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The Yes, No and Maybe of Office Gift Giving

To give or not to give? That is the question you should have answered by now.

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Finding the perfect holiday gift for everyone on your list is an annual source of stress. Gift giving in the office adds even more anxiety and uncertainty. Do you need to get a gift for everyone? Are there people you should avoid? How much money are you expected to spend?


Many companies acknowledge the holiday season with an employee gift or a wintertime/holiday celebration. But understanding the interpersonal rules of gifts between bosses, subordinates and coworkers can be difficult and intimidating.

Related: This Is the Best Holiday Gift I Ever Received From an Employer

While every workplace will have its own culture and challenges, remembering the “Yes, No and Maybe” rules can help alleviate the stress of the season.

Yes: Your subordinates.

The end of the year is a great time to show people their value to you and the company. Giving a holiday gift to your direct reports is recommended.

A gift from the boss doesn’t need to be expensive or extravagant. But do take some time, invest a little thought, and find something suitable. The only important rule is to be fair; make sure nobody in the department is overlooked.

Being the boss also means you are in charge of the holiday season. It is your responsibility to create parameters, put people at ease and enable those who wish to appreciate the time of year. Make it very clear that participation in any holiday event is optional. Communicating clear expectations will alleviate much of the holiday-related stress for your subordinates.

Remember, you set the tone, and you have a duty to your team. Bosses who themselves do not care for the holidays are not exempt. Even Ebenezer Scrooge eventually threw his clerk a Christmas party.

Related: 10 Great Holiday Gift Ideas for Every Type of Boss

No: Your boss.

A gift for the boss can be one of the most difficult things to find in any holiday season. However, given the shifting landscape of modern workplaces, you should likely skip the stress and consider not getting your boss a gift at all.

The manager/subordinate relationship has changed more than any other office dynamic over the past several decades. Increased scrutiny on appropriate behavior is a major, positive step forward, and it should be a factor to consider in holiday gifting.

Even in the best of circumstances, a gift for the boss can be interpreted by your coworkers as ingratiating. At worst, you could blunder into an inappropriate or embarrassing gesture with your supervisor.

There are two important exceptions. The first is pooling resources in a department to get one thing from the group. This will alleviate any questions about intent. However, gift giving should always be voluntary. If someone chooses not to chip in, it’s okay if the boss assumes they were a part of it anyway. You never really know what is happening in other people’s lives. 

Second, sometimes you are personally close to your boss, and a gift would not only be appreciated, but appropriate. Err on the side of caution, though. If you have to think about whether you have that close of a relationship, then you probably do not.

Maybe: Your peers.

The decision to get a gift for your colleagues depends entirely on your relationship with them. Would you describe the coworker in question as a “work friend” or rather a “person at work?" Consider a gift for the former, and think twice about the latter.

Even among friends, gift giving requires careful navigation. Gifts should come from the heart, but avoid anything too personal. A small gift, like a bag of candy and a note, is perfectly acceptable. If you do choose to give gifts, be careful to not distribute them in front of others, or consider a gift exchange outside of the office. Give without expectation of receiving something in return, and without expecting others to notice or comment on your gesture.

Related: 18 Unique Holiday Gifts for Everyone On Your List

Be careful to not make anyone feel uncomfortable. The holidays are an expensive time of the year, and many people cannot provide work gifts within their budget. If the team is holding an event where everyone brings a gift, like a “Secret Santa” or a “White Elephant,” nobody should be compelled to participate -- including you. Again, giving a gift should be voluntary at all times.

Ultimately, taking the time to be considerate of others is the key to reducing workplace stress around holiday gift giving. When the boss sets expectations, the questions of the unknown disappear, letting those who celebrate enjoy the season.

Gary Beckstrand

Written By

Gary Beckstrand is a vice president at O.C. Tanner, the world’s leading employee recognition company. There, he helps oversee the O.C. Tanner Institute, a global forum that researches and shares insights to help organizations inspire and appreciate great work. He has consulted with numerous Fortune 100 companies to assess recognition cultures, develop strategic solutions and measure results.