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Everything You Need to Know About Giving Holiday Gifts at Work

Wondering whether you need to get the boss a holiday gift this year? Or how to navigate your office’s Secret Santa? We’ve got answers to all your office holiday gift-giving dilemmas.

First and foremost, though, know that holiday gifts at work are very much a case of “know your office.” Something that’s the norm in one office might be out of sync with the culture in another. So before you take any advice, even from us, think about what you know about your office, your coworkers, and your boss.

That caveat aside, here’s our advice on some of the most common office gift-giving quandaries that come up at this time of year.

Am I expected to get my boss a gift for the holidays?

According to etiquette rules, no. Gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward; gifts from bosses to employees are fine, but employees shouldn’t give gifts to those above them. Without this rule, people might feel obligated to purchase gifts when they don’t want to or can’t afford to, and managers should never benefit from the power dynamic in that way.

That said, there are offices where everyone tends to gift upwards, and if you work in one of those, you’ll need to decide whether you’re willing to be the person who bucks the trend. In that case, a good compromise might be a card and some homemade treats.

What if I’m being pressured to contribute to a group gift and I can’t afford it or don’t want to?

It’s reasonable to say, “Unfortunately my budget won't allow me to chip in.” Sometimes, though, it’s easier to just chip in $5 and be done with it.

However, if your team is planning something extravagant, it’s worth speaking up. I once heard from a reader whose whole office was being pressured to fund a ski vacation for the CEO and his whole family. Be the one to put the brakes on something like that and you’ll likely earn the gratitude of lots of other coworkers.

Do I have to participate in the office Secret Santa? And what’s a good gift if I do?

Again, know your office. In some offices, Secret Santa and other gift exchanges are opt-in, while in others you’d be seen as the Grinch if you didn’t participate.

But it’s okay to go simple. Food or gift cards, especially to a coffee shop or nearby restaurant that the recipient frequents, are good choices. Bottles of wine are often appreciated and are easily re-gifted if they’re not the recipient’s taste … but be sure not to give it to a recovering alcoholic, a Muslim, or someone else known not to drink.

As a general rule, stay away from gifts intended to be put on the recipient’s body – such as perfume, lotion, clothes, or jewelry – which aren’t appropriate for work because they’re too personal.

I’m a manager. Should I get my employees gifts? In general, no, managers don’t need to get their staff gifts. But if it’s the norm in your office for managers to do something for their staff, you’d want to factor that into your decision. However, this is another time when bringing in baked goods for people to share can be a good solution.

What if a coworker gives me a gift and I didn’t get them anything?

It’s fine to simply give a sincere and gracious “thank you.” Most offices have a mix of gift-givers and non-gift givers. But if you’re going to feel awkward about not reciprocating, it’s easy to follow up with something small like a gift card for the local coffee shop or cookies.

As the blogger behind Ask a Manager, Alison Green functions as the Dear Abby of the workplace, answering readers' questions daily on career, job search, and management issues. She's the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.

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