Holiday Gift-Giving Made Easy

Jan 24, 2019

By Vicky Oliver

The holidays are approaching and you've noticed several little boxes with bows on top in your neighbor’s cubicle. It's making you sweat. What if one of them is for you? You didn't get her anything! But what if it isn't for you? Should you still get her something? And how much should you spend?

Proper etiquette around gift giving at the office can be a snake pit for many people. However, if you follow a few simple guidelines, you'll sail through the holidays without a single faux pas.

Consider the following tips:

  • Let “power hierarchies” guide your way.
    Whether to give or not depends a lot on your position in the office “power hierarchy.” For example, people who work “under” you and routinely serve you at work—your assistant or the receptionist, for example—should receive a small gift as a gesture of gratitude. Likewise, if you have a supervisor or boss, it's customary to “go in” on a larger gift with several coworkers, to express thanks, loyalty, and solidarity.
  • Be sensitive.
    You don't have to give gifts to all of your coworkers unless you work in an office of five or fewer people, where leaving one person out would hurt his or her feelings. However, if you have a team member or coworker who has been particularly supportive or helpful to you this year, a card expressing your appreciation, along with a small gift, is entirely appropriate, even if you don't do the same for others. However, do be tactful and discreet when singling out one person for a special thank-you gift.
  • Give to helpers and service people.
    In addition to your immediate support staff in the office, be sure to acknowledge the support staff in your office building, including the doorman, mailroom person, perhaps a frequent courier you know by name, the night or weekend cleaning person, and others who make your daily work life easier and more pleasant. Give cash in a pretty envelope accompanied by a heartfelt, written message of appreciation. These people often make minimum wage or close to it, and a $20 bill goes a lot farther than a pair of gloves.
  • Don't overspend.
    The rule of thumb for office gifts is that they be inexpensive. It's poor etiquette to spend $50 on a bottle of perfume or a designer scarf for a coworker, because chances are she'll buy you chocolates and then feel embarrassed. If you have a lot of gifts to give out, try to keep the cost under $20 for each. Some ideas include: a gift card to Starbucks, monogrammed notecards, a cookbook, a bottle of wine, a gourmet food item, a gift certificate to a favorite lunch spot, a potted flower, or a two-drink voucher at the local watering hole.
  • Keep a few “anybody” gifts handy.
    What if someone gets you a present and you didn't get one for him or her? That won't happen to you because you've already gone to the local CVS or TJ Maxx and stocked up on fistfuls of fashionable finds. A drop-dead eyeglass design might be copied and recopied until it shows up on the reader magnifier shelf of Duane Reade or a CVS. Comb the aisles of discounter chains before the holidays and invest in some upscale wrapping paper. Watch these “generic” gifts transform into the world's most glamorous (and inexpensive) presents. Your recipient won't know that you didn't shop ahead just for her or him.
  • Institute a “Secret Santa” policy at work.
    If you're concerned about whom to give to and how much it's all going to cost, ask your HR department if your company might consider instituting a “Secret Santa” or “Secret Friend” policy where each employee draws a name from a hat. This way everyone buys one person a gift and everyone receives a gift. This saves people a lot of money, injects an element of fun into the workplace, and builds camaraderie among employees.

One final word of advice: Don’t wait until the last minute to think about what gifts to buy and for whom. Although the holiday season is a joyful time, the added burden of preparing for the celebrations, coupled with the need to finish end-of-year work projects, can result in astronomically high stress levels. The more tasks you handle in advance, the more time you’ll have to truly enjoy the season.

About the Author(s)

Vicky Oliver ( is a career adviser and image consultant in Manhattan. She is the author of five books on personal branding, etiquette, and career development, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions and her latest, The Millionaire's Handbook: How to Look and Act Like a Millionaire Even If You're Not (Skyhorse, 2011).