Navigating the Office Gift-Giving Conundrum

By Lily Garcia
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Q. We have two administrators in our department. Each year, I buy each of them a holiday gift. I think each of the other managers in the department do, too. I really don't expect anything in return from them, but they usually go in together on a gift for me. I appreciate the thought, but it doesn't seem appropriate for them to be buying for me (and anyway, the gifts have always been nothing that I want or have any use for). I suspect the answer is no, but is there any polite way to let them know in advance that a gift really isn't necessary?

A. My guess is that your administrative employees feel some sense of obligation to reciprocate your gift-giving. But it is just as likely that they, like many other people, genuinely enjoy the exchange. You buy them gifts to express your regard and they, in turn, are expressing their regard for you.

Unless they are buying you gifts that are inordinately lavish, you should resist the urge to ask that they stop. Even if you are receiving gifts that you do not need, the best response is gratitude. If you preemptively tell your administrative employees that you do not expect to receive gifts from them, they will probably buy you one anyway. Plus, you risk sounding unappreciative and hurting their feelings.

One way to get around the office gift-giving conundrum is to institute a general no-gifts policy. Or invite employees who want to give gifts to participate in a gift swap wherein each commits to buying a modest gift for another randomly-assigned employee. Limit the budget to $5 or $10, and make the game optional to avoid unfairly impacting your lower-wage earners. Another approach is to adopt a needy family for the holidays and invite employees to make donations of food, clothing and toys in lieu of giving gifts to co-workers.

Even if you take no measures to restrict office gift-giving, you should nevertheless encourage some basic rules of etiquette. Do not give gifts that are overly personal. This includes jewelry, clothing and beauty products. You risk embarrassing the recipient and, if you are a supervisor, you might leave observers with the impression that the recipient enjoys special treatment. Even if you are making a gift to a co-worker with whom you are genuinely close, it is inappropriate to give a gift at the office that insinuates intimacy. For the same reasons, you should not give opulent or extravagant gifts.

If you are making gifts to your direct reports, make sure that the gifts are either identical or of equivalent value. And never give with the expectation of receiving in return. Although it may sound maudlin, there is something to the adage that giving is its own reward.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies for more than 10 years. A weekly version of her column and a twice-monthly online chat appear at E-mail questions to

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