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Office Holiday Gift Giving Made Easy

Posting Date: November 21, 2006

Who among us doesn't like receiving a gift? It doesn't have to be expensive or even something tangible. The act itself is a long-standing practice across cultures. Like a smile or a simple "Hello," bestowing a gift is a way to acknowledge someone else and to show that you appreciate him or her.

During the holiday season gift giving can have an impact on everything from morale to performance reviews. How so? Think of the new hire who when asked to participate in an office gift exchange, buys a coworker a bottle of wine, only to find out later that the recipient is a member of AA!  Even long-time employees can make mistakes when it's time to swap gifts. Here are some suggestions on how to get down to business when dealing with the holidays at work.

Become Informed

Information is power. The sooner you find out what the gift-giving procedure is in your workplace, the better. Be proactive if you're a new hire. Turn to people who have been there a while to have gone through the end-of-the-year hoopla. If there is an annual event such as a covered-dish lunch or after-hours dinner party where people will exchange gifts, make sure you learn the specifics. Find out about the kinds of gifts that people usually give so that you will have some idea of how much you should spend to keep from looking like either a spendthrift or a tightwad.

Here are some examples of business holiday gift policies:
  • The No-Gifts-Allowed Workplace or No Policy Workplace. If your workplace forbids employees from giving gifts to one another, abide by the policy. If you break the rule, despite your best intentions, you'll get yourself into trouble, and you'll probably embarrass the recipient. If your workplace has no such policy in place but you find out that gift giving is frowned upon, be discrete if you choose to give a coworker a gift. Consider mailing the item or giving it to the person away from the office. If your employer has no policy, give away. You won't be in violation of any rules, and on the plus side, you can give to those people to whom you want to give. Do use some common sense, though. Elaborate gifts for your boss might be construed as trying to gain influence. And a gift to only one of your direct reports when you have 12 might be perceived as favoritism.

  • The Name-Drawing Workplace. In an effort to cut down on the expense of gift giving, many organizations have instituted the ritual of drawing names. The benefit of this is its economy; you only have to buy one gift. On the downside, the name you choose may be the person to whom you don't want to give the time of day, much less a gift. That being said, there may be others to whom you'd like to give a present. Now you'll end up spending on those you want to plus the person whose name you've picked. So much for the economy factor!

  • The Chinese Gift Exchange Workplace. Everyone brings a wrapped gift and puts it in a pile with others. Instead of names, each person draws a number, which determines the order in which people will choose any of the gifts. The only catch is that after you've drawn a number and picked a gift, the people who choose after you have the option to either take one of the unopened gifts or appropriate yours. If they take yours, they give you one of the unopened ones. Obviously the success of this method relies on the participants' ability to bring gifts that are generic enough to please everyone—no easy task!

Who's on the Receiving End?

If you are a supervisor or manager and you can provide the gift of a bonus check, do so. If not, here are some useful tips:

  1. Avoid items that carry a subtly critical message (e.g. a clock for someone who is frequently late, a pen and note pad for someone who habitually comes to meetings empty handed, etc.).
  2. Think useful. Consider gift cards from malls, restaurants, or theaters.
  3. Avoid anything frivolous. If you can't give money, don't let them think you've wasted money.
  4. Don't give workers things that you obviously got for free from a vendor.
  5. For those who work for you, give items that are of equal or greater value than those they might give to you; to those for whom you work, give items of equal or lesser value than what they might give you.
  6. Give what you can comfortably afford to give, and stick to the amount you set.
  7. Be creative. Instead of taxing your budget, give more of yourself—make some homemade bread, brownies, or preserves. Or consider giving people coupons for various tasksphone coverage at lunch or going on mail runs, etc.
  8.  It's OK to re-gift unused items. Just make sure the person who originally gave the item to you didn't hide a gift card in the package somewhere. Even more important, make sure the person who gave it to you won't see you giving it away to someone else.
  9. Resist the temptation to give a sarcastic gift to anyone with whom you work, even if you think it's funny and well-deserved. The last laugh will be on you.

Just Lighten Up Already!

Holiday activities in the workplace are intended to create a more collegial environment. Too many look on the holidays with fear and loathing because of unrealistic expectations. I suspect that many are still secretly seething over not getting that pony they requested decades ago. Time to get over it!

One Last Thing

As the recipient of workplace gifts, you have some responsibility too.  Regardless of a gift's value, cost, or the effort that went into its selection and delivery, accept it with a gracious “thank you,” even if it's the tackiest thing you've ever seen. If it's just what you wanted, but you have nothing to give in return, also say "thank you." Don't make up some lame excuse about forgetting the gift you had for the person. Just get something and give it without explanation or apology. Chances are the recipient will say "thank you," too.

So this year, leave anxiety out of workplace giving. You're an employee, not a miracle worker. No one's expecting you to come up with that pony!