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Fostering a healthy and professional culture of gift giving in the workplace is a really admirable goal, especially during the holiday season, and especially during the pandemic. When it's appropriate, gifts can bring the whole office together, and that usually works out for a more effective team.
However, gift giving in the workplace can become toxic if not carefully guided, and employees may start to feel uncomfortable.
So, in this article, I want to talk about what you can do to develop and guide appropriate office habits for gifting.
Every office is different and so too is every corporate gift culture, so I don't want to lay out hard and fast rules. I rather want to consider touchstones of proper etiquette so that no one has to feel uncomfortable with their colleagues or bosses.
I'm going to try and answer the most common questions that people have about giving among co-workers, and hopefully that will tease out all the relevant conclusions.
Let's jump in.
But you might be asking yourself whether or not it is ethical to give gifts while doing business.
Yes, it is ethical. But, as with all things, it is ethical within certain bounds. Gifts should not be given with the intent to manipulate, flatter, domineer, or cruelly tease your colleagues. And gifts should almost never be requested (is it really a gift if you demand it?)
As a rule, gift giving is and should never be mandatory.
That said, there are huge benefits to gift giving in the office.
The main reason to have a healthy culture of gift giving is to enhance strategic output of work, but you do this by allowing the opportunity for colleagues to show their appreciation for each other on their own.
The exchange of gifts often occurs around the holiday season. Having an office Secret Santa party is one appropriate context for office gift giving, when time is set aside for the exchange and in which every is both giving and receiving equally.
Gifts are also given on other holidays and on the birthdays of employees. Other than at these times, gift giving is at a minimum.
This might be appropriate for most office places. But you can also do things to encourage completely gratuitous and professional giving between special occasions.
Giving gifts to co-workers, colleagues at generally the same rung of the ladder, is the most straightforward form of office gift exchange.
The problems with giving gifts to a co-worker happen usually when the giver is using it to achieve some other outcome than a show of appreciation and a deepening of professional camaraderie.
But giving with the intent to procure some particular outcome other than a show of appreciation is not really gift giving at all.
For superiors, managers, and bosses, giving to employees is a great way to show that you care about the value of your team's work and to further encourage its continuation.
Here's a great academic study on manager-employee gift giving that show that the real gifts are not always concrete objects, but attention and listening to complaints and ideas are also perceived as kinds of gifts.
However, you should avoid extravagance, and you shouldn't give too often or to any one employee more than others. This can cause your team to think you've picked favorites in the office, disgruntling others who probably work incredibly hard.
It's totally okay to give a gift to your boss, but the rules for giving gifts to bosses and managers need to be a little more strict.
According to The Spruce writes,
The general rule of thumb is that a boss should never expect a gift from his or her employees for any occasion, but it is still acceptable for the employees to give something. It should not be anything too personal, such as lingerie or something that could possibly embarrass him or her in front of her supervisor. If you're in doubt about a gift you're considering, take the safe route and don't do it.
The need to maintain professionalism is even more important when giving to bosses.
Giving to your boss should not be intended to curry favor or flatter, and it's good to be even less personal than you might be with your co-workers.
The good people over at Spoonful of Comfort recommend buying group gifts for colleagues because:
Teams who pitch in on a group gift to a co-worker or boss share the expense of a high-quality gift. It can build a sense of camaraderie. And it gets away from being too personal.
For example, say that it's the birthday of a co-worker, and the others in your office are all trying to get him/her different gifts. Not everyone knows this co-worker that well, but some do.
Why not get everyone together and let those who know the co-worker best to take the lead on getting one or two gifts that will make them feel really appreciated.
A group gift can consolidate work, increase the personal impact on the recipient, and also disperse the possibility of a breach in professional boundaries.
However, group gifts can also be a little anxiety-inducing if one person takes complete control and demands that everyone pitches in for the gift.
Be sure to practice proper group gift giving etiquette and allow givers to be more or less involved in the process as they deem appropriate. Let people say no.
I will lay out some general do's and don't's, but I don't want to rule out the particular culture of different offices in different parts of the world.
For example, a high rise, professional corporate office is going to have different gifting etiquette and rules than a coffee roaster in an industrial storage space.
While these are different, it's still possible to outline what might breach the trust of your colleagues, superiors, or employees.
It's up to you to decide what's really the appropriate policy for your workplace and what you can do practically to keep the cycle of gift exchange in a healthy balance.
Some general rules are just helpful to think about.
That said, here's my list of do's and don'ts:
For bosses giving to employees:
For an employee giving to superiors:
For group gifts:
Overall, in everything surrounding gift giving in the workplace, learn from your mistakes.
You should definitely not spend an inordinate amount on gifts.
Keep a cap that everyone can easily meet and not feel the pain of their wallet drastically lightening, maybe no more than $20 or the equivalent of the hourly wage.
It's okay to ask around about what's appropriate, and that might open up communication about what to expect from your business as far as gifting norms and policies.
As a general rule, gift cards are a great option for pretty much everyone in the office.
A recipient can spend a gift card on what they like themselves. If it's a group gift, it means the group doesn't have to go to great lengths to show their appreciation.
Don't get them a huge gift card though; if it's to a restaurant, let it be around the cost of a meal or two.
There's a million other options for business-friendly gifts online.
Something personal is fine, but not too personal.
Personalized gifts (my favorite for obvious reasons) are great, especially if you just get their name engraved on something. Here's my list of 103 custom gifts; I'm sure a bunch of them would make great gifts for coworkers.
Gift cards, as I said before, are great.
If someone enjoys receiving novelty items, that can often go over really well.
Finally, in my mind, functional gifts that can enhance your coworker's workspace or flow are often the best go-to.
As a superior, you'll need to be more careful with both your etiquette and the gifts you might choose to give.
A personalized gift for an employee needs to be given in the right context, say for a performance award.
A gift card is still appropriate as long as it's not exorbitant.
A novelty gift might go over poorly and feel a little demeaning coming from a superior.
A useful gift, say something for their desk space, is best because it is related to the workplace, so its context is clear and the message it sends is also clear.
As I said before, as an employee, avoid gifts which communicate an inappropriate level of familiarity or intimacy entirely. If you can't find something appropriate, opt for a group gift.
A gift like a framed photograph of your whole team, however, is acceptable because it will include the whole group and avoid the perception that you are trying to become his/her false favorite.
A custom plaque that says something like "world's best boss" or "all about the business" is also acceptable, again, because it has to do with work.
In every case, a functional gift that applies to the daily tasks of work proves universally appropriate for every person in the workplace, including superiors.
That said, because it's our speciality at Dayspring Pens, I feel comfortable recommending an affordable, luxury pen as a gift for pretty much everyone.
That's pretty much everything.
If you're interested in other aspects of gift giving in a professional setting, check out my ultimate guide to the corporate gift.
Now, it's your turn to be heard.
Let me know what was helpful for you in your own workplace gift giving experience in the comments!