Office Gift Etiquette

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When you’re shopping for holiday gifts, you may find yourself having to buy presents for the office. This can be a minefield in which you make one false move, and your very job could be at stake.


Your first impulse, if there is no grab bag or Secret Santa, may be to avoid the whole issue and not give anything to anyone. But is that a good idea?

That depends entirely on your office culture, your personal culture, and the balance between those two, says Matt Wallaert, behavioral psychologist, a personal financial advisory.

“If your office is one where everyone gives a small gift to others, choosing not to do so is clear communication: I’m putting my personal choice above your social norms. You can either think that is great or rude, and so the decision to give a gift is up to you.

“If you haven’t been at your workplace through a holiday season, you should certainly ask another employee what the norms are, so you can make an educated decision about how you want to deal with them. Again, I’m not saying you have to do what other people are doing, but understanding how choosing to depart from the norm is different than simply not paying attention to what the norms are.”

But what if you really don’t want to be part of the grab bag or Secret Santa because of personal or financial reasons; is there any tactful way to get out of it? Yes, says Matt, but there are other things to consider:

“Realize that you’re making a deliberate choice to avoid your office’s culture. If you think most people don’t actually want to participate, you can lead the revolution and send out a polite e-mail that suggests that given the context of the season, not doing a grab bag might be more fun than doing one.

“Do the cost-benefit ratio: is the money you’re going to save worth dealing with the ill-will you’re displaying to people you’re going to continue to work with? This is a matter of culture — not participating is sort of like wearing flip flops when everyone else has on a tie — technically permissible, not necessarily the way you want to go.

“If you really feel the need to duck out, quietly is the way to go. When it is your turn to pick a name from the hat, simply say, ‘I’d rather not participate, thanks,’ and let it go at that. Most times, no one will ask you for a reason or make a big deal. If they do ask you for a reason, try to give ones that don’t provoke discussion or argument, like, ‘It just isn’t something I enjoy doing,’ or repeat your, ‘I’d simply prefer not to.’ Most people aren’t eager to make an issue out of it, and if they are, than they are the ones who aren’t being tactful and polite.”

If you do decide to go with the flow and give because it is an accepted practice in your office, how do you know how much to spend? Once again Matt says look to your office’s culture, as well as your relationship to the person:

“Because a gift is about demonstrating knowledge and relationship, you can actually do that fairly inexpensively.  If you are close enough to know what interests them, books about that subject can be a great cheap gift.  Another cheap gift is the ever popular ’shot glass or coffee mug filled with jelly beans’. The reason this can be a great personalized gift is that you can show your knowledge in a variety of ways by using different colored jelly beans. If you know their favorite flavor, use those. But anything will do: colors of their favorite sports team, colors they tend to wear to work, color of their college or high school, whatever.

“And if you want a hard number, not more than $5-$10, you’re trying to demonstrate your relationship, and unless your relationship is ‘Richie Rich and Friends’, you don’t need to break the bank.”

The other problem that crops up when you’re thinking about what kind of gift to buy is not sending the wrong signals to the recipient. Matt says you should think about what your gift communicates when the receiver opens it, and use that as a guide to its appropriateness. A mug that has their name printed on it tells the receiver you know their name, but a pair of boxers tells them that you imagine them in less than office-like situations.

Does that mean that personal gifts are always taboo at the office? Not necessarily, says Matt:

“My rule of thumb is this: always give a gift appropriate to your highest-order relationship. So if you’re co-workers, but more importantly, friends, than give a gift as a friend. If you’re co-workers and just co-workers, give a co-worker gift. If the thing you really know about a person is that he is the guy that makes copies, a copying-related gift is an accurate demonstration of your knowledge and relationship.  If you know everything there is to know about your cubicle mate because they’ve told you and you spend all your time together, a more personal gift is reflective of that knowledge.”

And finally, what do you do if you selected the name of the person you dislike the most? Matt says don’t pick this as an opportunity to get even:

“Gifts with an edge may be funny, but remember that this is a workplace, first and foremost, and what you do may well impact your job. You’re communicating something about yourself when you give this gift, so give an appropriate co-worker gift and leave it at that. It can be as bland as you want: coffee mug with their name on it, box of good chocolates, whatever. But just as you wouldn’t let your dislike come through in your office relationship, don’t let it come through in your gift.”

So, if you want to have smooth sailing when it comes to office gift-giving, keep in mind that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Steer clear of gifts that are too personal, unless you are out-of-the-office friends; and never use your gift to make a statement about your negative feelings toward a co-worker.

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