Having a handle on office gift giving etiquette is essential this time of year. Too often, holiday celebrations cause stress and frustration due to unclear or misconstrued expectations. Holiday gift exchanges—whether Secret Santa, Yankee Swap, or White Elephant exchanges—can boost morale and elicit warm, fuzzy feelings of holiday cheer if done properly. They can also be a minefield of awkwardness if the appropriate gift giving etiquette is not observed. We asked two corporate etiquette experts for pointers so your holiday season remains a joyous (if not tolerable) affair at the office.
Overcoming your inner Grinch
Maybe holiday gifts aren’t your thing. If your office decides to give small items throughout the holiday season, it is best to play along. “If you simply don’t want to participate, think carefully,” says Diane Gottsman, a corporate etiquette consultant and public speaker. “It sends the wrong message and leaves a negative impression.”
Keep in mind that office gift giving is really a team building exercise. Workplaces deploy these types of activities to build morale. Think of participation as part of your job, and execute as you would any other task.
If you are declining participation in holiday gift giving due to religious, cultural, or financial reasons—that is fine. “Speak to your supervisors privately,” advises Gottsman. Do it right away, and well-ahead of any kind of gift exchange.
Be thoughtful—but don’t overthink gifts
Anxiety over what (and what not) to give to your office Secret Santa often stems from not knowing what to get. Gift giving makes an impression. A wrong move can be embarrassing—or worse, cause friction among co-workers.
Thankfully, office gift giving is not hard if you are willing to pay attention. “The most obvious advice is the often truest—it’s the thought that counts,” explains Daniel Post, co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. When it comes to putting thought into any gift, it is best to simply take into account the environment and context of the recipient. “Something work-related is always safe; things related to your job, or things that would go on a desk are always appropriate for the office,” Post says.
If your skillset allows, getting crafty or making something by hand is a surefire success. “If you are famous for your caramel toffee or your painting skills are coveted, use your creativity,” Gottsman says. “From the thought to the presentation, concentrate on the details.”
The physical, literal act of giving the gift is just as important as the gift itself. “The most obvious and important thing you can do is express gratitude for the relationship, which can even be done verbally when giving the gift,” Post explains.
Know What Not to Give
Mindful gift giving is relatively simple, but etiquette experts advise steering clear of certain items for the office gift swap.
- Don’t give money. “It shows lack of thought and holiday spirit,” Gottsman says. Gift cards, on the other hand, are acceptable.
- Don’t give gag gifts. “Imagine you are meeting your boss for the first time at dinner,” Post says. “Avoid anything you would not talk about.”
- Alcohol (be careful). You might enjoy beer or wine with work associates outside of office hours, but you run the risk of offending someone that has a religious affiliation that discourages liquor. Make sure to know the recipient if giving adult beverages.
- Don’t go over the money limit. You might think giving an extravagant gift wins extra points, but really, it can make everyone in exchange uncomfortable.
Should you give a gift to your boss?
Business etiquette conventions do not require giving gifts to your boss. There are exceptions. For instance, if your boss joins the Secret Santa exchange: “Treat him or her like everyone else,” Post advises. Generally speaking, if employees wish to give a gift to the boss, group gifts are the way to go. Designate a suggested amount ($5, $10) and have a volunteer collect the money. Attach a holiday card that everyone signs—regardless if they contributed to the gift money. “Yes, it’s annoying,” Gottsman says, “but it’s rude to exclude a member of the team.”
How to properly give a gift to a client
Many of the same principles of giving gifts to co-workers apply to gifts for clients, but first you want to check whether gift giving jives with company policy. “If there is no official policy or it’s unclear, always ask management,” Post advises. After that, once again, it comes down to context and attentiveness. “Listen for clues throughout the year and take note of things your client enjoys,” Gottsman says. “When in doubt, a fruit basket, cookie tray or gift card to a nice restaurant are always welcome options.” Again, remember to verbally express your gratitude for the relationship when it comes time to give the gift.
About our experts
- Diane Gottsman is an industry leader in etiquette training, and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas.
- Daniel Post is the spokesman of The Emily Post Institute, and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette Podcast.
What are your dos and don’ts for office gift giving etiquette?