Are You Doing Workplace Gift-Giving Right?

Liz Sheldon

Workplace gifting can be a minefield of etiquette rules and hard-to-discern expectations, which can lead to anxiety leading up to it and disappointment after. But this doesn’t have to be your fate as a workplace gifter and giftee! To help guide you toward good gifting vibes, we’ve collected a few common questions and practical answers. Read on to tackle the next major gifting season armed with good ideas.

I have a team member who’s more like a mentee—is it okay to give them a nicer gift than the rest of my coworkers?

A lot of this depends on the dynamic of your team. Is this person your only direct report? Are they someone you have been working with for a long time? Do you feel confident that they view you as a mentor?

If you manage a team, giving something obviously nicer to one employee is clearly playing favorites—yes, even if you do it discreetly. The Murphy’s Law of office gossip and Slack chitchat dictate that it’s almost guaranteed everyone else will find out and feel hurt. This also puts your giftee in the awkward position of possibly getting blowback from the team. And, if the relationship is actually not as close as you’ve inferred, giving an extravagant gift might straight up make them feel weird.

But if you’ve answered yes to all the above, feel free to pass GO and splurge a little. To keep things work appropriate, steer away from anything too extra (or even remotely flirty!) like jewelry or booze—think a nice monogrammed planner, home-office upgrades like desk accessories or exciting snacks, or a gift card to a favorite lunch spot near the office.

Photo: Stef Etow

I want to send my team something special, but we all work remotely. What’s a non-lame gift?

If you have access to your team’s addresses, consider sending them something to make their workday feel a little special, like a supply of nice coffee, new mug, luxe notebook, or even a small desktop plant. If that’s not in the cards logistically, put a little extra effort into recognizing them and send them a digital gift to a local place you know they like to go, like a bookstore or cafe. If they’re into art, an affordable museum membership is also a great idea. Just make sure, as with any gift, that it’s thoughtful and inclusive without being aggressively personal.

If you have a close enough relationship to know what they would like, you could also make a donation to their favorite charity—or on the other end of the spectrum, order a Cameo from their favorite B-list celeb.

As an entry level employee, am I really expected to give my (much more highly compensated!) manager a gift?

Everything is more expensive than ever these days, so it makes sense that as someone just getting started in your career—with an entry level salary to match—it can feel jarring to spend money on a holiday or birthday gift for your team lead who is most likely in a more comfortable financial position. This situation can be a perfect storm of workplace stress factors: anxiety about making a good impression, money stuff, the specific expectations of your office culture (you get the idea).

Spending money you don’t have on a gift for your manager is only going to make you resentful in the long term, and any boss who expects their report to buy them an expensive gift is categorically wrong. However, this is where the timeworn adage rings true—it’s really the thought that counts. Not even the most unruffled boss in the world is immune to wanting to be liked by their team. A simple card with a basic message can go a long way in this scenario. Or even a nice email with a .gif you know will make them laugh.

It’s really the thought that counts... A simple card with a basic message can go a long way.

Or, if you have a few coworkers on the same level and really want to go the extra mile, ask if anyone else wants to pitch in a couple of dollars and put whatever you get toward a group gift like a coffee shop gift card, or things like nice pens, snacks, etc. (But only do this if you actually want to—and never pressure a coworker into taking part.) At the end of the day, if you do nothing, that’s also totally fine—the thought of giving a gift to my boss didn’t cross my mind until at least my late 20s.

Do I have to participate in my workplace white elephant gift exchange?

No! Listen, people either love or hate the workplace gift exchange, and if it’s not for you, it’s better to be up front about that fact instead of suffering through it year after year. The general issue with this type of forced holiday fun is that it either has a spend limit that some people flaunt, leaving things feeling uneven, or involves everyone buying and then bringing home a bunch of random junk.

That said, if you’re in an office culture where people are super into it, kindly but firmly decline to take part—make up a funny, obviously fake story about a traumatic gift exchange in your past if that helps everyone laugh it off. Or, suggest switching to a Secret Santa instead—it has a similar element of suspense while being a little more personal.

To keep things work appropriate, steer away from anything too extra (or even remotely flirty!) like jewelry or booze.

As a manager, do I owe my team a nice gift from me personally, or just the company?

If your company is providing a gift for a holiday or to mark a milestone (hopefully the answer is yes), there’s no need to go above and beyond with an additional, personalized gift. That’s especially true if the gift the company provides is something that feels design-y or curated in some way. If it’s a monogrammed sweatshirt no one ever wears, consider pitching the powers-that-be on switching to something that feels nicer across the board—you’ll be a workplace hero.

But there’s no rule that says you can’t add your own gift if you’d like. Just follow all the general rules above to make sure it’s something that’s appropriate, fun, and not destined to cause workplace drama.

Now go forth and gift away—or don’t!

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