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‘Should I Give My Boss a Holiday Gift?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: 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. 

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‘Should I give my boss a gift?’

I started a new job last February so I haven’t been here for the holidays yet. Before my boss hired me, I’d freelanced for years so I’m out of touch with how offices handle holiday gifts. But I think she’s a great manager and I’m grateful to her for taking a chance on me when I’d been out of this part of our field for so long. She’s also been really accommodating about letting me stay remote even though she and some others have returned to the office a few days as well.

Should I mail a gift for her to the office? And if so, what’s an appropriate boss gift? Or is that not a thing people do?

It’s a thing some people do, but ideally they wouldn’t. Etiquette says that gifts at work should flow downward, not upward (meaning that your boss can give you a gift, but employees shouldn’t be expected to give gifts to their managers). 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.

A holiday card, though, is absolutely fine if you’d like to do that, and it would be lovely to include a note about how much you appreciate working for her.

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‘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.”

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‘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 season 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.

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‘My company gives terrible gifts’

Every year, my company (with around 70 employees) picks out one corporate gift and sends it to all of us. Every year, it is terrible. One year they delivered hams to our homes, despite us having a fair number of vegetarians and Muslims on staff. One year they sent us all branded hoodies, which would have been fine except that they seem to have just guessed at people’s sizes (which is already weird, right?) and got them really wrong in a lot of cases. Mine would probably fit my toddler, but it doesn’t fit me. Last year they sent us all gift certificates for a restaurant (while no one was dining out because of COVID) that was far away from where most of us live. I’d rather receive nothing than these vaguely insulting gifts that seem to indicate no care went into picking them. Is it worth saying something or is it rude to complain about a gift?

It’s rude to complain about a gift given in a social situation, but this is work and the rules are different. Your company is sending gifts in a hope that it will increase staff morale and make people feel more connected to the company. If they’re failing at that (and in fact achieving the opposite), it’s useful for them to know that.

So yes, if you have some political capital to spend, speak up! You’d be doing the company a favor, and you could probably find some co-workers who would be happy to speak up with you. Start by acknowledging that it’s hard, if not impossible, to find a gift that 70 people will all love, but that they’ve been sending gifts that are unusable by a disproportionate number of your staff, and ask if they’d take feedback from the staff about what gifts would be most appreciated this year. (But if they don’t budge, please write back and share what they end up sending this year, because I am eager to know what they come up with next.)

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‘My co-worker gives me a gift every year – should I be reciprocating?’

I work on a small team where everyone is pretty friendly. Usually for the holidays, my co-workers and I exchange cards or leave baked goods in the kitchen for people to share. But one of my co-workers gives me a gift every year. It’s nothing extravagant — a candle one year, a book she thought I’d like another year, and so forth. But I’m feeling awkward that I’ve never reciprocated. Honestly, I’d prefer not to! I have a small gift-buying budget that I prefer to spend on my family, and I don’t want to encourage the expectation that we’ll all give each other gifts. But now that it’s clear she’s going to give me something every year, am I being rude by not giving her something back?

Some people give gifts to co-workers and some people don’t, and you don’t need to feel obligated to cross over to the gifting side if you don’t want to. It sounds like this has gone on for long enough for her to stop if she objects to being the only one offering a gift; she hasn’t, so I’d assume she simply derives joy from continuing to do it. A sincere “thank you” is all that’s required.

That said, if you feel awkward about not reciprocating with something, a card with a warm note inside could be a good compromise.

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‘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.

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‘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.

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Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.

‘Should I Give My Boss a Holiday Gift?’