Proper Etiquette for Giving Gifts in the Office

FT Contributor  | 

The holidays are always a time when etiquette takes center stage: to gift or not to gift is a perennial question of wonder every holiday season. Gift-giving is a favorite American pastime that visits each December, but it can leave a lot of questions as to what, if any, gift is appropriate.

In some companies, gift-giving can be seen as a violation of workplace etiquette, while others view exchanging gifts as almost mandatory. It can be especially uncomfortable when you are a new employee and are unfamiliar with regular office practices. It may also be awkward for those of different religious beliefs, as not all employees may share the same customs.

Not all offices celebrate the same, so it can be challenging to navigate the holiday season. We’re here to settle the debate once and for all. These are the dos and don’ts of holiday gift-giving in the office.

The Pressure of Group Gift-Giving

During an already busy time, the last thing you need is another task on your to-do list. Contributing to the office gift fund is far easier than fretting over the perfect present for a colleague you don’t know very well or an owner you have never met.

In lieu of individual gifts, employees may all pitch in for an “office pool,” which will be used to purchase a present for managers, supervisors, or owners of the company. Employees collectively decide on a gift or nominate someone to handle the shopping.  Some companies may choose to make a joint charitable donation instead.  

Not only does group gift-giving eliminate the time and pressure of finding a perfect present, but it also levels the playing field, so no employee is accused of buying a promotion or a better salary. The average contribution is between $5 and $10, keeping the holiday gift exchange affordable, too.

No matter how your office chooses to spend the holiday collection plate, keep in mind that this is not a mandatory event, so it’s okay if you cannot participate. Kindly and respectfully let them know that while you appreciate being included, you will not be participating this year.  

Gifts to Avoid Giving to Colleagues

No matter where you work, there are some gifts that are simply inappropriate and have no place in the office.

To make sure you survive the office holiday party without humiliation or reprisal, avoid giving presents that could violate your company’s workplace culture to your colleagues and coworkers.

  • Gag gifts, which can easily offend a coworker and create an uncomfortable or even hostile work environment.
  • Personal items relating to one’s body should be avoided, such as perfume, cologne, lotion, or deodorant.
  • Political or religious items that may not be appreciated and could create resentment.  
  • Adult items that include sexuality, nudity, or pornography.
  • Alcohol and tobacco, because while a vintage Cabernet or hand-rolled cigar may be lovely, someone who does not drink or smoke because of religious reasons or past troubles may not appreciate the gesture.  

Respect the Price Limit

It’s difficult enough trying to determine the perfect gift, but gift-giving on a budget is even harder.

Your coworkers are among the few people who understand the struggle of big money versus job satisfaction, so a price limit is common for office presents. In fact, a Google Consumer Survey reports that 73% of employees spend $20 or less on office gifts.

Even if you have the extra funds or find the perfect gift that’s a little bit more, use restraint. The holidays are meant to inspire feel-good vibes, and bestowing a lavish gift upon someone could be very uncomfortable for them when they are unable to do the same for you.

Put Some Thought into Your Gift

Instead of balking at a low price limit, embrace the challenge of finding a great gift at an affordable price. Thrift stores are great for rare finds, and DIY presents always make fun and cheap thank you gifts for your coworkers.

If you know who you are buying for, think about their personality and interests. Is there something that could make their workday a bit better? Sometimes, even the smallest gifts can mean the most when there is a lot of thought behind them and can go a long way in establishing healthy relationships with your coworkers.

Gifting Cash, Checks, and Gift Cards

Cash is often considered inappropriate for office gift-giving. Your company may offer bonuses in the form of cash, which is acceptable, but employees should refrain from gifting one another with cash or checks.

Choose gift cards instead. Gift cards to coffee shops or grocery stores are always popular since they are more generalized stores.

Just be sure that your present matches the recipient; you don’t want to buy a gift card to a wine store for a coworker who doesn’t drink. Amazon, iTunes, Costco, and Netflix gift cards are all safe choices.

Gifts for the Boss

While an inappropriate present could get you fired, a thoughtful present could easily win a supervisor’s favor and lead to more opportunities.

These are among the best gift ideas for your boss:

  • Business card holder monogrammed or in leather for an extra special touch;
  • Insulated tumbler for that much-needed cup of morning coffee;
  • Gift certificate for lunch or coffee at a favorite spot;
  • Bakery goods, as long as there are no allergies;

These all make excellent presents for other occasions, too, like an office birthday gift, a goodbye gift for your boss, or even gifts for coworkers who are leaving the company.

Client Gifts

The holidays are also a time when many of your clients might give you gifts, raising the question of whether it is appropriate or not to give clients gifts in return.

Just like gift-giving with your colleagues, some presents are not appropriate for your clients. These include things like:

  • Cash or expensive gifts that violate legal tax and business guidelines;
  • Cheap presents that show a lack of thought or appreciation;
  • Coupons or discounts that promote your business rather than thank them for theirs;
  • Generic gifts that may not apply to everyone, such as cigars or Christmas-specific items.

Instead, these are popular ideas for great presents that your clients will really appreciate:

  • Personalized snacks, such as gourmet popcorn or candy with your business logo;
  • Gourmet coffee or tea blends with a unique flavor or feature;
  • Tech-related gifts, like a portable charger or a mobile charging stand;
  • Leather journal or notebook for next year’s appointments.

The right present can spark a conversation, create new relationships, and open new doors.

Regardless of whether your gift is for your boss, coworkers, or clients, make sure that it reflects the recipient and is appropriate given the more formal context of a business relationship.


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