With holiday season approaching, gift-giving might be top of mind, though the politics of giving gifts can truly be complicated all year long. There are secret snowflakes, office parties, and potlucks in Q4, but all year long there are baby showers, wedding showers, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, going aways, and so on...
Some people really enjoy the office celebrating and for others it become difficult and tedious, or even a drain on your budget. Not only are you worried about what to get your family and friends but there’s the inevitable office holiday party where you may have to exchange gifts or contribute in some way. For the sake of seeming professional and a team player, you might feel pressured to say yes. There are ways to make it all more palatable.
The first thing to consider is what are the cultural expectations of gift-giving where you are working. Consider the office dynamics and the norms you observe where you are working. When I worked in London, it was part of the office culture to gift coworkers small trinkets after coming back from vacation, even though we vacationed throughout Europe pretty frequently. I wanted to be perceived as a team player, but I was on a budget! This forced me to be creative and when I went on a vacation to Dublin, I bought two containers of Guinness chocolates with the hope I could leave it for everyone to share instead of worrying about individual team gifts.
The gift was a hit! It was simple, reflected where I went, what I did and it was inexpensive (thank you Duty Free)! It also didn’t make anyone feel pressured to have some or give anything back.
I realized that by zeroing in on your office values, being honest with yourself about your own budget and values, and utilizing some creativity, makes gift-giving less stressful all year long.
Here are some ideas to consider when dealing with gift-giving at work and the quickly approaching holiday season.
Make sure it is appropriate to give gifts in the office. Do your research and make your decisions based off this information. It may be customary for bosses to give their secretaries gifts or for there to be a downward exchange. When it comes to the holiday season some offices may not have gift exchange events or even allow them. If that is the case, this saves you time, avoids weird situations and saves money!
If gift-giving is the norm in your office, put that item in your annual budget. Know your teammates birthdays and other important dates. Stocking up on small items your team may like when they are out of season is a great way to save. Create some flexibility for occasions that come up unexpectedly (retirements, pregnancies, going aways, etc.). Preparation is one of the best ways to make this not wear on your mind and your pockets
Giving a gift should never be mandatory. If someone gives you a gift and you didn’t buy them something in return, it’s okay! Simply write a handwritten thank you note and keep it moving. You should never give gifts expecting to get something back nor do you want to add unnecessary pressure or make someone feel uncomfortable.
Suggested gift-giving is exactly that...suggested and not always required! I once worked on a floor that was pretty social, but I didn't know everyone. I noticed I was being asked to contribute to presents for people I never worked with and didn't know but worked on the same floor with. In situations like that, be comfortable saying no. If you don't know a person or have a relationship with them, find a way to politely decline a contribution to whoever is collecting.
Food is generally a safe bet. Getting a shareable food item is a symbolic and affordable way to touch a lot of people in the office at once. The people who love your "grandmother's famous pumpkin pie" or whatever will never forget that you made their stomachs happy and the ones who didn't will still appreciate your gesture. It’s a great way to show your appreciation without having to give gifts to every person in the office. Go above and beyond by considering dietary restrictions of people on your team.
When giving individual gifts, be mindful of the recipient's culture and values. Depending on the setting, this might take research or just critical thinking. People of different ethnicities and religions may take gift-giving seriously and find certain items to be insensitive or disrespectful. This article on Etiquette 101 gives a perfect breakdown for gift-giving when it comes to working or traveling in different countries or gifting people of different ethnicities and religions.
Don't give anything too personal. Perfume, jewelry and clothing are generally out of the question. They can make people feel uncomfortable, put you out of your budget and put pressure on the other person to reciprocate. Remember that even though you spend a lot of time with your coworkers, there may be some boundaries that they don't want crossed. Instead, give someone a small gift that reflects their personal interests and hobbies. If you know someone loves inspirational quotes or cats, giving them little books or calendars that reflect this interest is a nice touch and okay.
Avoid giving cash. Giving cash is too personal and may seem like you are paying someone to like you or treat you better. This is especially important to consider if the recipient is your manager or direct report. Instead give gift cards they act just like cash but are generic and impersonal. You could give people gift cards to their favorite restaurants or basic Visa or Starbucks cards.
Stay away from gag gifts... This can quickly fall into the category of being insensitive and just tasteless. If you have to ask yourself twice, go with no.
There is nothing wrong with re-gifting an item, but don’t give it back to the person who gave it to you. This is like the mistake of sending a generic cover letter to with addressed to "Pespi" for your Coca-Cola application. It screams carelessness!! When you do re-gift, still make sure you consider the person. For example, one year I received a basket of bath treats, I personally don’t like bath scents so I re-gifted it to a friend that I know loves that, and it was well-received.
Never go over the set budget. If your team suggests $20 max for a secret snowflake gift, stay within that budget.Not only is ignoring this rule bad for your pockets, but you could also put the recipient in an awkward position. In this case, less is always more. It also helps to ask if there is an official spending limit set in the office.
Remember this is business! Taking time and consideration into giving gifts to friends, family and SO's should be different than how you handle gift exchanges for people at your office. Remember to keep it simple and respectful. It's easy to get swept up in personal relationships you've made at work, just remember where you are. And don't give gifts to someone with the intention of starting a work relationship, that won't work in your favor.
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