A Survival Guide for Avoiding Awkward Workplace Gifting Drama

We asked a manager and a gifting expert for advice on how to steer clear of an embarrassing office gifting faux-pas during the holidays.

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Nov 26 2018, 1:45pm

Photos by Stocksy

It’s the day before Christmas break and everyone’s showing up at the office with envelopes and tote bags full of shiny boxes and you’re…. just there? Sure, you could sprint out quickly to Dunkin’ Donuts to grab some munchkins and gift cards, but what are you actually supposed to give your co-workers and how much should you be giving them? Just like we typically shy away from discussing salaries or benefits or anything else personal with our coworkers, talking gifts can feel taboo. But no one wants to be the sole employee without anything to share. Or too much to share.

“Personally, I don’t think there should be an expectation to give gifts at work,” says Naama Bloom, vice president of marketing for the online retailer zulily. That’s all fine in theory, but can lead to some major awkwardness if everyone else is exchanging presents. As Alison Green of Ask A Manager explains, “in some offices, it’s normal to exchange gifts with everyone on your team. Other offices might do a gift exchange where you only bring in a single gift. Some offices don’t do gifts at all.”

If you’re at your workplace for your first holiday season, don’t hesitate to ask a peer something along the lines of: “What do people usually do for the holidays around here? Do people tend to exchange gifts?" Some employee handbooks will also have guidelines, especially if you work in the public sector, such as not gifting anything above a certain value, but, again, it’s best to check with a peer to see what rules and traditions are actually followed.

Who to give a gift—and who not to

“The biggest thing to know is that at work, gifts should flow downward, not upward,” Green says. “In other words, your boss can give you a gift, but you and your coworkers shouldn’t give gifts to your managers. Otherwise, the power dynamics in the boss/employee relationship can make people feel pressured to buy gifts for their managers, and managers shouldn't benefit from power dynamics in that way.”

“No one should be giving gifts to their managers," Green added. If you're a freelancer, that includes anyone from a project manager to an editor. Passing your manager a festive envelope stuffed with VIP tickets to a concert you know they’d love just might look like you’re angling for that promotion next year.

Once you determine who you’re gifting, set a budget, knowing that the typical range for coworker gifts is $10 to $20, according to Green, noting, “managers giving gifts to their employees might spend more, particularly in especially high-powered jobs.” But there’s really no obligation to do that in most workplaces (if yours is the exception, you’ll know).

Bloom says that on her team, they have a giant game of White Elephant for those who want to participate. It helps to set a spending limit to avoid more awkwardness when one person spends more than everyone else.

Gift ideas for coworkers that don't cost a fortune

The toughest part of office gifting is figuring out what to get someone you don’t really know that well even though you see them almost every day. Use context clues to shape your gift purchasing—does the Keurig machine-obsessed deskmate need a cute new mug? Does your teammate go for a two o’clock Starbucks break daily or notoriously eat sushi at their desk every Thursday? While you can’t go wrong with a generic work-appropriate gift, adding that little touch of personalization can say a lot.

Here are three thoughtful, but still affordable gift options:

Nice stationery for an even nicer note: "To me, there is nothing sweeter to receive than a thoughtful, genuine handwritten note from an employee that expresses thanks, conveys gratitude or congratulates someone for a milestone at work. A nice card is always appreciated, and it’s also a way to express your own personality," says Bloom.

Homemade holiday cheer: Love to cook? Whether it's a simple batch of cookies or some homemade jam, this is one way to personalize an inexpensive gift. To make baked goods look prettier, consider using practical reusable containers (like Pyrex’s holiday containers) or a nice tin.

Something unique that’s full of personality, quirky, and fun: Sure you could go the safe route with the standard Starbucks gift card, but unusual gifts can be a lot more fun. Here's Broadly's gift guide for the nostalgia lover and another one specifically for coworkers. You can also look on Etsy for handmade items under $20, or just check out a quirky boutique near you if buying from local, small businesses is important to you.

Follow Melissa Kravitz on Twitter.