To Give, or Not to Give Gifts at Work: That is the Question

Gifts at WorkIn our November poll, we asked how you felt about workplace gift giving during the holidays. Almost 40% of the voters give gifts but don’t expect any in return while a close 32% wanted to, but couldn’t give gifts to so many employees in large companies. While most of the votes went toward giving without expecting anything in return, you may not be comfortable with what is or isn’t acceptable business practice for gift giving during the holiday season.

Each employer has different ideas and expectations on how they should celebrate and it can be confusing or frightening to figure out what is appropriate when giving gifts at work. The holiday hullabaloo is not lost on us, and if you follow these guidelines when considering whether or not to hand out gifts to celebrate the season, you’ll have a better chance of giving your office a little holiday cheer.

Check Guidelines and Policies

When in doubt, always check with your employer’s protocols. There could be some strict guidelines concerning holiday celebrations. This is especially important if you’re in a business where you work closely with clients, vendors, or business associates outside of your company. Several companies have detailed restrictions on giving or receiving gifts from clients outside of your employer.

An increasing trend with American employers is celebrating the holidays as a whole group so it can deter employees from one-on-one gifting. There are more employers without policies than there are with them, so be mindful of your company culture and see what is expected during the holiday season. Some workplaces may have a Secret Santa type of celebrating where workers choose the name of a fellow employee randomly and buy that person a low-cost gift. Other companies have each department throw their own lunch party to celebrate, while others have no real celebration at all.

It’s All Voluntary

The workplace is more diverse than ever. Not only are there many diverse cultures, but there are also diverse age groups working with each other. When dealing with so many different views, opting out of gift giving should be free of consequences.  You have to be sensible and respectful of your co-workers holiday beliefs. If someone doesn’t want to be involved, you shouldn’t make them feel badly about it.

If you don’t desire or are incapable of participating in your company’s celebrations, you shouldn’t feel pressured into it either. The majority of respondents in our poll didn’t expect anything in return, so don’t feel like you have to return the act if you receive a gift. Take pride in knowing that a co-worker or boss is expressing their appreciation of you and what you do for them. Acknowledging the gift with a thank you is sufficient.

It’s All About Inclusion, Inclusion, Inclusion

The biggest concern when it comes to office gift giving is the issue of inclusion. Nobody wants to feel left out, un-favored compared to a peer, or appear to be schmoozing to get ahead with a boss. If you want to show extra appreciation to a co-worker you have a strong relationship with, consider giving it to them outside of work so it doesn’t alienate your colleagues.  You may also want to consider avoiding impersonalized, super cheap, or generic gifts to all employees. This will characterize you as un-thoughtful and missing out on the point of the holidays.

If you want to give your boss a gift, ask your co-workers if they would like to go in as a group. It can help make the holiday work environment feel less inclusive and can establish teamwork skills among your peers. If in a leadership role, consider donating money in your teammates name to charitable organizations that they are involved with or would appreciate.

Does your employer have any gift giving policies? How are the holidays celebrated where you work? I’d love to hear some ideas on how you give gifts at work.


  1. Ruth

    Nice post. Much needed. Having been in corporate America for ~25 yrs I have given and received and lot of gifts from managers and co-workers. I especially appreciate the comment about inclusion. Simply be aware of how it appears to others to give gifts at work. I have a co-worker that has become a good friend (or so I thought). We share private personal details and do things outside of work. She can be hot and cold. At an out-of-town conference this year she all but ignored me which I decided to just let it go since she is a rubbing elbows kind of person and I am not. This person will say how she loves me and values our friendship. Many times over many years. In e-mail, phone calls and in person. However her actions do not align with her words. She leaves extraordinary birthday gifts on other co-workers desks but not mine, including decorating their cubes. This has led to a conflict inside of me: is she serious when she says she loves me or is she saying that so I can will help her when she needs it? If she loves me, does that not include similar recognition as other co-workers in the form of a gift? I blew it off the first few years, but I ask myself why as the years go by. I confess it is selfish of me to compare this way. As long as I am being transparent here, I decided long ago that I would only give gifts (Christmas, birthday, etc) to co-workers when I felt I could afford it and only from my heart, not from obligation, to avoid “faking” and to avoid any “reciprocal” tendencies in myself and the other person. This results in some years gifts are given from me to co-workers; other years, they are not. While it shouldn’t send a mixed signal IMO, apparently it does, and perhaps this confuses her (& others). I am sad if I only get gifts when I give them, but it may just be that simple – the age-old “tit-for-tat” score-keeping system. Hopefully my transparency won’t bite me, but I think the sum of what I am trying to say is this: If you are going to give gifts to co-workers, do it somewhere besides the office to avoid the potential for comparison, which is basic human nature. Is comparison immature? Probably so. But still, it is basic human nature and I suggest to anyone who thinks they are above comparison to monitor their heart reactions closely to see if they truly are.

  2. Jared Cole

    Thanks for the post, Ruth. It’s best to know what kind of culture and customs are in your workplace before you start giving gifts. When in doubt, give them on your off time when you aren’t at work.

  3. Kate

    What a great article…your advice is particularly helpful to folks about to spend their first holiday season in a new workplace. Our best advice is to be proactive — ask casually in lunchroom “So, what do you guys do to celebrate the holidays here.” Include a funny anecdote about a previous office to keep it casual…you don’t want to be too obvious about your fact-finding mission!!!

  4. Jared Cole

    That’s a fun piece of advice. I wouldn’t worry too much about being casual on your fact finding. You’re taking interest in the company and wanting to be a part of the celebration. But always be aware of what is and isn’t acceptable holiday behavior at your work. Thank you so much for sharing!

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