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‘Do I Have to Get Gifts for My Co-workers?’

Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Elliott Gould in the 1978 Saturday Night Live skit “Mommie Dearest.” Photo: NBC/NBC via Getty Images

Holiday gift-giving at work can be a minefield. Do you have to give your boss a gift? How much should you spend? What about your co-workers? Find those answers, and more, below. 

‘Should I give my boss a gift?’

My spouse works in a small engineering firm. Every year, the boss and his spouse treat their employees and their spouses to a holiday dinner at a nice restaurant. Some years there are even gifts for everyone.
It’s a very generous gesture that we greatly appreciate, and we write them a thank-you note. Sometimes we feel we should do more to reciprocate and give them a gift, but that would be “gifts flowing upward,” so I guess we shouldn’t? What if the gift were to come from me?

You’re right. Etiquette says that gifts at work should flow downward, not upward. That rule exists because of the power dynamics in the boss/employee relationship. Otherwise, an employee might feel pressured to purchase gifts for a manager, and it’s not okay for managers to benefit from the relationship in that way.

I suspect you’re thinking of how you might bring a gift to your host at a social gathering, but this actually isn’t a social gathering, even though it feels that way! It’s a business event that your spouse’s boss is putting on for business reasons. A gracious thank-you email or handwritten thank-you is all that’s required.

‘My boss wants an expensive gift!’

The company I work for has about 12 employees. The owner of the company asks our manager to go around and collect $60 from each person for us to get a present for her. Around this time, she always makes comments about the type of jewelry she likes, or a new watch she saw.

I have kindly let them know that it is simply not in my budget this year as my spouse changed jobs a month ago and times are tight. When I told them that, they said that it’s mandatory and no one is allowed to not participate. I simply don’t have the $60. My spouse and I aren’t even exchanging gifts this year. Am I causing drama for no reason, or is $60 a lot to ask of an employee?

Your company owner is a terrible person, and whoever is trying to make this mandatory is out of their gourd. Frankly, even insisting on $5 donations for a gift for the boss would be out of line — but demanding $60 from someone who says that it’s out of their budget is a whole new level of awful.

How firmly have you said no? If you might have soft-pedaled it in an effort to be polite, be more direct: “I literally do not have the money to give. I’m not even exchanging gifts with my spouse this year. It’s not possible for me to come up with money that I don’t have.” And really, you might also consider seeing if some of your co-workers are annoyed by this, too, and if so, pushing back as a group. This kind of thing is harder to maintain when a bunch of employees speak up and say, “We’re not okay with this.”

‘How can I discourage employees from giving me gifts?’

In the past, some of my employees have given me gifts at the holidays. I feel uncomfortable accepting these, and I want to make sure no one on my team feels pressured to give me a present. I’d like to preemptively tell people “no gifts” this year, but I’m afraid of seeming presumptuous, or making people feel bad about the gifts they gave me last year. How can I do that politely?

The best thing to do is to speak up as early in the month as you can. Try saying something like, “I know some people like to exchange gifts with colleagues at this time of year, so I want to say preemptively that doing your jobs well is the best gift you could give me. I don’t believe anyone should have to give gifts to their boss, so please put any gift-giving impulses toward family and friends instead.”  

But if you do receive a gift from an employee despite this, it’s okay to accept it graciously as long as it’s not extravagantly expensive. You definitely don’t want to make anyone feel bad (which will happen if you refuse to accept a gift); you just want to ensure no one feels obligated to buy you presents.

‘What’s an appropriate gift to get for a co-worker?’

I’m fairly new to my job, and I’m getting the sense that my co-workers here exchange gifts with each other. I’ve never worked anywhere where that was the practice, so I’m not sure what type so gifts are appropriate. What gifts are good for co-workers? And how much should I spend?

Gifts for co-workers are often fairly impersonal — food items, coffee, candles, and gift cards are all pretty safe choices, as are items that relate to your colleague’s hobbies or interests. The biggest thing is to keep in mind that gifts that might be appropriate for family or friends can be inappropriate at work. A useful rule is that you should avoid anything designed to go on the body (like perfume, lotion, and clothes, all of which are overly intimate for co-workers).

As for price range, this varies by office, but most commonly you see people keep co-worker gifts in the $10 to $25 range. This gift guide for employees has lots of ideas.

‘Can I send a gift to a potential employer?’

A manager at a previous job who I used to work with recently got a promotion. She’s in the process of adding personnel to her department, and reached out to me about bringing me back to the company to work for her. It’s a great opportunity, but she won’t be able to interview me until January. Is there anything wrong with sending her a small Christmas gift?

Don’t do it! Because she’s considering you for a job, it’s too likely to look like an attempt to curry favor. And it’s likely to make her feel uncomfortable, especially if she ends up not hiring you. If you want to send something, stick with a holiday card.

‘Is it appropriate to give my intern a gift?’

What is appropriate when gifting to interns? In my case, I have a graduate-level intern whose placement is required for her degree who works directly with me. When I did required internships at both the BA and MA level, I received anything from small gift cards ($5 to $10) to the same holiday bonus as the full-time staff (a $100 check from the company). Is gifting to someone who is technically your “student” appropriate? I’m thinking about the $5 to $10 Amazon, Starbucks, or Target gift-card route, but what are your thoughts?

A small gift card to a place you know she likes is a great gift. (Make sure you know she likes the place, though. Every year I get letters from people who are mildly annoyed by receiving gift cards to restaurants that only exist two states away from where they live, or for coffee when they don’t drink coffee, or other evidence that a gift was given without much personal thought.)

Also, keep in mind that the $100 check you received was a bonus that came from the company, not a gift from your manager personally. People don’t expect extravagant gifts from their managers, even if the company itself goes a more luxe route. And frankly, managers don’t need to give their staff gifts at all, although it’s a thoughtful gesture if you choose to.

‘My employee gave me a hideously awful gift!’

This is not a super-serious question, but I am wondering if you could offer some advice on a truly horrible gift I received from someone I manage. We’ve worked together for just under two years, and I try to be a very good manager. I’m supportive and instructive, and genuinely appreciate her company when we attend work-related events together. I got her a small gift for Christmas last year, and I usually pick something up for her when I travel for work and she’s stuck in the office.

This year, she preempted my gift and gave me the ugliest notebook I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s hard to imagine a journal being ugly, but I wouldn’t be caught dead using this thing. I don’t want it in my house, and it’s so hideous I wouldn’t even dream of regifting it. I hate to be wasteful, but this had to go straight to the bin. 

Do we just have very different taste, or is she possibly trying to send me a signal by giving the worst-looking thing ever? I wouldn’t have minded the peach candle from SNL that we all regift to each other, but this seems beyond the pale.

As much as I like to imagine an employee sending coded hateful messages to her manager via the gift of a hideous notebook, it’s much more likely that she just has terrible taste in notebooks. Or she didn’t have a gift for you, panicked, spotted the hideous notebook someone once gave her and which has been sitting untouched in a drawer ever since, and grabbed it in desperation. (I will reconsider my answer if she gives you a horrendously ugly pencil holder for your birthday.)

This piece has been updated.

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‘Do I Have to Get Gifts for My Co-workers?’