Networking

The Tip Sheet on Office Gift-Giving

How to spread cheer instead of drear during the holidays.

The holiday season is here, and with it comes that annual workplace headache: what to give your officemates, if anything. From baked goods to gag gifts, about 45% of workers in the United States buy their colleagues a present, and 42% of employers plan on giving their employees something. But there’s also a growing trend, according to a survey by Suntrust, that people would prefer to spend time with family and friends and skip out of gift-giving if they were to agree to such an arrangement.

About 45% of US workers buy their colleagues a gift during the holiday season. 

And when it comes to holiday gift-giving, colleagues and managers are some of the most difficult targets to pinpoint. For starters, it’s tough to gauge whether holiday gifts are even appropriate in some workplaces. Then there’s the task of figuring out who gets them and who doesn’t—you don’t want to go overboard, but you also want to avoid playing favorites. And once you’ve whittled down your list, the real stumper is: what’s appropriate, and how much should I spend? “On the surface, it seems simple. But it’s actually a lot more nuanced,” says Randi Bussin, who heads Aspire!, an executive coaching firm in Boston. Here’s how to navigate the terrain.

Follow traditions.

Before setting out to do anything—well, except for maybe baking cookies—gather intel from your colleagues on what typically happens, either at the company as a whole or among your work group. Samantha, an editor at a large newspaper, used to gather her team for a catered holiday lunch, while Ted, a marketing manager, would give each of his employees an Amazon gift card. Other practices include putting together a Secret Santa (for gift swapping), and privately giving your colleagues who are friends gifts outside of the office. The key, career pros say, is to do something that falls in line with what’s expected at the firm, particularly if you’re new to the company.

If you manage a team, one size needs to fit all.

Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation in Calabasas, California, hands the same present to all her employees—and that’s by design. The unwritten rule, she says, is if you give your whole team gifts, don’t try something different for each person. Otherwise, you’re just asking for trouble, as employees eye one another’s loot, comparing their present to everyone else’s. Last year, Sweeney gave her 50 employees Snuggies (those fleece blankets with sleeves and pockets) sporting the company logo. Now, staff members often wear them around the office, especially when the air conditioning is cranked up too high.

Put some thought into that Secret Santa gift.

Lots of offices have a holiday grab bag, where each person buys a secretly assigned coworker a present. The rule of thumb is you aren’t expected to spend a lot of money—usually less than $15 or $20. But you do want to put some thought into it. Bob, a manager at a healthcare company, was upset after his company’s Secret Santa last year because he ended up with a desk organizer that was clearly taken from the office supply closet. “We went around in a circle and everyone opened up their gift. It was a very public display,” he says. “That ruined my whole day.”

If you don’t know the individual well enough to choose the right gift, ask the advice of someone who does. Bob, for example, learned that his Secret Santa recipient was a hockey fanatic. So he spent a lunch hour looking for the perfect pennant, a gift his colleague liked so much that he hung it up by his desk. Of course, you want to make sure you avoid any embarrassing cultural missteps. “You’re not going to give a Mormon a bottle of whiskey,” Bussin says.

Come up with a cause.

Career pros say there’s a growing crop of office workers interested in socially conscious gifts. “Millennials, in particular, want to work for places that give back,” says Kim Zoller, CEO of executive coaching firm ID360 in Dallas. She sees a lot of workplaces forgoing the usual gift and instead donating money to a cause. At her company, for example, colleagues choose a charity that individual employees can donate to, and the company as a whole contributes a larger sum—a gesture that suits the season perfectly.

Check out more of our holiday tips: how to survive the office holiday party, and who to bring to the shindig. 

take our career resiliency quiz
take our career resiliency quiz