all your questions about holiday gift-giving at work, answered

Holiday gift-giving at the office can be a land mine. Do you give a gift to your boss? Do you have to buy gifts for all your coworkers? How about group gifts?

Here are answers to five of the most frequent questions about workplace gift-giving.

1. Do I have to give a gift to my boss?

You absolutely do not need to give a gift to your boss – and what’s more, you shouldn’t. There’s very clear etiquette on this, which says that gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward – meaning that gifts from bosses to employees are fine, but employees should not be expected to give gifts to those above them. This rule is understandable when you think about the power dynamics in the boss/employee relationship. People shouldn’t feel obligated to purchase gifts for someone with power over their livelihood, and managers should never benefit from the power dynamic in that way.

2. What if everyone else in my office is giving gifts to the boss? Won’t I look bad if I don’t?

This is a case of needing to know the culture of your workplace – and knowing your boss too. A reasonable manager would never, ever penalize someone, even subtly, for not giving her a gift at the holidays. On the other hand, you might not have a reasonable manager. Know your own situation, and proceed accordingly. (But know that etiquette is on your side if you choose not to.)

3. What if I’m being pressured to chip in money for a group gift for the boss?

You should never feel pressured into spending money you can’t afford or just don’t want to spend. It’s reasonable to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t participate this year” or “Unfortunately, my budget won’t allow it.”

Moreover, you’d probably be doing the rest of your coworkers a favor if you suggest foregoing a gift for the boss. Consider saying something like, “Most managers I’ve known have been uncomfortable receiving gifts for their team. Rather than putting her in an awkward position, maybe we could do a card instead, or just bring in treats for everyone to share.” Chances are good that at least some of your coworkers will be relieved to have one less spending obligation at this time of year.

4. I’m a manager. How can I discourage employees from giving me gifts without being ungracious?

The best time to address this is before any gift-giving occurs. At the start of the holiday season – especially if you’ve noticed upward gift-giving in your office in the past – it’s smart to say something like, “I know this is the season of office gift-giving, so I want to say preemptively that simply doing your jobs well is enough of a gift for me. I don’t believe anyone should have to give gifts to their boss, so please put that toward family and friends instead.”

If it’s too late for that or you receive a gift from an employee anyway, as long as it’s not something extravagantly expensive, 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.

5. What about giving gifts to coworkers?

Different offices handle this differently, so again this is a case of knowing your workplace. Some offices don’t do gift exchanges at all. Others do a “white elephant” exchange or Secret Santa. However your office handles this, it’s important to guard against creating obligations for people who might not have the budget (or inclination) to reciprocate. Smart offices find ways to provide outlets for gift-giving impulses while keeping them relatively restricted (such as gift swaps where each person brings in a single gift, rather than having to do more than that). And it might be said that even smarter offices encourage people to focus their gift-giving outside of work.

If you do decide to give gifts to coworkers, keep in mind that food items (especially homemade baked goods) are usually popular, and often more appreciated – and less expensive – than tchotchkes and trinkets. Plus, they can simply be shared with the group, rather than getting into the politics of individual gift-giving.

If you’re determined to give gifts and don’t want to give food, be aware that some items that might be appropriate for family and friends can be overly intimate for coworkers. Perfumes, body and skin care products, political or religious items, pajamas (or – eeek! – lingerie), advice books, and jewelry are often too personal for the office.

And when in doubt, stick with cards. (Or cookies!)

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. KJR*

    I would love some opinions on this. Ever since I’ve been here (12 years), we’ve given our boss (the owner) a gift. No pressure to donate. A single e-mail goes out, and I am the only one who know who gives/who doesn’t give, and how much they give. This year we made a donation to a charity on whose board our boss sits. Everything in the article makes complete sense, but my question is how do we put a stop to the gift giving to the boss when we are this far into it? Every year, before the e-mail goes out, I have people asking what we are getting him this year, and if donations have started yet. I feel like it would be weird if I were to just say one year, “Oh yeah, I read that gifts should only flow downward, so no gifts from here on out.” Any ideas on how I would approach this? Or do I just stay with the status quo since everyone seems to enjoy giving him something? I might add roughly half the people do not donate at all, and as I mentioned earlier, no one knows who does and who doesn’t, not even the boss. Any thoughts?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One option: Send the article around with a note saying something like, “I’ve been reading lots of stuff like this lately, discouraging people from gifting upward at work and I think it makes a lot of sense, especially the points about the potential for people to feel obligated to give, even when it might strain their budget. Starting next year, I’m planning to circulate a card for Bob but am going to stop collecting toward a gift.”

      And then you could forward the email to your boss with a separate note, saying something like, “Hey, wanted to give you a heads-up about this so you don’t think it’s any reflection on you!” (Or just mention it to him in person next year.)

    2. Empress Zhark*

      From what you’ve said, the gift giving is
      a) totally voluntary.
      b) anonymous (apart from yourself who know who does/doesn’t donate, and I’d assume you’re discreet about those details).
      c) there’s no punishment or penalty for not donating (nor a reward/incentive for those who do donate).
      d) there’s no pressure on anyone to donate if they don’t want to.
      e) There’s no minimum dollar amount.

      Therefore I’d say the status quo is reasonable. However, it may be worth discreetly checking with the boss to make sure he’s comfortable receiving the gifts, and if he’s not he should then say something to the team either in the new year or next November time. But if everyone’s happy with the current arrangement and there are no truly no complaints or grumbles or gripes, then I don’t see the harm in letting it continue (and stopping the practice may even upset a few people).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think it’s horrible if it continues, but I do think that it would also be reasonable to stop it — largely because a lot of people still feel obligated to give in this situation even if they’re told it’s purely optional, but also partly because … well, the etiquette says what it says for a reason, and that’s because there really is something inappropriate about people spending their own money on their boss (and the boss allowing it year after year).

        1. Empress Zhark*

          That’s fair enough. I just know I’ve worked in some small, tight-knit companies where suggesting that such a practice was stopped would offend many – especially if the reasoning is simply “it’s poor etiquette”, and no-one had ever raised a complaint or even mentioned that they had a problem with/didn’t like giving gifts to the boss. The person who suggests stopping the scheme would be seen as a pariah – not because they didn’t donate, but because they stopped every one else from doing something they enjoyed for (seemingly) no good reason.

          Having said that, I do agree with you that there is something inappropriate about the boss continuing to accept the gifts year on year, and really he should have had the nous to stop it long before this point.

    3. H*

      Why not send out an email with the article attached and ask for honest feedback? I assume you know your coworkers well enough to know if they actually would give honest feedback.

    4. Beezus*

      ” This year we made a donation to a charity on whose board our boss sits.” – Was this the gift?

        1. Beezus*

          That’s your lead, then! Right from the article – “It might be said that even smarter offices encourage people to focus their gift-giving outside of work.” You’re already more than halfway there. It would be easy to have him follow up this year’s gift with a note thanking the office in general for supporting his charity of choice, maybe a few words about the charity’s mission and why it’s a good cause, and then close with a request that the annual gift collection funds be used for the charity of individual employees’ choice instead in the future, instead of a gift for the boss.

    5. KJR*

      Thanks so much! As I reflect further on the situation, I think Empress Zhark hit the nail on the head in both posts. No one has once complained (even slightly or off-handedly) that they minded, and those that couldn’t afford/didn’t want to contribute experienced no retribution, as I kept the information completely to myself. All of us like giving him something, he’s just one of those people you feel honored to work for. Plus, he’s never indicated that he’d rather we didn’t give him something. So I have some more thinking to do, I will also discuss further with our management team to see what will work best for us, as Alison has brought up excellent points as well. I really appreciate the feedback, I really was at a loss.

  2. Joey*

    What about “should managers buy gifts for employees? And how much should they spend? And what are appropriate work gifts?”

  3. ExtraAnonToday*

    In my previous workplace, we would all be expected to contribute $15-$20 apiece to a gift for my (terrible) boss and her family. Then we would all be expected to attend a holiday party held at my boss’s house, where we had to spend another $10-$20 on food (it was a potluck, and we were all assigned to contribute to a specific course that we had no say in), and then spend another $10-$20 on a Secret Santa gift for a coworker. Not participating in any of these holiday traditions would cause you to be labeled ‘not a team player.’ So glad I don’t work there anymore!

  4. Suzanne*

    My gift exchange pet peeve? When people don’t stick to the monetary guidelines. One place I worked had a gift exchange with a $10 guideline, so the first year, I showed up with a nicely wrapped $10 gift only to realize that everyone else obviously spent way more than $10.
    Happened to my kids, too, when they were in school, including the time the school collected $3 (or $5?) from each kid to buy each teacher a nice gift so the teachers wouldn’t go home with 20 boxes of cheap chocolates from 20 different kids. So, I sent in the money, happy that I didn’t have to struggle to find a teacher gift. Happy, that is, until my kids came home and informed me that they were the only kids who didn’t bring the teacher a gift on top of the collective gift we had already paid for.

    1. Joey*

      I don’t get the teacher gifts…..or TA gifts either. Their houses must be crammed with bath & body and Starbucks stuff.

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        My mom’s a teacher and I get so many candles and bath products from her because she has nowhere to put them anymore.

      2. Kat M*

        Teacher here, and as usual I’m rolling Target gift cards. I’ll probably spend 50% of that on some layering tanks and socks, and the other 50% will go straight back into the classroom. ;)

        The other things I get a lot are hand sanitizer and chocolate, both of which are appreciated and used!

    2. Chuchundra*

      Yeah, the teacher gift thing happened to us as well. The missus gave five bucks to the teacher gift fund and then my daughter came home and said that everyone brought the teacher an individual gift as well.

      My wife asked me if she should run out and get the teacher something and I said no way.

    3. Jennifer*

      Yeah, that happens allllllll the time on the $10 gift. I don’t think people can get what they think is a good gift with that level of money. Or something.

    4. ooh ahh!*

      Sometimes people are either really thrifty and find stuff early on in the year or they have really good connections. One of my friend’s ex husband works for Schick, so she always gave really nice Schick razors/refills and batteries as stocking stuffers and grab bag gift exchanges work.

      I wouldn’t send in an extra gift for the teacher after the school already collected money for a gift. Our center usually collect money from families for teacher appreciation day gifts. They use the money to cater a nice lunch and buy small gifts for each teacher. Some parents, whose heart is in the right place, still decide to do something extra for their child’s particular teacher. It does make it awkward for the rest of the parents.

      During pick up time today one mom from another classroom, kind of ambushed all the parents from her child’s class even some kids from our class with gifts for their children.She and her child was so happy as they gave each child a gift, but it was a bit awkward. One of our dad’s was awkwardly holding a gift bag. I could see the wheels churning in his head.

    5. Schuyler*

      This is a real problem for me, too, and is one of several reasons that I stopped participating this year. We have a $20 limit, and last year someone mentioned that they went a little over. It annoyed me because, ok… so we have this limit, ostensibly so that people might be more able to afford to participate, and if someone goes over then it’s kind of disrespectful to those who might not be able to afford to go over $20. Or those who get something nice for under $10, since it’s under the limit, but then someone else gets something that’s $30 and clearly much bigger/better/nicer. It also bothered me that she mentioned she went over the limit; even if she was asked, I think it’s then up to you to keep it to yourself.

      This year, someone else went over the limit. That someone happened to get the AVP’s name in the draw. I know it was not done to curry favor, but it could look that way to others. Of course, it was mentioned out loud, again… and it bothers me for all the reasons I mentioned above. I wouldn’t hesitate to mention this if someone asked, even if it made me look like a grinch.

  5. Gwen*

    Coworker gift reciprocity is such a minefield. I thought I’d escaped it (people had been bringing in treats to share for the past week or so), but this morning…gift. And now do I just get a gift for the person who gave ME one? Or should I figure out a few options just in case other people pop up with gifts tomorrow?? Sigh!

    1. ooh ahh!*

      I stepped on this minefield my first year, when I cleverly decided to give each coworker a white wooden dove ornament that I had picked up from a discount store for like .99 for a box 12 or something–on top of signing up to do the Secret Santa gift. I figured everyone would appreciate a peaceful dove. Well there was no peace, my coworkers were very blunt and explained how I had put them on the hook for yet another gift–and nipped in the bud right away. But I still was left clueless for a while because I had received gifts from members of my own team. The following year homemade baked goods, the year after that holiday cards, more baked goods the next year. I have no clue as to what I may bring in tomorrow perhaps a season’s greeting card and some hershey kisses…

      1. Grapey*

        I find it distasteful when people complain to your face about feeling on the hook for a gift. All that needs to be said is “Thank you for thinking of me.”

  6. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

    This reminds me of the time our office played Secret Santa, and our (female) administrative assistant gave our (female) boss lingerie: lacy animal print camisole and panties. SO AWKWARD!

      1. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

        Yep, she opened it in front of all of us! The whole office went out to eat for a special lunch, and we each opened our gifts one by one, right at the table. We also had to guess who we thought our Secret Santa was. (My boss guessed correctly. Our shocked faces probably gave her a clue).

        Boss turned bright red and quickly put it back in the bag. The assistant made a few awkward jokes about how my boss was single (assistant was single too) and kept asking if she liked it. Hilariously inappropriate!

  7. ooh ahh!*

    I know this is not so much related to gift giving upward but all this talk made me also think about when to donate or contribute to things like office supplies and such. I’m a teacher assistant at a daycare and the teachers often buy supplies for the classroom and while I feel part of the team, I don’t have extra money hanging around to donate when budgets are frozen and etc. I know most teacher “accept” this is part of the job. For instance, we just did a holiday activity last week, which we got minimal donations from the parents (the area we serve is mostly low income) and the teacher picked up the slack. Should I have contributed or should we have nixed the activity? This happens all throughout the school year. I used to contribute (we’d divy it up among the team–I’m the only assistant) but now I don’t because I honestly can’t afford to.

    1. Joey*

      My daughters prek adds all that stuff to the required school supplies. Paper towels, hand sanitizer, wipes, etc. Might be a good idea….

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        If they’re mostly low income, they may not be able to afford even the other school supplies (crayons, paper, pencils). Low income in my area includes kids with no coats, no beds, and almost no food outside of school breakfast and lunches (local churches provide breakfast foods in the summer when school is out). That’s often why teachers spend their own money: some kids have so little. Unfortunately, often teachers don’t have a lot of extra either.

      2. Beezus*

        Yeah, my school district collects food to send home with some kids on the weekend because they are so low income that the free breakfast and lunch the kids qualify for at school are the only good meals they get, and the school staff worries that the kids don’t get enough to eat on the weekends. So they’ll send the kids home with a grocery bag of single-serving foods (fruit cups, soup cans, cracker packages, instant oatmeal) to cover 6 meals over the weekend. Stop for a second and think about that. :( It breaks my heart. No way those kids’ families have money for the basic school supplies, much less anything extra. I’m not saying the teachers should have to cover it either, but “low income” has various levels of meaning, and “literally no money for food, children starving” is one of them.

        1. ooh ahh!*

          Ironically, we end our day with lots of leftover cold breakfast foods. Some kids are so excited about school that they don’t want to sit down and eat. They may eat a little and decide they are finished 2 minutes into the meal and want to go read a story in the library. Some stay at the breakfast/lunch table and eat as much as they can doing breakfast/lunch time. My classes are only 2 1/2 hour sessions (am/pm). At the end of each day we put all the leftover breakfast snacks in a box and the kids can take as little or as much as they like. It always make me smile how they are very considerate of others as they make their choices of what to take and how much to take. One little boy always take 3-4 bags apples for each person in his family , he bypass all the muffins, cereals, crackers just to get to the apples. One little girl, made my heart melt, when she saw I had put yogurt in the box (we’re suppose to throw out the yogurt because we’re not suppose store it in the fridge BUT we’re encouraged to give the left over food to families–makes no sense to me, so I keep the yogurt in the fridge anyway because I’m not going let yogurt sit out all day and then give it to someone to take home nor do I want to throw out a perfectly good container of yogurt ) so I go to the fridge and put the yogurt and the box. The little girl put down one of the bag of apples she had been contemplating about and picked up the yogurt and explained to me how the yogurt was a better choice for her baby sister who couldn’t eat the apples. Makes my heart smile because they don’t just think about themselves. :)

      3. ooh ahh!*

        For reasons other’s have mentioned, we really can’t require our parents to bring in school supplies.

    2. NotKatietheFed*

      Have you tried talking to an office supply or big box store? I know several in our area allow you to donate supplies at back to school time, and you might be able to get donations directly from the store throughout the year. Then the burden for even the teachers would be a lot less.

      Also, if you do donate anything personally, I know the IRS gives a small tax credit or deduction (I can’t remember which) for teachers for supplies.

      1. ooh ahh!*

        Yeah, we get donations and it’s coordinated with administration and some of the teachers. As far as the tax deductions, I usually fall into the standard deduction range.

  8. ThursdaysGeek*

    So, no advice books and no gifts for the boss. It’s too bad, because I think Alison’s book “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Getting Results” could be a good gift for my boss. Oh well, at least I have a pretty good boss for someone I almost never see or talk to.

  9. Jordi*

    My coworkers and I exchange gifts annually and just today I gave everyone something that would fall under the “too personal” list in #5. I still stand by it though, I gave out handmade soaps that support a local community in a foreign country I recently visited. They’re really nice soaps too.

    I received some baked goods, and my problem with cookies and other treats is that I have food allergies and there are a lot of baked goods I cannot eat. There is nothing worse that having a plate of fudge in front of me, knowing I can’t have any.

    1. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

      Actually, the soaps from a foreign country don’t sound too personal too me. If you’d made them yourself, yes. But a souvenir from a trip, and something as basic (ha!) as soap seems fine.

  10. Not So NewReader*

    I am even wondering about cookies now. I had a discussion today with a woman in another department about how they have waaay too many cookies and no one is taking them home to finish. She felt the cookies would end up in the garbage. Then I noticed another department had thrown a large platter of cookies in the garbage. (The cookies had been around for a week or so.)

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