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Rules for Office Holiday Gifts

Office holiday gifts can be a nuanced art.

Shopping for just the right gift for your family and friends is a tedious task. Everyone on your holiday list has different personalities and preferences. Adding your co-workers and boss to that list is begging for trouble. How do you know what they like or whether they expect anything at all?

Then there’s the money limit. Of course you don’t want to “out give” another employee, nor do you want to take the cheap way out.

“If I’m not supposed to go all out or spend too little, what exactly should I do?”

If you’re asking this question, you’ve come to the right place. Here are a few rules to consider before shopping for holiday gifts for co-workers and supervisors. With a little planning and a lot of holiday spirit, you should come out of the store with the perfect gift and without breaking the bank.

Determine what the office rules and culture dictate.

Many companies have solved this problem for you with gift exchange rules. Either the office limits the cash value of the gift, organizes Dirty Santa or White Elephant, or, maybe prohibited gift-giving altogether. Ask your supervisor and co-workers about the office protocols. Human resources also is a great place to start. Ask whether you’re allowed to give gifts and if there are any rules to abide by.

Rules aren’t the only consideration. Some company cultures avoid the gift-giving season and don't exchange office holiday gifts. Many employees simply don’t have the extra cash or don’t want to offend those who don’t celebrate religious holidays. Ask a trusted colleague – who has been there for a few years – how they feel about gift giving. Ask them what employees did in recent years. The point is to take other’s feelings and desires into account. You don’t want to offend anyone.

Gift giving can flow downhill.

Giving office holiday gifts to your boss is fine but not necessary. Here are two things to consider before giving a gift to your boss. You may seem like you’re sucking up. Keep your gift thoughtful and modest, spending a few extra dollars isn’t going to win you points with the top dog. It could backfire and hurt your image.

On the other hand, consider the implications of giving gifts to those subordinate to you. They may not be in the position to return the sentiment and worry about the response. Giving gifts often mean they are expected to reciprocate, even if this isn’t your intent.

Never solicit money to buy a group gift.

This idea may seem like a great solution to office holiday gifts. It reduces the money each person spends, provides the opportunity for the office to show their appreciation and prevent you from looking like a kiss up. These notions are the furthest thing from the truth. This violates the above rule – gifts flow downhill – and it causes hurt feelings and misunderstanding among team members. There always is at least one person strapped for cash, who won’t be able to donate. They may worry about their image and whether their co-workers would think differently about them. Not to mention, they may worry how it will affect their long-term relationship with the company.

Team members also may resent giving to someone who makes more money than they do. Many employees often feel they are neglected, underpaid and not appreciated by the executives. Asking them to give money under those conditions is asking for trouble. A nice card, signed by all team members is a nice alternative to gifting superiors and executive management.

Provide sign-up sheets for office engagements.

If your office organizes an office holiday gift exchange, rather than asking team members to opt in, place a sign-up sheet for those who want to participate. Co-workers often feel awkward by declining to participate in office holiday events. Asking them to sign up eliminates the anxiety and allows people to just skip the event.

On that same note, first ask team members how they feel hosting a gift exchange. Do they really want to give gifts? One tactic is to reword your signup list. Rather than asking co-workers to sign up for a gift exchange, ask who would be interested in the event. Or place a box requesting anonymous suggestions. Consider establishing gift exchange rules as well.

Opt for a White Elephant party.

Most people have very few resources for office parties. After all, they’ve spent most of their holiday funds on travel, family, friends and personal activities. Don’t let the gift exchange leave your colleagues overburdened or guilty for not spending as much as the higher paid team members. Set a dollar limit on gifts or establish gift exchange rules. A good round figure is between $10 and $15 dollars.

Or do away with standard gifts altogether. Consider White Elephant or Dirty Santa events. Originally named a Yankee Swap, the point of these events is to reduce the guilt and jealousy found in traditional gift giving. Plus, it opens doors for co-workers to mingle and meet others they wouldn’t ordinarily have a conversation with. Here are the gift exchange rules to the game:

  • Everyone brings an unlabeled gift and places it under the tree or with the other gifts. Be sure to set a price limit.

  • Write a number on several pieces of paper, one for each person, and let everyone draw a number. The person with the highest number has the most choices.

  • The person with the number one has first pick at unopened gifts. The person with the next number can either open a gift or “steal” an opened gift. This continues until the last person.

  • The person who has their gift “stolen” can either open a new gift or “steal” someone else’s gift. They cannot steal their gift back.

  • Once a gift has been “stolen” three times it is retired from the game and current holder keeps it.

Avoid overly personalized gifts.

Office holiday gift giving in the office should stay professional and courteous. Stay away from gifts that are too personal. Purchasing nice jewelry or lingerie is acceptable for your spouse. Obviously, this isn’t appropriate for your boss or colleagues. Overly personalized gifts could be mistaken for unprofessional conduct or, even worse, sexual harassment.

Also avoid perfume (others may be sensitive to fragrances), clothing, music, etc. Some people have the “funny bug” buried deep inside. They love to tell jokes and give gag gifts. This isn’t appropriate for the office. Save the gag gifts for friends and family or risk embarrassment from a misunderstood joke.

Consider sweets or baked goods.

Nothing says holiday gift giving like homemade baked goods. Are you a superior chef? Consider baking cupcakes to take to the office. Or make cookies and wrap them in those cute holiday food bags. For those of us who cannot survive in the kitchen, check out the holiday confection stores at the mall. Many candy stores sell bulk sweets at a discount.

Be aware of food allergies, special diets and taste buds. Not everyone loves chocolate as much as you. Diabetics won’t appreciate a bag of sweets but would enjoy a selection of nuts. Be considerate of allergies and diet preferences. Ask co-workers if they are vegan, gluten sensitive or have religious restraints.

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