Should You Gift At Work? The Guide To Holiday Office Etiquette

gift at work

The winter holidays are a time for gift-giving and celebrations. Southern hospitality is at its best with homemade goodies and personalized gifts. While you’re buying for friends and family, you might wonder about giving or exchanging gifts at work.

To keep workplace gift-giving easier and clearer, we’ve taken a look at some things to check on and questions to ask before making purchases. Gift-giving at work during the holidays doesn’t have to become expensive or stressful. 

Follow Proper Protocol 

When the “H” in HR stands for holiday.

Your first stop in deciding if you should give gifts at work? Read your company’s Human Resources (HR) gift-giving policy. There can be conflicts of interest, for example, giving a holiday gift could be perceived as looking for favoritism.

There can also be ethical considerations. Some companies and organizations have set rules on gifts from internal or from exterior vendors and other companies; they must be under a certain amount or aren’t allowed at all. For example, employees may not be able to accept a gift over $20. 

Don’t Blow Your Holiday Budget

If you decide to include your fellow employees in holiday gift-giving, pick an overall dollar number in your own holiday gift budget. Make a line item and stick to the amount. If you decide there’s not extra money in the budget for work gifting, that’s okay too. The office atmosphere shouldn’t make you feel badly for not giving gifts. 

Don’t Think Everyone Needs To Play Santa

Just like Santa Claus coming down the chimney, workplace gifting should go downward, not up: bosses give gifts to employees. Employees usually don’t give their managers gifts. Even a level up from you can appear inappropriate. 

Exchanging gifts at your org chart level is acceptable, but managers should only give gifts to their employees as a general rule. If you know your boss more personally and you’ve exchanged gifts before, you might give them a small token, but it isn’t expected. Bottom line: it’s important you don’t feel like you need to buy your boss a gift to keep your job or get a promotion. 

If you’re  a manager personally giving gifts to your employees outside of company funding, consider giving neutral gifts like a set gift card amount or similarly-priced coffee or food gift towers. 

Gifting guideline: Check out stores like TJMaxx and wholesale clubs for bulk and lower priced baskets or towers. Pick up small neutral gift items throughout the year or during post-holiday sales.

Don’t Assume You Know Someone’s Tastes or Preferences

Unless you’ve worked with a colleague for a long time or done things together outside of work, it’s best to give gender neutral or simple gifts. Gifting a present at a higher price point can make your fellow workers feel uncomfortable. Alcohol as a gift, can feel inappropriate for many reasons as well.

Don’t Get Too Personal

Super personal items, like a specific sized shirt, may make you and the employee feel uncomfortable. Fuzzy socks may be the exception there. 

Do Be Mindful of Different Faiths and Cultures

With multiple winter holidays, being careful about what you give to be respectful. Christmas may be outwardly the prevailing holiday (many offices have trees and lights) but that doesn’t mean everyone in the office celebrates or participates in it. 

You may know the faith or culture of your colleagues because you’ve talked with them or observed. If you aren’t sure, consider more neutral gifts and packaging. 

Saltine Peppermint Bark
VICTOR PROTASIO; FOOD STYLING: RUTH BLACKBURN; PROP STYLING: MISSIE NEVILLE CRAWFORD

Do Think Before Giving Homemade or Edible Gifts

We love baked goods and encourage home cooks to bake at the holidays! However, edible gifts are another element of gifting to consider. Some employees prefer packaged or bakery-made foods. Others may be following a specific diet that you might not know about. Another thing to keep in mind is if you know people in your office have food allergies, be careful about edible gifts that could be dangerous.

Bringing your crowd-favorite baked goods to the office for an office party or the break area can be a great equalizer. You’re still gifting the office with tasty treats out of your kitchen, but people can decide if they want to eat them in the larger setting. 

Work Professionally, Gift Professionally

Keep the same professionalism when gifting that you would during  a normal work day. Just as you don’t want to be known as the employee that loses control at parties, you shouldn’t gift something inappropriate at work. 

Gifting guideline: While a gift may feel funny or personal, office gifts should be professional, not awkwardly-expensive, or gag gifts that feel mean or inappropriate.

Be Considerate of the Group

To even the gifting playing field, suggest or continue a cookie exchange or office holiday party or lunch off-site. Set up a holiday gift or card exchange with a dollar amount limit. A Yankee Swap or Dirty Santa exchange can be adapted for the workplace or an off-site party. 

An office gift exchange or book swap can make sure everyone is included. Just as many school classrooms dictate that everyone gets invited, think about everyone in the office when gifting. While you might give a singular, more personal gift to a close office friend or cube mate, don’t bring 10 food towers and leave out two employees or new hires in your specific department.

Another option is to participate in an office holiday charitable event, like adopting a family, doing Angel Tree purchases, or serving in the community together as a team on the holidays. 

Gifting guideline: Keep in mind any group activities, individual gifting, or group presents should be offered as strictly voluntary. Extra time out of the office can be difficult for employees. The holidays in general are busy times and can be hard for employees that are grieving or struggling.

Be Consistent

If you bring employees in the office an expensive gift one year, they might expect it the next holiday. It may be hard to go from a $100 gift to a $5 gift card. 

Gifting guideline: If you don’t have a budget for workplace gifting, a simple personalized holiday card can be a nice option.

Be Mindful of Monetary Gifts

Bosses and companies overall may give their employees holiday cash bonuses. Otherwise gifting cash or a large monetary gift can feel inappropriate.  However, gift cards to local restaurants or retail outlets are a great option with a simple card message. 

Be Thoughtful

What should you gift at work if you’re looking for something more memorable? Consider a plant for the office or an employee’s desk like a paperwhite or Christmas cactus.

Be a Grateful Giver and Recipient

Southerners and their hospitality are a great example to follow at the holidays. If someone brings you a holiday gift, you don’t have to reciprocate. Simply say thank you and take it home with you. Keeping the relationship professional by saying thank you and acting gracious in the workplace is important. 

If you feel awkward and it’s the same employee gifting for several years, consider getting something small for them but you’re under no obligation. They may love buying presents and want to include you or they could be alone or feeling sad for the holidays. Gift-giving may make them happy even if you don’t return the favor.