The holiday season is officially in full swing.

Each year, as this time rolls around, working professionals around the country prepare themselves for holiday festivities around the office. Perhaps more daunting than the annual holiday party is the dilemma of office gifts in the workplace. It is important to brush up on current best practices, whether you’re new to the office or have been working at the company for years. 

Before you break out the wrapping paper, make sure you’ve done the following:

No matter your job function or seniority, it is always best practice to reference your company’s employee handbook for updated office gift policies. Many companies have specific guidelines and limitations on what sorts of gifts may be accepted. Before purchasing or bearing gifts, make sure you know what is permissible. Some factors to keep in mind:  

  • Financial value of gift. What is the maximum amount permitted to be spent on holiday gifts for colleagues? Is this per gift, per person, per year?  
  • Clients. Is the gift being given by, or intended for, a client? If so, there are most likely additional restrictions. For example — many businesses do not permit gift cards or gifts of large financial value from clients or potential referrals. Many businesses also have stipulations regarding what types of gifts can be offered to clients.  
  • Other restrictions. Are certain items prohibited (i.e. food, alcohol, cologne/fragrance, etc.)? Check your organization’s policy when in doubt.  
  • If there are no documented policies, consult with higher-ups.

HR Tip: Make sure your company’s gift policy is updated with relevant information and encourage your organization to consult policies as the holidays approach. Remind them where they can access digital copies of this policy. Conversely, if your company has a no-gift-policy, make sure everyone is aware of this. Consult with your legal department and executive leadership as needed. 

Within companies that allow gift-giving, a common expectation is that gifts should flow down from management to employees, not the other way around. This unspoken rule exists for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are almost always differences in financial compensation among employees and their managers. Therefore, managers should never expect gifts from their associates. Another reason holiday gifts typically come from management is due to power dynamics. Giving your boss a holiday present may be misconstrued — especially depending on size and value of the gift. Meanwhile, it is perceived as an expression of gratitude when a manager gives holiday gifts to their staff.  

However, employees may opt to give a small token of appreciation, if anything, to their boss. Sometimes colleagues plan to give their boss a gift from the collective, but again, chipping in for a group gift is neither to be expected nor required.   

HR Tip: One way to prevent any uncomfortable situations is by hosting an optional, organization-wide gift-exchange. Consider having a white-elephant or Yankee swap at your annual holiday party. Be sure to communicate what is permitted vs. prohibited (e.g. gag gifts, alcohol, etc.) at the gift swap.

When purchasing office gifts, it is always better to err on the side of caution and select items that are crowd-pleasers. At the same time, it is crucial to consider everyone’s unique needs. Some things to keep in mind when selecting a gift for a client, employee, colleague, or gift-exchange:  

  • Dietary restrictions. Food items can be tricky since many people have allergies or intolerances. Avoid bringing food items as gifts for a company gift-swap; if you choose to bring food, attempt to find something that is free of common allergens. A gift basket complete with red wine and chocolate-covered almonds is a wonderful gesture; however, some employees may not be able to indulge in such a gift.  
  • Culture & religious beliefs. It is best to avoid gifts that are specifically themed for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc. — even if you know which holiday the recipient celebrates. Best practice is to gift something thoughtful, relatively personal, and unoffensive. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, if one of your colleagues collects nutcrackers or unique Christmas ornaments, use your best judgment.  
  • Individuality. Gifting everyone identical company merchandise, such as cups, mugs, jackets, etc. can feel cheap or impersonal. Instead, try investing in gifts that recognize each employee’s value as a person.  

HR Tip: One simple alternative is to upgrade outdated items your staff uses on a daily basis. Your employees will surely appreciate a new coffee machine, toaster, or panini press. If your office break room doesn’t have complimentary snacks and refreshments, the holiday season is the perfect time to stock up as an act of gratitude.

Oftentimes the best gift is the one that keeps on giving year-round. If you are in a position to give holiday bonuses, these are proven to be the most appreciated holiday gift. On the other hand, consider awarding alternative types of rewards like spot bonuses. Giving staff some extra pocket change, or even some unexpected paid time off, allows them to spend time with, and splurge on, their loved ones.

HR Tip: Gift cards allow your people the flexibility to splurge on whatever they like. You may even opt to send out a survey with a selection of gift cards they can choose between — the key is to select a gift that gives your people agency, time, and convenience.

Your staff may not expect gifts, believe it or not, unless that precedent has been set. The standard is to follow traditions set in prior years whenever possible. Gifts should never be an expectation, let alone elaborate gifts; however, loyal employees may become accustomed to traditions.

If you are new to the company, consult with others who are familiar with the organization’s holiday customs. Gag gifts may (or may not) be appropriate — or perhaps gift-exchanges are discouraged altogether.

Perhaps you’ve been at the organization for years and you’d like to do something different this year. To avoid worrying or offending staff members, be communicative about doing something out of the ordinary. If employees know that your break from tradition is nothing personal, they will likely enjoy the change of pace. You may even start a new tradition at the office!

HR Tip: Communication is key, no matter what the expectations are.

Now that you’ve considered the most important elements of gift-giving etiquette in the workplace, you are ready to spread some holiday cheer.

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