit around the conference table towards the end of the day, and the atmosphere is really laid back.

    1. Vicki*

      White Elephant works best if people know each other fairly well, know the culture very well, and are given a $ range. Otherwise you get something like the case I heard of a few years ago where everyone brought something inexpensive but nice except one person who brought a gag gift (I don’t recall what. A box of Kleenex? A scratched off lottery card? In comparison, to all the others it was juvenile and offensive.)

      Also, please, Please, PLEASE do not convert the gift exchange into one of those “stealing” games that some workplaces seem to like so much (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_elephant_gift_exchange). These aren’t as much “fun” as some people want to believe, especially in the workplace (where the idea of “fun” varies widely.)

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes, we play the “stealing game,” I actually think it’s better than other types of gift exchanges because you don’t need to know anyone that well–your gift is for anyone in the office, not any one person (although, I really think Alison’s position that opt-in is far better than having it be opt-out. Our’s is “bring a small gift if you want to participate,” and usually about 3/4 of the employees do. And of course, I fully understand that not everyone finds these fun.) We should also probably spell out the “traditions” we have (of practical gifts–a box of kleenex would go over well here; and lightly used things from home are allowed, don’t take it too seriously).

        My office is pretty laid back, so I think this type of holiday thing works well for us. I am guessing that the majority of people here would be uncomfortable with a formal, dress-up and bring a date type of holiday party that some places have.

  4. Hannah*

    Last week my co-worker approached me about contributing $10 towards a group gift for the exec director of our agency. She apparently doesn’t know these rules.

    I made a non-committal “hmmr” kind of sound and have ignored the subject since.

    What I find even more annoying is that I’m not even an employee of this organization; I’m here as an AmeriCorps — she knows this and knows my (extremely low) monthly stipend. I’m irritated she even asked me about it.

    Maybe if I made a normal salary, I’d feel more charitable, but as it is, I’m on food stamps for crying out loud!

    1. Anon*

      I felt the same way when I was asked to contribute to a birthday gift for my boss. Only members of my team were approached (we’re 6 people altogether) and four of us on that team make less than 10$/hour. My boss, on the other hand, makes a 6 figure salary. To say I was put out is an understatement.

  5. Lisa*

    My boss has agreed to give the office a half day off, if we all go to the mall for lunch / drinks / and each buy gifts for a toys for tots thing. I don’t mind buying a gift for a charity when I am getting a whole afternoon off in exchange for a $20 gift. We’ll end up done with lunch and gift buying with 3 hours to spare so we are getting a better deal out of participating.

    1. A Bug!*

      Toys for tots is great! I participate every year I’m able.

      But I’m curious, is the afternoon off paid? Or are you losing out on an afternoon’s pay and $20? I know there have been times in my life when this would result in me eating instant noodles for two weeks.

  6. Chinook*

    My current job breaks half of those rules.
    1.I was hit up for $10 to contribute to a non-milestone BD gift (expensive purse) for my boss (whom I never see). What did I get for my birthday? A card.
    2. Secret Santa is an obligation with no opt out. I wasn’t told when we were exchanging (turns out it is this Friday) but atleast the limit was $20. Who did I get? The owner of the company who has literally everything and I have said maybe 10 words to since I was hired 6 months ago. Since I am his son’s EA (a family owned company with little family politics, thank goodness) the owner has just given over responsibilities for day-to-day running to said son, I have had no reason to get to know this man and am hoping he likes the fancy hot chocolate and gourmet marshmallow kit I found. At the very least, he could be the cool grandpa and feed it to the grandkids!

    On the plus side, the next generation (i.e. the 2 men I support) do not agree with this strategy and are even embarrassed when the other EAs try to force them to celebrate their birthday at work. I keep my mouth shut and show my appreciation for them being fabulous bosses by checking my emails after hours (which isn’t required) and buying them chocolate bars when they are grumpy.

    1. Jamie*

      I keep my mouth shut and show my appreciation for them being fabulous bosses by checking my emails after hours (which isn’t required) and buying them chocolate bars when they are grumpy.

      I bet you’re their favorite.

      This reminds me of the time I bought something for my most awesome boss and mentor when I was just starting out. He was on an hours long conference call from hell (corporate but really – same thing at the time) and couldn’t get out. I knew he hadn’t gotten out for lunch and was starving so I ran to the convenience store across the street and bought him a box of cereal bars.

      I put a post it letting him know they were the soft kind which don’t make noise – he was SO grateful for food I swear that one gesture is why he helped launch my career.

      See – my weird expertise about knowing which foods can be eaten silently really comes in handy sometimes.

    2. A Bug!*

      Secret Santa’s so silly in the workplace unless everybody is pretty close. I don’t want to have to secretly snoop around for what kind of things Bertha would appreciate. It doesn’t make me feel closer to Bertha; it makes me feel like a creep.

      1. Lisa*

        I once bought a co-worker size 17 fuzzy slippers. He was on the phone with his shoe guy in Atlanta (like 1 of 3 places in the US to get custom large size shoes) to buy new dress shoes, and i sat next to him and over heard his shoe size. When I got him for secret santa, I immediately wanted to get him pink fuzzy slippers in his size. I couldn’t find pink, but i did get some big foot fuzzy ones from the same Atlanta shoe guy. I just listened and took note of things he said when gabbing on the phone, and he loved them and wore them around the office in the winter.

      2. fposte*

        If you use Elfster for gift exchange names, it does at least allow you to give some guidance. (Though make sure to set your birthday to no date or else it will nag everybody about your upcoming birthday without your knowing.)

  7. De Minimis*

    I am thankful that I work for a federal agency and they have a strict policy [actually it’s a law] forbidding gifts to supervisors, managers, etc.

  8. Anon*

    Okay, I’m a contractor, and one of the employees at the company I am contracting at was very instrumental in helping me secure a new contract when this one runs out (at a different company, but he put in a good word for me). Is a holiday gift appropriate, or is it likely that the company’s CoI policy won’t let him accept it anyway?

    I was going to go with a bottle of nice wine; I know for a fact that he would drink it.

      1. Anon*

        I report to him as a contractor. It occurs to me now that the real impropriety is because he may have a say in awarding future contracts. But isn’t that how a lot of vendors operate? Buttering up the buyers?

        1. Jamie*

          Yep – if you’re a contractor that’s a vendor gift. However, if you’re a temp then it’s more a personal gift since it’s from you and not on behalf of your company.

          Something to keep in mind is that a lot of companies have policies against accepting vendor gifts, so try to make sure he can keep it, or you might end up keeping it yourself.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            And confusingly, some companies with a vendor gift policy will accept a box of chocolates meant for sharing or small items meant for office use. If they recipient is in a tightly regulated industry- then go with a seasonal card and some thoughtful words.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          There’s probably nothing wrong with it, but if you’re worried, give him a really nice note thanking him for his help. That kind of thing often has more meaning anyway.

          1. Jamie*

            Love the note. Seriously, I don’t know what it is about the words just seeming to hold more power when in writing.

            I worked with someone once who was, at a time, the bane of my existence since he insisted on “experimenting” with different ways to do things in the ERP which required me to constantly mop up the results of his experiments. I forbade him to touch anything or to conduct any experiment not involving a Bunsen burner…and even those had to be off the premises.

            Long story short he shows a lot of growth as an employee and becomes someone who adds a lot of value. As my trust increases so does his access…and then oops. Not an experiment, just an error which can happen to anyone. I cleaned the mess and came in the next morning to a handwritten thank you note on my chair.

            He thanked me for the current help, but also thanked me for what I’d taught him over the previous few years and for being able to see past his rocky beginnings and giving him more and more responsibility. Then my favorite part was when he thanked me “for not being a bitch about it.” Hee.

            He left last year for an awesome opportunity elsewhere. We aren’t friends and I’ll never see him again (most likely) – but I still have the note.

            Do not underestimate the power of a note people. And they are free!

            1. Rana*

              Agreed. Gifts tend to be eaten, forgotten in a cupboard, or tediously hauled around. A note specifically pointing out how I was awesome for someone? Treasure.

  9. JustAsking*

    If you have an employee who gives gifts to their manager, what’s the best way to handle that situation?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The manager could simply say in advance that she prefers not to receive gifts and that the best gift anyone can give is doing a good job. Once a gift is given, though, you just accept it graciously.

        1. Wishing*

          So true- the owner of our company gave us large bonuses in the past. In turn the Manager would ask for over $100 per employee toward a gift for the owner, knowing our bonus amounts. A few of us fought a losing battle as we feel a gift should be given as an individual can give , not dictated by someone who has the power to hire and fire. Business has declined, staff has been reduced, bonuses removed, but the Manager still asks for $25 per person toward a gift. Why have I lost the giving spirit in the office? I am grateful for my job and my performance throughout the year speaks this truth- so sad the Manager can’t see what he is doing to the staff. As a side note, the staff has never received a gift directly from the Manager- interesting……

  10. Elizabeth West*


    I think it’s okay to include the boss if it’s a thing you’re doing for the company. In small offices I’ve worked in, we sometimes had employee-organized potlucks or treats, and of course we asked the bosses if they’d like to participate. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.

  11. GeekChic*

    If you do decide to follow #7 and you don’t know the person you’re giving the food to really well – then for the love of egg nog don’t:

    – Expect them to eat it in front of you without being questioned about how it was made and with what ingredients / or where the packaging might be.

    – Ask later exactly what the person thought of the food and seriously expect to get a detailed answer (because I’ve probably thrown it out or given it away).

    Allergies can be life threatening and no – I don’t actually trust you with my life.

    1. Suz*

      And on the “do” side, make sure the ingredients are listed, just in case. At my office, we even do this with homemade food. At potlucks, all the dishes will have a post-it listing the ingredients.

  12. AdAgencyChick*

    I’m so with all of these rules.

    I’ve been in a management position for a few years now and I’ve had a couple of employees get me things. Once was when I gave my direct report (my only one at the time) a gift, and he gave me one back a few days later. I felt really bad about that — his gift was clearly a response to my gift — but I didn’t really know what to do about it, other than say thank you and tell him he really didn’t need to do that. The other time, a direct report, totally unsolicited, gave me something that, although not kazillions of dollars, was not a $5 item either. I was touched and at the same time felt really terrible, because a) I knew how much more I made than she did and b) I firmly believe her gift to me was how much easier she made my life by being a strong performer! (And I felt even worse because I had been planning to go shopping for HER gift that very afternoon, and she beat me to it.)

    The first example has made me wait to give gifts until the last minute — but then it came back to bite me in the ass when the second person gifted me before I could tell her not to!

  13. Agile Phalanges*

    Why would an employer even give employees an actual turkey or ham? Where would the employer store them all? Then what do they expect the employees to do with them? What if they’re not headed straight home? What if they don’t have any room in the fridge or freezer? Also, as you say, it’s fraught with issues if the recipient doesn’t want a hunk of meat for whatever reason.

    I’m glad my employer just gives us gift cards to a local grocery store prior to Thanksgiving. You can consider it a turkey, if you’re buying a turkey, or it can just save you money on your next everyday shopping trip. MY problem is I still haven’t remembered to use LAST year’s card, and now I have another one. Sheesh!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s a holdover from the 1950s, when your company would have it delivered to your home. Maybe they still do it that way. I’d love to hear from someone with first-hand experience with this!

      1. Jamie*

        Sorry for the avalanche of posts, but I do have first hand experience with this. When I was starting out my first job when I was an Office Manager I had to arrange the delivery at end of all three shifts for frozen turkeys for 200+ people.

        Every single person complained – everyone. And it was a logistical nightmare to time delivery so they weren’t sitting end of shift.

        Also, it was the day before Thanksgiving. What the hell is anyone going to do with a 20 lb frozen turkey without time to properly defrost?

        Home delivery would have been fabulous, but in this era not everyone has someone home to take delivery during the day.

        I much prefer the symbolic turkey in form of gift card to a grocery store. I always give mine to somene I know has a lot of people to feed for the holiday because that grocery store is a hike for us…and we don’t need it. But the thought is lovely.

      2. Juana*

        My company gave us all turkeys 2 days before Thanksgiving, fresh ones from a local farm that would have cost quite a bit more than the grocery store to buy for ourselves. It was announced a few weeks earlier, so we had the option to opt out by having the turkey donated instead. Some people kept theirs frozen at the office- although as a grocery manufacturer our office has a test kitchen which obviously isn’t an option everywhere.

        I never thought of it being a holdover from the 1950s, although it makes sense in my case since they were a gift from the very oldschool CEO! That being said, I did appreciate the gesture and the freezer full of free local organic meat, but if given a choice I’d have taken a gift card.

        1. the gold digger*

          In my first job out of college – the one where the donut and coffee cart came around every day at 10:00 a.m., they gave us a turkey. I don’t remember if I took it – I was 21 and had no idea how to cook a turkey, but I remember being impressed.

          My next corporate job, they gave us a gift card to Boston Market for one meal.

          My current employer supplies toilet paper and we’re grateful

      3. Suz*

        My previous employer used to do this. You could choose either a turkey or a ham and they were delivered a week before thanksgiving. This was back in the days before gift cards. Some people complained and said they’d rather just have the $. Management said the reason they didn’t give $ was because then the recipient would have to pay income tax on it. If they gave us food, we’d get the full value of it.

        After gift cards were invented, they switched to giving us a card to a local grocery store.

        1. Josh S*

          Technically, you’re supposed to treat the value of the food as taxable income too, so they really weren’t doing you any favors. Same as if they gave you a company car to drive as a perk–that’s compensation/income. (Though there might be a threshold for non-monetary compensation.)

          I have no idea how that gets reported on your W2, and it’s entirely possible that your employer was doing this ‘under the table’ somewhat, but it’s supposed to be reported.

Comments are closed.