how can I stop giving gifts this year if I’ve always given them previously?

A reader writes:

Every year that I have been a manager, I’ve given my team members a holiday gift. I have 15 direct reports and in the past I’ve spent around $20-25 per person, sometimes gift cards, other times things like a Rocket notebook, an Echo dot, etc. However, my financial situation took a hit this year and gifting my team isn’t within my budget right now.

How do I gracefully not give a gift if I have members of the team that had previously received one? Some team members have been with me for years.

I answer this question — and many others — over at New York Magazine 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!
  • My company gives terrible gifts
  • My coworker gives me a gift every year – should I be reciprocating?
  • Should I give my intern a gift?

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose*

    A gift is meant to be a gesture of goodwill, not an entitlement. If people are grouchy that they don’t get a gift, that’s their problem.

    1. tinaturner*

      Think of ONE treat for all w/a card saying “Had to change it up this year. Enjoy!” There must be something edible & cheap. A nice array of Xmas cookies, displayed well, could do it, near the coffee.
      DISPLAY matters here. Maybe ask someone’s opinion first.

      1. Momma Bear*

        I agree with this. Do something on a smaller scale for the team. Most of us are feeling stretched and have to cut back. We’re not even doing a holiday party at all at my company this year.

        I don’t know if it’s allowed at your employer, but in the federal government you can award 59 minutes of paid leave on occasion. Sometimes we’d have a team event or meeting and the Director would 59-minutes us and let us leave early if they thought we needed a break. Things like that can also be appreciated.

          1. Evan Þ*

            I’m guessing there’s a rule somewhere that managers can award less than an hour of leave without seeking higher-ups’ approval.

  2. Llama Llama*

    Just quietly don’t. People may be bummed but oh well? Be appreciative and praise them for their contributions and don’t complain if they take bathroom breaks the wrong time. You should be fine.

    1. Smithy*

      Socially this is true, but at work I don’t think going from something to nothing at all is an amazing practice. Not because people are entitled, but I think an inevitably reality on teams with more than two people is it can easily raise questions or anxieties from staff if those gestures drop off.

      Did I get nothing this year because I’m out of favor? When boss and other coworker had that meeting, maybe they got a secret gift then and it’s just cause I’m hated…. Obviously that’s anxiety spiral talk, but the point of the gift in previous years wasn’t to buy favor or flaunt wealth, but to show gratitude to the whole team equally. And now taking that away can cause people to speculate for more and less grounded reasons.

      If the OP doesn’t want to bake, get some holiday candy and small cards. Hand write short messages – for a large team they can be very brief – and stick on some Hershey kisses or a candy cane. The end. It still indicates the gratitude, if at a lower price point, and equality across the team. Which should have been a large part of the point.

    2. Essentially Cheesy*

      I agree – I do not want gifts from anyone at work, at all. I don’t want a social obligation.

      I want to not be micromanaged and to have challenging projects. Is that so much to ask for?

    3. allathian*

      Yeah, my favorite gift from a manager was a sincere handwritten card thanking me for my contribution to the team. My manager personalized it by mentioning a key project I did and by showing appreciation for a few professionally positive personality characteristics that showed me that she saw and valued me as an individual as well as a member of her team.

  3. somebody, somewhere, but I'd prefer to remain anonymous*

    I got my boss a gift one year. It was a plaque that said “World’s okayest boss.” We’ve been working together for over 15 years, so a gift flowing upwards wasn’t a major issue.

    1. Make the phone stop ringing*

      Were you the boss’ only direct report, though? Soneone who doesn’t know your relationship dynamic might have seen that as an example to follow.

    2. Random Dice*

      That’s hilarious. So risky with the wrong person, but clearly you had a very strong rapport and shared sense of humor.

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      Asking the important questions!

      I’d love to know if there was ever an update.

      If not, it’s update season! Let’s get one! lol

  4. Sad Desk Salad*

    If my boss gave me a gift worth $20-25 every year, and I knew they had 15 other people to gift to, I’d be quietly relieved if they stopped. The company giving gifts is one thing; this would be out of someone’s personal budget and I really would feel guilty accepting such a gift.

    1. 1-800-BrownCow*

      Depends on your boss and they’re salary. I personally do not know what my boss makes but I have a good inkling and his lifestyle gives a good hint too. My boss doesn’t do gifts, which is fine with me as I prefer not receiving one. But I’ve seen how he spends money and $300-$375 on gifts would be a drop in the bucket for him. However, I’ve worked for other people that yes, I would feel bad if they spent that amount of money on buying gifts for the team.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I wouldn’t feel guilty. Presumably the manager giving gifts of that value knows whether they can truly afford to do that or not. I’m a manager and I buy gifts for my team at Christmas, usually spending about $35 each (I have six people). If I didn’t have the money, I wouldn’t do that.

    3. TootsNYC*

      this is how I’d react, and I think it’s how the folks who’ve worked for me would react.
      They know I’m not earning C-suite or VP money. They’ve been touched by anything I’ve ever given them.

  5. LuAnne Platter*

    A handwritten card is a lovely gesture that costs very little. I have a stack that I charged to the company and use for special occasions.

  6. Been There Done That*

    bring in a large tray of homemade baked goods and basket of fruit for the whole team. or can you give them a “leave an hour or 2 early today” gift.

    1. mcm*

      My favorite holiday “gift” from a boss was announcing obliquely that he may not notice if we took verrrry long lunches in December to finish our holiday shopping with fewer crowds. If a boss has the latitude to offer “leave a couple hours early” as a gift, I think that might be the best way to please a large-ish number of people!

      1. Baby Yoda*

        I arranged for my team to all have half days off during December, for shopping or whatever. It was popular.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I do that for my team before any of the major holidays. I usually tell them they can leave two to three hours early (earlier if it’s Christmas Eve so they can dash to the store for any last minute groceries or gifts and also try to beat the traffic). I used to tell them the day-of as a nice surprise; however, I found that many people would say they need to get this done or that done and can’t leave early, so I started telling them the day before.

  7. Yes And*

    I know voting has already started for Worst Boss of 2023, but is it too soon to put the boss demanding that her employees collectively buy her a $720 gift in the running for 2024?

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      My reaction was very “SIXTY DOLLARS EACH” with a touch of “You don’t pay me enough to expect a $60 from me.”

      I find the idea of extravagant gifts simply extraordinary at the best of times, but this dynamic is revolting.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I was hoping for an update to that letter saying OP did not give in to extortion and left the company. And the company folded because the boss was a criminal.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        Yeah, that’s one I’d love an update on. Was it taken out of her paycheck after she said no? Did the boss have a meltdown?

  8. Angel*

    I’ve been at my small organization a decade. We always used to get a gift card at Christmas along with a hand-written note and a small thing (like, $5-10? just something to add substance with gift card I guess?). Last year there was just … nothing. No note, no mention of it, nothing. I actually thought I missed it somehow! I finally asked my boss later, because I wondered if my direct reports had gotten theirs … and I guess they just stopped doing anything. I would be fine without the gift card or the gift, but the lack of any sort of appreciation was a bummer. I made sure to write notes to my direct reports, even if I didn’t have budget for gifts.

  9. Be Gneiss*

    I worked for a company where they collected every year for a gift for the owners. The employees that worked on the line were very poorly paid, and the managers hassled them to contribute because it was “tradition.” During the pandemic, when people were really struggling, I suggested to one of the owners that maybe it was a good time to let that “tradition” go. Maybe make a statement about how much they had appreciate it over the years, but that they knew it was a tough year for a lot of people.
    My suggestion was met with the shocked Pikachu face, and a half hour rant about how the employees looked forward to showing their appreciation by giving the owners a gift, and why would I want to take that privilege away from them!?!? In fact, in these unprecedented times, employees probably wanted to give even more money than usual because they should be extra thankful to have jobs.
    They asked managers to collect for the gift…then announced that there wouldn’t be a Christmas party (Covid and all), and no Christmas hams…and that they were all taking time off to celebrate their most profitable year ever.

      1. pally*

        Maybe suggest they sell the bed curtains to finance that owner gift. The owner’s bed curtains, that is.

    1. H3llifIknow*

      I have never understood the “employees should be grateful for a job” instead of “we should be grateful to have these people choose to share their skills for our benefit” concept. Christ that place had to be hell on earth to work for.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        The way I knew I was right to leave my old workplace (which very much had the “be thankful we employ you” mentality) and take a risk moving to a new one in an industry I wasn’t very familiar with, was my like 4th day, when the founder of the company was speaking to a large group. He asked how many of us were new. He then addressed us specifically and said “we’re so grateful you chose us to work for and we’re going to work very hard to show you that you made the right choice.”

        I wish more employers got that.

    2. Pizza Rat*

      the employees looked forward to showing their appreciation by giving the owners a gift, and why would I want to take that privilege away from them!?!? In fact, in these unprecedented times, employees probably wanted to give even more money than usual because they should be extra thankful to have jobs.

      I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this one.

      1. Be Gneiss*

        Yeah, this is sort of my “let this story stand for all their misdeeds” story. There were so many things wrong with that place, but this really gets to the heart of it.

    3. CommanderBanana*

      “the employees looked forward to showing their appreciation by giving the owners a gift”

      I can assure them this is not and has never not been true, also, they are The Worst.

      1. Your Mate in Oz*

        Unless by “gift” they mean flaming dog excrement on the front doorstep?

        That’s maybe more of a British tradition, but I’m sure the sentiment is universal.

    4. coffee*

      “and that they were all taking time off to celebrate their most profitable year ever.”

      Wow, what an incredible kick in the teeth.

  10. AnonPi*

    Can’t read the article at work (our website blocker thinks its a fashion website), so I don’t know if this conflicts with what is there, but in my old div our work group used to exchange gifts, not terribly expensive, think 10-20$, but as someone who’d just graduated college and was making a lot less, that added up to a lot for me each year. And we kept giving each other the same kinds of gifts each year like mugs, throws, candles, etc.

    After a few years I decided this was ridiculous as I was just ending up with things I didn’t need/want, I was spending more than I wanted, and felt other places (charities) could use the money more. So I started donating to a charity each year (usually animal or children related, I avoided those with a religious association), and gave out a holiday card with a note that I had made a donation on their behalf to said charity. I didn’t specify how much, so if I could only donate $10 or $20 total that was my business not theirs.

    Sometimes if I made holiday cookies I’d bag some up and hand one out with the cards, or one year I even gave out clementines (which were a hit!). No one complained or said anything, at least to me, and frankly I didn’t care if they didn’t like that I didn’t buy a gift. So that may be an option for those who would like to do *something* but don’t have much to spend.

    Thankfully where I am now we do not do that – yet. Someone did bring up doing a white elephant/dirty santa, giving out cheap “gifts” but I already said I’d opt out if they do it. I do not need cheap junk sitting around, and don’t want to buy junk items just to throw away.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Yeah, this is a big part of it for me: I do not want or need more stuff, even if it’s thoughtful, even if the intent was lovely, even if it’s the most perfect gift on earth for me. The best thing a boss can give me is things that improve my work conditions, whether that’s extra vacation time, a raise, half-day Fridays, more autonomy, interesting projects, etc. These things can be done any time of year, not just the holidays!

    2. AnotherOne*

      I’ve gotten really good at getting things for my office yankee swap cheap during the year. I find something and store it away. No one has to know what I paid for it. Yes, there is a price range- but there is no rule that I can’t go well under it.

      One year I didn’t even pay for the majority of what I gave- I regifted something my BIL gave my mom but my mom didn’t want to tell my BIL she didn’t like it. (cause it was super thoughtful.) But my coworker who got it? Thrilled.

      I spent $5 to add to the present and buy wrapping paper.

      1. Orora*

        This is my favorite way to have a White Elephant: No one buys anything. You have to bring something you already own/have. It’s more fun that way. Last year a coworker brought a free calendar from a charity and a can of soup.

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Wait! I was reading the first part AS a white elephant/secret Santa. You all bought gifts for everyone?
      Hell to the naw naw naw.

    4. Coffee Protein Drink*

      I am greatful to our boss who sent an anonymous survey around asmj g what we wanted for the holiday party and if we wanted to do gifts.

      Survey says: no gift exchange.

  11. Menace to Sobriety*

    Gifts should never be an expectation, especially in the workplace. You were doing something really nice, but I suspect it won’t be like “OH NO HOW DARE SHE BREAK WITH TRADITION?” angst. If it is, the employees are the problem! When my team was small ~7-10 people I took them and a plus one out for heavy apps and 2 adult (or whatever) beverages per person (no driving drunk permitted!) on me at a local pub and gave them each a gift. The first year, I contracted with a local logo place to get them each a really nice branded knit jacket perfect for our quite chilly all year long office (I got sizes discreetly and we all still wear them! ). After that, each year they got a small gift bag with some candies, cookies, maybe a gadget or chapstick etc.. and a $50 unbranded gift card. My team almost overnight went to 22 people and doing that was no longer sustainable as I didn’t get an “engagement budget” at my rank. So one year I just…stopped. Nobody said a thing. They all knew it was me and not the company paying and my original team members didn’t say anything negative. We all still exchanged cards, or brought in cookies, etc… but that was it. I think you’re fine just… skipping it.

  12. Jane*

    If you feel compelled to give your boss a gift and they don’t deserve it at all, it might be time to talk to your coworkers about forming a union. It takes time, and might not be possible, but you’re probably not the only one who thinks the boss is terrible and doesn’t deserve a gift and you don’t want one either from them. This isn’t about the 15 year person, that just sounds funny and the boss would get the joke. :)

    I had a boss who gave everyone a holiday gift and it was part of their disingenuous shtick to make people think they were a good person/manager and if they didn’t work with them or weren’t directly under them then that would be their impression.

  13. Lauren*

    Say they you’ve would have loved to continue to give gifts, but they are not in your personal budget anymore. Most employees think you are expensing these gifts. Point out that you don’t, and make a quick note on slack or as a card on the dept table with cookies!

  14. Orange_Erin*

    I’ve received small gifts from my boss in the past, but it hasn’t been consistent. Sometimes he gets me a cheap bottle of wine, sometimes a Xmas ornament, and sometimes we all go out for lunch on him. Other years, he’s been on vacation or otherwise busy with personal matters. I try to be grateful for what I receive but don’t count on anything.

    This is the first year I’ve spent money on a holiday gift for an employee. I have 3 students reporting to me right now so I got them each a $10 Starbucks gift card. I plan to just leave a card and candy cane at each of my other coworkers’ desks (since it’s easier to buy cards and candy in bulk). The students don’t get all of the benefits the full-time permanent employees get (holiday party is just a happy hour and the students are too young to drink, they don’t get PTO or other paid time off, etc). I was trying to show them some appreciation within my means.

    My boss does grumble about the fact that he never gets anything or that we don’t celebrate “Boss’ Day”. Whenever I hear that I either brush it off as if he’s joking (because why would that be a thing?) or with confusion (since it’s not a thing). Frankly, I haven’t been in a financial situation to get anyone a nice gift until very recently and my boss is not at the top of my list of gift receivers.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      I think mixing it up is a good idea, and hope what I am doing this year is read that way! I have in the past taken the whole team out for lunch, but this year I only have one direct report and I got him a gift, because I thought I had a good idea that he would appreciate at the right dollar amount. Next year, maybe it will be lunch again!

  15. TootsNYC*

    I agree with this.
    I too went from having two direct reports, for whom I gave $15 presents, to having a bunch of people.

    I scaled back to something homemade (note cards with their name printed on it) to eventually a handful of candies with a note.

    Now I’m back to only one person, but even less spending power, plus now he sort of reports to me and sort of doesn’t.

    Once that change happened, he actually started giving me a present: a bag of mini Snickers and a small bag of potato chips, since I used to eat them for breakfast every day.

    1. TootsNYC*

      was supposed to be a reply to Smithy’s comment about how useful it can be to just scale down to a simple gesture.

  16. A Simple Narwhal*

    If you can let your employees leave early one day that would be an amazing gift! Assuming you’re not crazy busy and you’re not coverage based, even just a “hey everyone pick a day to leave at 4 next week”, that would probably have a minimal effect on productivity but be really appreciated.

  17. kiki*

    I like the idea of a no/lower budget alternative like handwritten Christmas cards and/or bringing in cookies, candy, nice coffee for the office, etc. I feel like this makes it clear that LW didn’t just forget this year but is showing their appreciate differently.

  18. Lucia Pacciola*

    I think a lot of times it’s okay to just quietly stop doing a “tradition”. No need to lampshade it or anything. Just discontinue the practice.

    I’m also super not a fan of managers buying gifts out of their own pocket. If the company has a budget for recognizing your people, use that budget. If they don’t, it’s probably a bad idea for you to step in with your own funds.

  19. Sundae funday*

    I used to bring treats for my team at my previous workplace, but now food is a bit of a minefield. In my not-very-large team, I have someone who is celiac, another is keto, one who is allergic to many ingredients including chocolate,one is a very picky eater, and someone who doesn’t eat at work. It makes things like grabbing lunch together or inviting someone to get coffee with me problematic, and has me reflect on the role of food in the workplace.

  20. Mermaid of the Lunacy*

    I would still try to do something. Like someone mentioned above, if you don’t do anything, your employees might think they missed the gift and ask and…..that would be awkward for all involved. A handwritten card is nice, but I’d be really disappointed if that’s all I got from my boss. (Just being honest! Maybe it’s because my company’s bosses all get gifts for their employees and it would be demoralizing to feel like I was on the only team who didn’t get anything.) Even a $5 “I saw this and thought of you” gift is better than nothing, IMO.

    Then for the future, maybe it’s possible to set aside a little every month so you have enough at the end of the year to do even a $10 gift for each of your employees?

    Maybe this opinion will make me really unpopular but I’ve worked for bosses that gave me $100 gift cards and I’ve worked for bosses that gave me a personal little something from the dollar store. I knew their financial situations were different. But to get *nothing* would feel kinda demoralizing to me.

  21. AnonInCanada*

    Start by acknowledging that it’s hard, if not impossible, to find a gift that 70 people will all love.

    I know a gift that’s pretty much universally loved: Cold, hard cash. I know that letter’s old, but I wonder what gift that OP received from that company the following year (assuming OP still works/worked there)?

  22. pitchbot123*

    I’m going to be the change I wish to see in the world and quietly opt out of most of our team gifts. But I’m not yet brave enough to opt out completely.

    My direct boss looooves gift giving and has us pool our money to get a gift for the grandboss and great grandboss. She says it’s not obligatory, but I pitched in to the grandboss pool because I felt awkward and he does get us gifts in return. I opted out of the great grandboss gift because it was $200(!!) in total (about $20 each) and he does not gift in return. And I don’t think he should – it’s my direct boss who is pushing all of this, I don’t think the great grandboss wants it at all.

    Our team also exchanges ~$15 gifts with each other and I really would just rather not. I’m well compensated so the money isn’t the issue, but we are all remote so shipping is a pain in the ass and trying to meet everyone’s preferences even more so. I do not want any trinkets and shouldn’t be eating more sweets and snacks (I mean…I definitely will eat them but I’ll feel bad about it). I suspect the many in my team feel the same, so I’m going to try to quietly not do this and hopefully it doesn’t backfire.

  23. Girasol*

    I’ve always felt awkward receiving a personal gift from the boss, one that was bought with the boss’s own money. A personal gift from mom or sister or best friend is great, but the relationship with the boss isn’t so familial. Besides, people who receive gifts also give them too. That runs into the awkward situation where a subordinate must dig into a thin paycheck to buy a gewgaw for the boss for politeness’ sake, or ignore the social tit-for-tat and go with the “never gift up” rule. Either way it feels wrong. Now, a company-paid holiday bonus, be it dollars or a coffee card or time off or a turkey, feels different. That’s the company saying, “We’re glad you’re here. Please stick around,” which is a message appropriate to a business relationship. So if OP were my boss and had to skip a gift to me this year, I would just think, “Whew, that’s better.”

  24. Michelle Smith*

    While I don’t disagree with the provided advice, you can also feel free to skip the baked goods if you’d prefer. I still have a nice handwritten card a former boss wrote to me 3 bosses ago because it was meaningful and special to me. The candy that accompanied the card stayed in my desk drawer for 3 years until I finally threw it out when I packed up my stuff to leave that job.

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