While holiday shopping for friends and family can be stressful, the conundrum of whether to give, and what to give, to bosses, co-workers and direct reports also adds to our seasonal anxiety.
“The most important thing to do is to think about the culture at the office,” said Anna Post, a modern etiquette expert from the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont, and author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business. “If it’s the culture, you should participate, but ask around before.”
People who have been at the company for a while or your human resources contact should be able to give you a quick answer. If you still aren’t sure whether to give gifts at work, your best bet is probably to skip it.
To Give or Not to Give?
“It’s not a good idea to give a gift to the boss unless the whole office goes into it together,” Post says. “Otherwise it looks like you’re courting favors.”
Most people don’t give gifts to co-workers for the holidays either, although there are several exceptions:
- If you and a co-worker are friends, it’s fine to swap presents as long as you do it outside the office.
- If the whole office does a gift swap – often called a white elephant gift exchange or Yankee Swap (don’t call it a Secret Santa anymore or you might offend some co-workers) – you’ll need to buy just one present, usually within a pre-arranged dollar limit.
- It’s appropriate to give a small homemade present if you like, but make sure to include everyone in the office.
What to Give?
You'll be safe if you simply give a card to each member of your team, though the card shouldn’t mention any particular holiday or religion. “It can be presumptuous,” Post says. “Don’t assume anything about another person.”
It’s best to avoid giving alcohol as a gift, unless you know for sure the person partakes. “A lot of people don’t drink for all kinds of reasons,” Post said. “It might not be an offense, but it would be useless to them.”
“Boring” but safe gifts include gadgets, pens, mugs or even cookbooks. Gift cards also usually please everyone.
How Much Should You Spend?
“There’s no set amount to spend, because all budgets are different and it depends on the relationship to your colleague,” said Post. “Generally they don’t need to be extravagant.”
If you participate in a gift swap, make sure to follow the guidelines for the maximum amount to spend and other details, such as whether the gifts should be wrapped, given anonymously or not, and the like.
When You’re the Boss
It’s a lovely gesture to give gifts to an administrative assistant or even to a whole department, but avoid giving gifts that are too personal.
You may want to ask employees if they’d like to use the holiday time to donate to a charity, but make clear it isn’t an obligation. “That should be the end of it,” Post says. “There’s no checking up on it. Employees have so many demands on their money around the holidays.”
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