my coworker gives me a gift every year — should I be reciprocating?

A reader writes:

I work on a small team where everyone is pretty friendly. Usually for the holidays, my co-workers and I exchange cards or leave baked goods in the kitchen for people to share. But one of my co-workers gives me a gift every year. It’s nothing extravagant – a candle one year, a book she thought I’d like another year, and so forth. But I’m feeling awkward that I’ve never reciprocated. Honestly, I’d prefer not to! I have a small gift-buying budget that I prefer to spend on my family, and I don’t want to encourage the expectation that we’ll all give each other gifts. But now that it’s clear she’s going to give me something every year, am I being rude by not giving her something back?

I answer this question — and many others — over at The Cut today. You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  •  Should I give my boss a gift?
  • My boss wants an expensive gift!
  • How can I discourage employees from giving me gifts?
  • What’s an appropriate gift to get for a coworker?
  • Can I send a gift to a potential employer?
  • Is it appropriate to give my intern a gift?

{ 92 comments… read them below }

  1. NJ Anon*

    I had a coworker who gave me a gift every year and every year I told her not to. I could nof afford to reciprocate. Every year she still would and I still didnt. I didnt let it bother me.

  2. Threeve*

    I hope karma catches up with the selfish a-hole who thinks it’s okay to shake her employees down for $60 for a “gift” for herself.

      1. Momma Bear*

        I don’t even spend that much on some people I like, let alone a boss/coworker. Mandatory gifting is uncool. I hope the LW simply refuses to do it.

        1. Koalafied*

          Seriously. I make a comfortable but not extravagant salary and I budget $20-30 each for friends – including my best friend! – and for family members who I have a good enough relationship with to be exchanging gifts but am not particularly close to. I budget up to $50 each for my boyfriend, mom, and sister, each of whom I have a close intimate relationship with. Nobody gets $60!

        2. Diahann Carroll*

          Right – I don’t even think I spent $60 on my mom for Christmas this year! (Last year was different since I got her a Ninja Foodi as a housewarming/early Christmas gift). I would be very upset if someone demanded I contribute that much to a gift I didn’t pick out in the first place for a boss I may or may not even like.

    1. L.H. Puttgrass*

      Competition is tough for Worst Boss of the Year this year, but damn. Dishonorable mention to the owner who shakes down her employees to get herself a “present” each year.

      1. Mimi Me*

        My husband once worked for a boss that did this. And worse yet, the boss was my husband’s cousin. The one year the staff stood up to him about the mandatory gift card exchange and boss gift (literally $600 out of our pockets every year!!!) he retaliated by changing employee schedules, cutting hours and then when work was backed up and deadlines missed making everyone do mandatory OT. He also decided to eliminate vacation days for the employees. My husband hasn’t worked for (or spoken to) his cousin in over 12 years but he still has PTSD about that job and regularly has nightmares about working there.

        1. L.H. Puttgrass*


          I’d bet serious money that this boss also refers to every dollar her company pays in salary as “money out of her own pocket.”

      2. jph in the midlands*

        I had a boss who expected us all to go in and get her a gift card to a specific women’s clothing store. Our poor admin, who was broke and fighting cancer at the time, was made to do the collecting and told everybody how much they were expected to give by salary. Oh, and it all had to be done before Thanksgiving, because that particular store had a big sale the day after. I inherited this boss when my hospital was part of a merger–one of the worst bosses I ever had. (you always want to be at the organization that is the merge-er, not the merge-ee. It was not pretty, but that’s a story for another day).

    2. Tuesday*

      Grrrr, that one makes me so mad! Too late to get her in the Worst Boss of 2020 competition? She should get a dishonorable mention at least.

    3. Minnie Mouse*

      I worked at a small business like that. Most of the staff made under $12/hr but the most long standing of the receptionists would shake everyone down for $15 for the owner’s birthday and Christmas presents. I was broke and tried to push back and she got absolutely vicious with me. Boss would pout if we forgot his birthday and could be an absolutely nasty, spoiled brat.
      I didn’t even get a Christmas bonus and my gift from my boss was a cheap, company branded fleece zip-up. So basically a uniform piece.
      That place was a dumpster fire. I couldn’t stand the sight of my boss vacuuming at my next job because that’s what Bad Boss did when he was mad at us.

    4. Lady Meyneth*

      Yeah, is it too late to include her with the worst bosses? Though of course, when I think about it, our nominees are depressingly worse. :(

    5. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      At this point it’s basically an illegal pay deduction and I would be whistleblowing to the authorities.

      1. Dave*

        It would be tempting to ask if they could make it payroll deduction so you could skip taxes on it or if you are poorly paid showed you didn’t make minimum wage that week. People like this (and so many others) give small businesses a bad name. I mean my office is screwed up but at least it isn’t this screwed up.

  3. Richard Hershberger*

    Coworker: Does she give everyone a comparable gift, or just the LW? If the first one, this is mildly awkward but not a big deal. This is just something she does. But if the LW is special, coworker thinking they are besties, then this is rather more awkward and probably needs to be addressed.

  4. Quickbeam*

    I have a coworker who gives me a Christmas specific gift every year. I am not a Christian and have asked my work group to please not include me.The gifts I get have a baby Jesus and a manger, that type of thing.

    I’m close to returement so it’s not a hill to die on. I say thank you and donate it to Goodwill, every year.

    1. Mimi Me*

      I have a friend who is very non-religious who, when given a faith based gift by a work friend of hers, puts it in a drawer and then re-gifts it to her coworker on her birthday with a “I got you one too since you were so excited about it at Christmas.” Three years in a row and her coworker either hasn’t caught on or is too polite to say anything. :)

      1. Elenia*

        If it is someone I trust, i have been very blunt. “This is lovely and you’re so kind to think of me, but I’m not Christian and I can’t accept this.”

        I am really easy going and decorate an xmas tree and put up lights. I figure it’s no different than any other lights holiday; it’s dark, it’s gloomy, it’s cold, I may as well decorate. And Christmas is easy to buy for. But I won’t have any Jesus-y things in my house, or saints, or nuns, and I think it’s not asking too much of people to respect that.

      2. yala*

        That’s absolutely genius!

        Of course, she’s in a pickle if the coworker gets her something because “I got it for me and loved it so much I got it for you too!”

        But the likelihood is nil.

    2. TiffIf*

      I am Christian and I collect miniature holy family single piece decorations (small collection so far! not a lot of room for knick-knacks in my home) and I live in an area where I am a member of the majority religion, and I would still be uncomfortable with a co worker giving me a religious gift.

  5. Uranus Wars*

    For the OP asking about giving a gift to their boss…I agree a card with a heartfelt note is the way to go. Outside of gifts shouldn’t flow up, it will likely be more meaningful than any purchase.

  6. AnotherSarah*

    For student interns–I usually get mine a small fancy food item, something made locally, as well as a nice card thanking them for their good/hard work. I do this at the end of the time they’ve worked for me, which is usually the end of the term and if it’s fall term, falls around winter break. I get something most people like (chocolate, etc.), and figure that it’s at least re-giftable. (If I knew someone had a particular love or distaste, I’d of course take that into account.)

  7. Elenia*

    As a manager, it makes me super uncomfortable when my staff gives me a gift. I make more money than you, that is supposed to be my “gift”, I really promise I don’t need a gift. I’d rather have you spend the money on yourself! I send my staff gifts and I make it clear I expect no reciprocation. In better days I’d have suggested treats to bring into the office if they really must.
    I also get one from my manager and I always just send a heartfelt thank you.

  8. Lacey*

    At a previous company they would send round an email every year asking people to donate for a gift to the owner. I gave $5 the first year because I felt awkward about it, but every year after I said, “Not this year”

    The gifts got more and more extravagant. When I started I think we bought a clock. By the time I was leaving we were paying for weekend getaways for the owner’s family – right after he’d built himself a brand new house.

    And because the gifts were more extravagant, the people arranging this started telling us how much to give ($45 the last year) and saying that if we had particularly tough circumstances we could come explain it to them and some people were prepared to pay more to make it up.

    By this time I was just ignoring the emails. Even though the gift arranger said she would come see us if we didn’t contribute, she never did. I heard that she complained about me every year, but meanwhile I was fantasizing about printing off every AAM about gifts flowing down and scattering them around the office.

    This was a small business where you would frequently hear things like, “We should all be so grateful to Bob for giving us jobs!”

    1. Anonya*

      You did the right thing by ignoring. This is so inappropriate! And, I’m not thinking too much of the owner for not putting a stop to this madness.

      1. Lacey*

        Yeah, he absolutely should have shut it down – especially once it got to be more than one $20 gift from the whole staff. Instead, he just arranged to hound us for money for a couple of high up managers when they hit their 10 year anniversaries. All I got for my 10 year was the knowledge that they weren’t honoring the extra week of vaca I was supposed to have earned.

  9. Tasha*

    I disagree with your rule about “nothing that goes on the body.” I think lotion or scented pump soap is fine, as long as you’re not hinting that someone smells bad–for example, every one in the department receives the same thing.

    1. Workerbee*

      Perhaps think of it this way, then: What smells heavenly to you may stink to high heaven for the recipient There may be allergies you don’t know about that trigger sneezing or rashes or worse. Someone may prefer soaps and lotions without additives. These are some of the reasons I steer clear of choosing a scent for someone unless and until they specifically ask for or indicate wanting it.

      1. TiffIf*

        My hands are super super dry (to the point of sometimes cracking and bleeding) because of washing my hands so often (I also don’t have a dishwasher so wash all dishes by hand) but I have found very few lotions I like–most of the scented ones, especially floral/fruity ones, give me headaches and many feel greasy–I have a collection of unused unopened lotions from people. (My favorite lotion that I have found that works for my hands is Burt’s Bees Milk and Honey.)

        1. yala*

          fwiw, if any of those unused lotions are Bath&Body Works, and you feel like making the effort to trade them in, I finally found one that a)I can stand and b) doesn’t make my hands feel super greasy: their glycerin lotion. It’s in a tube, not a bottle, and it’s a bit pepperminty, but not overwhelming.

          I used to work at BBW, and hoo boy, I have always hated their lotion. Even in fragrances where I like the soap, the lotions just smell Off and feel greasy.

          But I go a little ham on their candles, so I get coupons for “free gift with purchase” and that’s the thing I finally started using them for. Especially this year when my hands are raw from antibac/washing so often.

        2. Union Maid*

          donate to the local food bank? if I am not giving money to our foodbank, I donate soap, sanpro and shampoo. people who have no money for food also have no money for basic toiletries

        3. F.M.*

          And ironically, when I started using hand lotions for cold winter months when my skin gets dry… I found that Burt’s Bees was the one lotion that works the worst for me. Which I did not expect, because I love their chapstick and many other products. Which just goes to show how tricky it is to give an on-the-body item.

          I also rather hate getting ‘beauty’ sets from people I don’t know well, because it’s such a Generic Gift For Women thing. “Chicks love bath bombs and smelly soap, right? Check!” Even when I do like strongly scented bath stuff, I’d rather get it for myself, or get it from one of a very small number of people who know my preferences already.

      2. Koalafied*

        Yep, unless you know someone’s preferences for brand/scent with body products, it’s probably a waste of money. Bath/body products and candles have got to be one of the most endlessly regifted/never used products out there.

    2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      In a year like this hand sanitizer would be another on-the-body thing that might be OK

      1. cmcinnyc*

        We got really weird hand sanitzer gifts in 2019 and we all gratefully dug them out of drawers in March when we were sent home. Thanks, Office Santa!

        1. littledoctor*

          They’d probably been watching the news! The outbreak in Wuhan was beginning to be talked about in December, especially on Asian social media–I was somewhat worried about it around Christmas.

        2. Butterfly Counter*

          That happened at a charity function I worked at last year! One of the take-home gifts from the swag bags was hand sanitizer and I felt like that little tube saw me through some tough times this year.

    3. Anonyme*

      Scented products are NOT fine. I don’t even bring those in the house, they go in the trash before I go in the door. I have ended up with raging, multi-day migraines from even unwrapping these nightmares.

    4. yala*

      Scents are dicey. I hate florals and love foody scents. My mom is absolutely the other way around. My best friend/housemate absolutely freaked out when I replaced the lemon kitchen soap with a blueberry cobbler one (“I know it’s soap, but my brain keeps telling me I’ve got pie on my hands and they’re not clean!”)

      And that’s just preferences. Loads of people get headaches from scented lotions/soaps. (regular BBW lotions give me a headache about an hour after using them, every time). Or are allergic to ingredients in them.

      There’s too many things that can go wrong with scented things. If you must, there’s always that One Peach Candle…

    5. pcake*

      I think it’s safer to give something people won’t either dislike (not everyone likes the same scents), and some scented products are overwhelmingly scented or can cause sneezing or a rash.

    6. Oui oui*

      When I read that I thought unscented hand lotion could be okay, and this year it could be hand sanitizer, and inexpensive funny face masks (to wear outside the office) could be fun too!

  10. Eleanor Konik*

    I’m a teacher. I enjoy giving gifts. Every year I give my colleagues that I work directly with a small, thoughtful gift in line with stuff I know they like. I always leave the gift on their desk when they’re not there. I don’t expect reciprocation, many of my colleagues don’t reciprocate, and it’s fine. I enjoy it when I find out that one of my colleagues enjoys the gift I got them or I see it in use, but it’s also fine if I never hear about it again. It’s a me thing, not a them thing.

    I like giving gifts and I don’t have any relatives to do meaningful gift exchange with, and I have disposable income. To the best of my knowledge no one is upset about it, so I keep doing it.

    1. Malarkey01*

      I think the only thing to keep in mind is that it might make some people feel uncomfortable or bad, especially if their financial circumstances are limited. I’d just keep that in mind, since I would never ever ever complain about receiving a gift, but would feel awful if I couldn’t reciprocate.

      1. Another Teacher*

        The thing about teachers though is that we’re ALL in dire financial straits lol- I don’t think that stuff is really comparable to many other professions

      2. Also Poor This Year*

        My financial situation is rough this year and it makes me feel good to get thoughtful gifts, large or small. There’s no one rule for humans and people can give gifts if they it makes them happy.

  11. CJM*

    For the LW whose co-workers exchange gifts, I don’t know how many people she’s talking about, but I certainly wouldn’t want to spend even $10 on gifts for my 12 co-workers. Especially when so often the gifts to people you don’t know well go unused. Like candles when lots of people are sensitive to scents, or flavored coffee to somebody who you know does drink coffee, but may not like flavored ones.

    1. BJS*

      I’m praying hard my new employer doesn’t do any sort of gift-giving/exchange (it’s a small company, she owns it, etc.) because I can’t afford to buy and ship gifts to all 12 of my colleagues – they’re in New York, I’m in California.

  12. LeisureSuitLarry*

    There is one manager at my company that gives his boss a gift every year. Boss has been very open that he doesn’t want or expect gifts from his staff, but this guy continues to do it. I suspect he gives the gift stealthily by just leaving the wrapped package on Boss’s desk. Every year, without fail, the boss moves the wrapped gift from his desk to a table and never touches it again. There’s basically a Christmas shrine in his office of unopened gifts from this one guy. Given the nature of our office, there are probably several bottles of pretty nice scotch that will never see the light of day or fulfill their purpose hidden behind some fairly nice wrappings. One would think that someone would reach out and grab the low-hanging clue, but this has been going on for something like 12 years now.

    1. Frank Doyle*

      I mean . . . if there are a dozen wrapped boxes by now, surely no one would notice if one went missing?

      1. Elenia*

        So weird, right? You’d think the employee would have noticed that no one is accepting his gift by now?

      2. Ginger Baker*

        This is how I get several bottles of wine each year – BossMan2 is a major wine snob and so I just asked “hey, can I take these off your hands?” and he happily handed over his collection of Holiday Gift Wine that was perfectly fine wine for me but just not up to his very picky standards. See also: asking the manager who doesn’t like champagne much if we could throw a short Bubbly Happy Hour to a) give those of us on that floor an excuse to mingle and chat for a bit and b) use up this champagne he had no interest in. Win-win all around in both situations!

    2. yala*

      I mean…I might reach out and grab the low-hanging Nice Bottle Of Scotch.

      But then again, in our office, anything that goes on the table is free for grabs.

      1. LeisureSuitLarry*

        My office has a free bar with plenty of good scotch. Oddly, the boss only drinks bad scotch, so if there is good scotch in the gift it would totally be going to waste anyway.

  13. Salad Daisy*

    I have already ready my free The Cut articles for the month so I cannot access this. Not fair!

    1. Frank Doyle*

      There’s a sale on now, just $20 for the year! It’s totally worth it! You should go for it, I did and it’s nice to know that I’m supporting Alison and other writers.

  14. Bookworm*

    Gift-giving isn’t really a thing with my current org, but thanks for sharing these letters. Sometimes I’ve been in these awkward situations so I appreciate seeing similar questions and their responses.

  15. Deborah*

    I did day to day support for some large, important accounts for one employer, and we had independent sales reps that would represent multiple vendors to these types of accounts, and they would live and work in different areas of the country, so I only worked with them by phone and email. One year, one of these sales reps that I really respected for how much care and time he put into doing his job well (if you have ever worked with sales, you know not all of them do care about the fine details), sent me a Christmas card with a couple of passes for a movie theatre chain that was nowhere near where I lived and a very nice card. I still treasure the memory because it showed my hard work with those often difficult and needy but important clients was valued in a way a general card to all the office staff wouldn’t have. So I didn’t even mind that I couldn’t actually use the gift. That was kind of a special situation though.

  16. Saberise*

    This reminds me of the last Christmas I worked at my old job from hell. Every year at Christmas and his birthday we would each give $30-50 and get him something. For Christmas he would give each of us like a $5 picture frame. Mind you he made like 6 times more than us. I had been on vacation and when I came back I was told they had discussed it and they had decided we weren’t giving him a gift that year. Well when it because obvious that we weren’t giving him something he started calling everyone in one person at a time to ask why we hadn’t gotten him anything. Until he came to his admin asst, who was the one that had pushed for us to not get him anything. When she found out what he was doing she got a gift card from her purse, that she had bought for someone else and made it out to him. And gave it to him from just her, making the rest of us look really bad. Was so glad to get out of there.

  17. kwagner*

    $60 is so much money. It’s so much money. Aside from all the stuff we all already know about asking for money from employees for luxury items (omg????) and how you should never assume anything about someone’s financial situation, $60 is still just so much money.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      What really burns me about this is that clearly $60 is nothing to the recipient. They think that’s a token gift, whereas LW (and I) think that’s a hefty chunk of gift budget.

      It’s like all the little mice and rabbits in Robin Hood having to give up their pennies so King John can roll around in the treasury.

      1. Ripley Jones*

        I agree it’s a lot. And bullying a gift out of employees? This person has ZERO self awareness. I hope we get an update from LW!

  18. ElizabethJane*

    Are small token gifts ok for bosses? I’m talking consumables. It won’t be a thing this year because I don’t have access to addresses but in the past I’ve brought in some sort of home made item and put a package of each one on everyone’s desk in my department (usually a cellophane bag with some cookies, caramel pretzels, or a candy I have tried making and then tied with a festive ribbon).

    I’m a hobby baker and I frequently ish (once every 4-6 weeks) bring in cookies or a cake or some other new recipe I’ve tried. The only real difference here is that these things are individually packaged because I personally find it enjoyable to up my presentation. Otherwise everyone gets identical treats so it’s not like I’m dropping 2 cookies for each co-worker and then two dozen for my boss.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      I think Alison has always said stuff like this was okay because it’s nominal, not extra work for you, and you’re including everyone in your office – not just your boss.

    2. Daffy Duck*

      Personally, I think that if you are making enough for everyone and putting them in the break room for folks to pick up it is fine. If you are dropping by everyone’s desk and leaving labeled treats (To: Coworker From: Me) it feels like folks should be reciprocal, which is a problem for those that can’t afford (time or money) to do it.
      I appreciate homemade treats and good presentation, but I really don’t like forced work socials that turn into domestic arts competitions.

    3. nora*

      This could be wrong-headed of me, but food (either homemade or small purchased items like an individual cookie or candies) has always seemed excluded from the gifting up paradigm, and even more so if it’s a similar item given to multiple colleague in addition to your boss.

      For example: I’m mailing my team a small sleeve of macarons from a local bakery, and the team would include my boss. I feel ok about this, but I would never gift my boss a nice bottle of wine or gourmet food basket – that feels like inappropriate gifting up.

    4. JustaTech*

      I’d say that’s totally fine because you’re giving them to everyone in the department, and your boss is part of the department.

      I’ll probably bring in a small plate of cookies for my boss and my coworker (each, not to share).

  19. staceyizme*

    Sometimes even generosity can be wrong-headed! Before you know it, you’re trying to recalibrate the relationship so that things stay “fair” and you’re shopping for people who wouldn’t otherwise make it onto your Christmas list! (Or other holiday list!) I don’t think that gifts belong in the office, generally. If bosses are gifting, then money or time off is best. Failing that, something that is proof against the other person’s issues (fragrance sensitivities, color preferences, allergies etc…). Basically, no personal stuff unless you KNOW the person well enough to know what personal stuff works for them. And in an office. you should think twice, even three times, about gifting personal items. Because people’s lives and circumstances change. Their tastes in food, music, books, clothing and little luxuries change. As well, their values may change. People go on diets, stop using certain categories of consumer goods or decide that they’re not doing gifts (or cards… or cake…) this year. Offices (companies) can offer snacks, cake, parties and branded merch, because people can accept or decline these with ease. Team members can bring in treats to share (because these can also be declined with ease, unless the baker is a prima donna or primo donno). But person to person gifts don’t belong in a business setting, in my view.

  20. NapkinThief*

    This is probably too adversarial, but if after clearly stating I cannot/will not give $60 (!!!!) for a gift to the boss (!!!!!) someone told me it was “mandatory” (???!!!!) I would be tempted to call their bluff.

    “I’m afraid I will have to suffer the consequences, as I am unable to give this year. What are those consequences, by the way?”

  21. symmetry*

    I tend to avoid gifts of coffee or tea in case a coworker happens to be Mormon, Jewish (+ keeping kosher at the time), or Muslim (am not usually aware of when Ramadan is in a given year). I think there are some other religions that prohibit coffee and/or tea at some or all times as well.

  22. MCMonkeyBean*

    Nobody should feel like they *have* to do this, especially if money is an issue, but I just want to put this out there: in high school I used to go to like the dollar store or somewhere and buy some cute trinkets. I would keep them wrapped in my locker because there were always a couple of people who I didn’t think I was at gift-exchanging level of friendship who gave me something, and then I had a gift handy to give to them as well.

    As an adult, our “unexpected gift” stash is basically wine haha. My husband and I don’t drink it so every time someone gives us a bottle we stick it in a cabinet and then if we need something to bring to a party or whatever and don’t have time to go to the store we just grab a bottle from there. Not so much for coworkers though I guess…

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