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The Dos and Don'ts of Office Gift-Giving

When holiday season approaches, it’s always stressful to consider what you’ll buy for all of your relatives and friends. When you add in your office co-workers you’ll end up with an even larger headache. When it comes to your colleagues, any gift—or lack thereof—is likely to send a signal about who you are and how you perceive your co-workers.

Choosing thoughtful gifts can help you build relationships with the people in your office, while giving inappropriate presents can cause discomfort or even jeopardize your employment. “You can cross that line very easily,” says Aimee Symington, an etiquette coach in Charlotte, N. C., who runs Blundersmania.com.

In many cases, a simple card is fine. But if your officemates are eager to exchange gifts, it may be tough to opt out of the festivities. So how do you make sure that you’re spending your precious dollars wisely when purchasing presents for your co-workers?

Etiquette experts share these tips on choosing the perfect gifts for everyone in your office.

Check on your company’s policies
Before purchasing gifts for anyone at work, it’s important to make sure exchanging presents is even allowed. “Many organizations have strict regulations about giving gifts in the office and who you may give them to,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, the owner of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting business based in Boston. Banks and other financial institutions in particular often have rules that prohibit gift exchanges. If you’re not sure about your workplace, check with your company’s human resources representative.

Ask your co-workers for advice
If you’re new to your current workplace, you won’t know whether exchanging gifts is common, or what kinds of gifts to purchase, unless you ask around the office. “Ask more than one person or you might accidentally ask the one person who refuses to exchange gifts or the person who gives presents to everybody,” says Smith. “Find out the general feeling around gift-giving and follow the corporate culture.”

Don’t buy anything overly intimate
When you’re giving presents to people you work with, be aware of what is and isn’t appropriate for the office. “Anything that you’d buy for someone on Valentine’s Day isn’t appropriate,” says Smith. That means no perfume, no flowers and definitely no lingerie. Be careful about giving a gift that makes it seem like your co-worker could use help with his or her appearance. “It’s one thing to give a manicure, which is fun and relaxing,” says Constance Hoffman of Social and Business Graces, Inc., a Los Angeles-based etiquette consultancy, “but it’s another to offer a session of hair coloring.” Nose hair trimmers, needless to say, are also a bad idea.

Watch out for co-workers’ sore spots
The danger of shopping for co-workers is that you may not know enough about them to avoid unintentionally offending them. Avoid giving gifts of wine or spirits; you never know whether one of your co-workers might be a recovering alcoholic. If you know that several co-workers are working hard to lose weight, baked goods aren’t an ideal gift. And pay attention to potential cultural clashes: “Don’t give a Christmas ham to a Jewish co-worker,” says Hoffman.

Give a gift that shows real thought
A great present doesn’t need to cost much it just needs to demonstrate that you understand what your co-worker would appreciate. Smith recalls a time when she worked at an office with an executive who was constantly losing umbrellas. “I went down to Walgreens and bought a dozen collapsible umbrellas,” she says. “I didn’t spend a lot of money, but he loved it.”

A charitable gift can also be a good present, but make sure that it’s a charity your co-worker supports. “Find out what causes are near and dear to his or her heart,” says Smith. “If you’re making a donation to a group that you support, it’s not a gift.”

Homemade foods and gift certificates will often be appreciated as well. “A coworker once got three of us in the office gift cards from three separate coffee shops,” says Hoffman. “She recognized our favorite places, and it resonated.”

Don’t spend more than you can afford
Cost is, of course, a major consideration. Your bank account’s probably already been wiped clean with all of the purchases for parents, siblings, and children. How much do you need to spend to show the woman in the next cubicle that you care?

Your co-workers won’t expect lavish gifts, particularly if you’re on the lower end of the salary scale. “Ten dollars for a coffee shop card is fine,” says Symington. “It’s more of a token to show appreciation to the people you work with.”

It’s especially important to keep costs down when you’re purchasing gifts for an entire department. Unless someone is a close friend outside of work, don’t play favorites by purchasing an expensive present for one co-worker. “If you work in a small environment where others would find out about your gift, you should give a small gift to other co-workers, too,” says Symington.

Be careful when buying a gift for your boss
Will it seem like you’re trying to buy your way into a raise if you purchase a present for the person in charge? Are you even allowed to give your boss a gift? Depending on where you work, the responses could vary substantially.

“Some companies frown upon it, but at others it’s expected that you’ll give your boss a gift even if you don’t buy anything for your peers,” says Smith.

Before purchasing a gift, talk with your co-workers about whether it’s customary to purchase something for your boss or department head. If so, ask what sort of gifts they’ve purchased in years past to get an idea of the usual price point. In many cases, co-workers enjoy chipping in together to jointly purchase one larger gift, such as a new golf club or tickets to a baseball game, for their manager.

“A savvy admin understands relationships in the office and makes gift-giving decisions accordingly,” says Smith.

Start a new office Secret Santa tradition
Of course, if the hassle and cost of purchasing gifts for everyone in your office or department is overwhelming just to consider, suggest doing a Secret Santa where each employee buys a gift for just one randomly chosen co-worker.

In a Secret Santa gift exchange, staff members are generally forbidden from spending over a set limit, often $25 or $50, which can keep costs significantly lower than if you try to buy a gift for everyone in the office. And purchasing a gift for just one person instead of 20 can help you avoid the confusion and office politics surrounding the etiquette of office gift-giving. Just make sure to stay away from the nose-hair trimmers, in any case.

Ten Office Gift Suggestions
Still wondering what to buy for your colleagues? Our experts shared their favorite office-appropriate gift ideas—see what’s worth putting on your holiday shopping list.

  1. Gift cards for coffee, e-books, or music
  2. Stationary paper
  3. Beautiful pens from Cross or Mont Blanc
  4. Fruit baskets
  5. Silver picture frames
  6. Leather calendars or planners
  7. Business card cases
  8. Tickets to an event
  9. Unique plants
  10. Alumni-focused gifts