Gift Giving in the Workplace: The Unspoken Rules

gift giving in the workplace

With the holidays fast approaching, many professionals are experiencing that annual conundrum: What is the protocol for gift giving in the workplace?

Should I give my team members a token of my appreciation? What about my boss? And if I give my favorite co-worker a gift, do I have to give everyone something?

To help make sure you don’t inadvertently make a holiday faux pas, here are some of the unspoken rules of gift giving in the workplace.

Give Down, Not Up

The guru of workplace rules, Alison Green (founder of the Ask a Manager website), suggests that gift giving should flow down the chain of command, not up. That means it’s acceptable for managers to give to their subordinates, but that staff members should not give to their bosses.

The reasons for this are multifaceted, but primarily, Green says it’s due to power dynamics. Managers have power over their employees. If employees feel obligated to offer them gifts, managers are inappropriately benefiting from that dynamic. Likewise, employees may wrongly believe (or create the impression) that they’re entitled to favorable treatment because of their gift.

Regardless of your role, avoid giving up the chain. If you’re a manager, encourage your employees not to give you gifts.

Also read: 4 No-Cost Ways To Reward Your Staff

Keep It Reasonable & Focus on Equality

If you’re a manager and you choose to give down the chain (to your staff members), be sure to keep the cost of gifts within a reasonable budget and avoid playing favorites. Extravagant, expensive items—or those that are overly familiar—will only make people feel uncomfortable. Gift cards, on the other hand, are appropriate and usually appreciated, even in small amounts.

Just remember that everyone on the team should get the same gift. This isn’t a reward based on performance; it’s a gift given in the holiday spirit. From that perspective, everyone deserves equal treatment.

Exchange in Private

If you have one especially dear friend in the workplace (or a small handful) with whom you would like to exchange gifts, don’t do it in public. You don’t want others to feel excluded, which would be a natural response. Take your party to a private venue, outside of the workplace.

Also read: How To Survive the Company Holiday Party

Opt for Meaningful Expressions of Gratitude Instead

Most people in the workplace would rather receive a meaningful expression of gratitude than a physical gift. Instead of purchasing an item the receiver may care little about, why not write a heartfelt card? Alternatively, you could make a donation to the person’s favorite charity on their behalf. Or maybe bring in a platter of tasty treats for the team to share over coffee. The sentiment is what matters most; not the physical item.

Don’t let workplace gift giving etiquette stand in the way of embracing the true spirit of the holidays. Remember what it’s all about: spreading joy and good will to all. Following these simple rules will help ensure everyone enjoys the holidays together.

About the Author

Chrissy Scivicque is a career coach, corporate trainer and public speaker who believes work can be a nourishing part of the life experience. Her website, Eat Your Career, is devoted to this mission. Chrissy is currently a contributing career expert for U.S. News & World Report and the author of the book, The Proactive Professional: How to Stop Playing Catch Up and Start Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life!), available on Amazon.