The etiquette of office gift giving has always been a bit confusing, largely due to ever-evolving company rules that are rooted in rapidly changing cultural norms. Now, however, as post-pandemic workers return to their offices, they’re having to navigate a “new normal” of office etiquette that may include gift giving — a situation that becomes even more unavoidable given the upcoming holiday season.
All that is less stressful than it sounds, according to Tetnika Marie Williamson, a certified life skills coach and etiquette consultant who wrote the book Modern Day Etiquette for Everyday Living. She says, “Office gift giving is still a great way to make friends, show appreciation, and boost morale, but critical rules and considerations do apply.”
Here are seven guidelines for office gift giving, no matter the occasion.
1. Learn your company’s policies
Before you even think about gifting, “it’s critical to first research whether exchanging gifts is allowed,” Williamson advises. That’s likely the case since 70% of companies allow gift exchanges. “Still, it’s important to break it down and explore the gift culture in general,” she adds.
2. Apply no pressure
Pre-pandemic surveys on the subject of office gift giving showed that while 85% of workers viewed the practice positively, 40% wished companies would prohibit it among employees entirely. That startling disparity in sentiment can be traced to several issues: social pressure to participate, nervousness about selecting the right gift at an affordable price, and the inconvenience of having to adjust one’s budget.
“For those reasons, you definitely don’t want to put the pressure on,” says Williamson, noting that, in addition to finances, people opt out for many reasons that may be deeply personal, religious, or cultural.
3. Set a spending limit
A popular way to avoid much of this pressure during the holidays is organizing a Secret Santa or Yankee Swap exchange, which involve employees volunteering to purchase a single gift at a set price limit for a secret recipient.
Make the shopping experience easier by establishing a range of $20 to $25, Williamson suggests. Setting spending limits also creates a sense of gift equity, meaning it reduces potential negative feelings associated with receiving something of lesser value than you purchased, or vice versa.
Spending limits should also apply to contributions for pooled gifts on occasions like weddings or baby showers. “Putting your money together probably assures getting the best gift from the registry,” Williamson says. “And you also eliminate competition issues because the gift is from everybody.”
4. Keep gifts ‘workplace appropriate’
Stay away from gag gifts, especially ones that can be interpreted as having sexual, racial, political, or religious connotations, which can get you in trouble with HR, or even fired.
Conflicts can also arise with “inside joke” gifts or “those that are too personal or extravagant,” says Williamson, who agrees items like lingerie, perfume, grooming items, or expensive jewelry “have the potential to make people feel uncomfortable.”
Similar sentiments may explain why alcohol and tobacco products are increasingly making it on company lists of prohibited gift ideas.
“The main point to remember is that you’re still at the office,” Williamson says. “This is a work function, and you’ve got to think everything through.”
5. Give downward or across
Etiquette rules regarding a gift for the boss are fuzzy. “Generally, it’s not a good idea due to the power structure,” Williamson says, “because it could be looked upon as inappropriate during annual reviews, when promotions are in play, or during holiday bonus season.”
The safe play is that bosses should give to their subordinates and subordinates should give to their coworkers. However, if you truly feel an effort must be made for the boss, it’s best for employees to pool their resources so no one person sticks out.
6. Regifting is OK
“There’s nothing wrong with regifting an item,” Williamson says. The item should be in new to very good condition. “And keep careful track of who originally gave you that gift,” she emphasizes, or you could commit a serious faux pas. Nobody wants to have their label maker returned to them.
7. Say thank you
Offering a heartfelt thank you for gifts extends well beyond office settings, so it’s always a good idea. “But that’s also the simple answer for awkward occasions when someone you didn’t get a gift for surprises you with one,” Williams notes. Then you can reciprocate the gesture tastefully on another occasion.
Traditional handwritten notes are a class act and particularly on point for bosses who go beyond generic corporate logo items, such as mugs or water bottles, by gifting highly individualized presents, retail gift cards, or any kind of special compensation — for instance, holiday bonuses or paid time off.
In all, the etiquette of office gift giving is about abiding by company rules, remaining professional, and purchasing practical, tasteful, and moderately priced gifts. But here’s a final note: Although it requires getting to know your coworkers a bit, gifting items that are in line with their personalities, tastes, or interests are extremely thoughtful.
Best gifts for your coworkers
Here are some not-so-serious musings on typical office personality types along with some very practical and affordable gift ideas to consider for them.
The IT Guy
Sure, there are CEOs and presidents but, as everyone knows, the real power behind the throne is the IT Guy. To acknowledge that fact, stay on his good side, and keep him rushing to your rescue for your silly operator errors, honor him with the king of all meats: barrel cut chateaubriand. That’s the finest cut of USDA Choice filet mignon money can buy. Nothing says “You’re the man” like melt-in-your-mouth beef.
The One Who Fixes the Copy Machines
If the term “You break it, you bought it” applied to office copy machines, some of us would be paying off five or six of these by now. You know who you are. Show appreciation for your overworked copy repairman by offering him a five-gallon personalized tool bucket seat. This gift will allow him to work in comfort and have a place to store his tools as he fixes the paper jam that resulted from your ignoring the manual and “just winging it.”
Is there anyone more called upon than an office intern? Is there anyone who makes less than him? Definitely not, which is why you should get him the gift that keeps on giving: meals. A subscription box to the finest seafood will let your intern know that his coworkers appreciate his work.
The Lunch Stealer
Every office has one, but the curious thing is why? Perhaps they’re too lazy to make their own lunch, or maybe they are motivated by the thrill of the caper. Whether you’ve been a victim or not, de-escalate future crimes by setting aside daily sustenance for them in the form of gourmet prepared meal deliveries. Your stomach will thank you and so will they (hopefully).
The One Who Organizes Happy Hour
This person is no ordinary facilitator. He or she happily volunteers for their propensity to find the hottest of hotspots, party hardy, and imbibe in ways both prolific and exploratory. Enable them to keep the good times rolling at home in style with a lovely Bloody Mary kit that comes with the cocktail mix and all the garnishes they need to make this boozy brunch staple.
The One Who Makes the Daily Coffee Runs
Taking on the role of coffee runner is no easy task having to masterfully juggle multiple complicated custom orders — like telling all the triple venti half sweet non-fat caramel macchiatos from the triple venti soy no foam lattes. And let’s not forget about those pesky twists of lemons. Do that for a week and see how sane you remain. Show some appreciation for this troubled soul by treating him to a private breakfast stash that will pair well with his own cup of joe.
The One With a Snack Drawer
Anyone who maintains a drawer full of snacks is someone you should befriend, on day one, even before you’re onboarded. You can either replenish their stash or, if they’re particular about their snacks, help protect them with a 96-ounce airtight glass cookie jar that can hold more than just cookies (which also make for a sweet snack!).
The One Who Is Always Cold
You know the type: No matter the season, they’re the one with the sweater draped over their ergonomic office chair, walking the floors, perpetually rubbing their extremities, declaring, “It’s always too cold in here! Can someone do something about that air conditioning!” Maybe it comes down to poor blood circulation, or maybe it’s something else, but you can warm their hearts and tummies with this thoughtful soup gift basket that comes with a variety of scrumptious packaged soup mixes. Just don’t let The Lunch Stealer know about this one…
The One Who Only Speaks or Writes in Acronyms
Business acronym addicts may be as annoying as they are easily identified. If you’ve ever heard or read something like “We need to discuss the NAV, ROA, ROE, and ROI in reference to the P&L in preparation for the IPO,” you know what we’re talking about. But they need L-O-V-E, too. Keep their mouths otherwise occupied and endlessly happy with fudgy brownie truffles. Be warned, though: You run the risk of them calling these FBTs (hey, you can’t win them all).
The Ultimate Organizer
It’s tempting to gift the office organizer a desk accessory, journal, or dry erase calendar, but any true organizer has all that and more, plus high-tech backups. Channel that crackling energy and keep those busy hands active in a less officious, more creative way by gifting them a trio of baking mixes. A budding baker lives in all of us — and the gleeful organizer has one more thing to perfectly display on their desk.
The ‘Work Wife’
You spend more time with this person than your own partner, but you’d be wise to stick to something that places emphasis on your special friendship without crossing inappropriate lines, such as a Dwarf Jade Bonsai Tree with Illuminated Fountain. This precious living wonder says it all and offers a zen retreat that’s easy to take care of, even for someone without a green thumb.
Everyone has a coworker that has a full dance card the moment the little hand strikes five on Friday, and they routinely regale the office with a recap of their shenanigans every Monday morning. Where he gets the extra energy and how he can afford it all on his salary is anyone’s guess. But maybe it’s best to just keep it a secret. Let him keep his weekend to himself, too, with a journal. Nothing would surprise us if this becomes a best-seller someday.
The successful slacker is as mysterious as he is crafty in coming up with all those excuses for arriving late or slipping out early. None of it seems to impact his career negatively, and your boss may even count him among his favorites. So give in, respect his ingenuity, and tip your hat to him with this symbolically applicable Mystical Unicorn Fruit Arrangement. At least you know he’ll be well nourished as he’s coming and going — albeit, too late and too early.
If you’re bold enough to break with conventional office etiquette and “give upward,” it’s best to do so as part of a group give. Otherwise, politically savvy gifters should go with impersonal, inexpensive items that most bosses will be inclined to share with the staff. Cheryl’s Celebration Cookie Pail is a superb answer that comes with 16 cookies (eight flavors) of buttercream-frosted gourmet delights everyone will enjoy.