Gift giving etiquette at work: Top dos and don’ts

Giving and receiving a gift should be a pleasant experience. People exchange presents as a way of showing they value a relationship. Bestowing demonstrates appreciation or a desire to recognize an important event in someone’s life. Similarly, receiving generates positive feelings that others care and want to make you happy.

Why, then, does gift-giving often provoke anxiety when done in the workplace? Let’s look at some stressors:


How might the recipient (and others who learn about the gift) read your intentions? A present can look like an attempt to “suck up,” especially when given to a boss or a co-worker with a direct influence on your career. Likewise, managers open themselves up to charges of favoritism if all their direct charges do not receive a present or if the quality of each gift varies. (“Linda got a high-quality vase for her desk. I got a mousepad with a poodle on it, and I don’t even like dogs. Guess we can tell who Doug values the most on our team.”)


In or out of the office, deciding how much to spend on a present is always a tricky matter. Nobody wants to look “cheap.” The reality, though, is that buying gifts costs money. Many individuals simply do not have the funds to make such purchases for those with whom they work, especially during the holiday season when other expenses are high.


Mary put a balloon bouquet on your desk on your birthday. Does this act necessitate doing something similar on her special day? Gift-giving can set up future expectations and the potential for hurt feelings if “slighted.” Another reciprocity worry – someone handing you a present during the holidays but not having anything to give in return. This potential awkwardness leads some people to stow “spare” presents such as chocolates in their desks in case such a situation arises.

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What type of gift would the person enjoy? Generating gift ideas can prove challenging if you do not know the individual all that well, which is often the case in a workplace environment. Would an Amazon gift card be appreciated or come off as generic and uncaring?

Gift-giving etiquette: Some do’s and don’ts

Some organizations maintain clear company policies regarding office gift-giving. These guidelines may set monetary limits, say who can accept what, or discourage the practice altogether. They also may spell out rules to abide by when giving or accepting business gifts from vendors or clients. Such gift exchanges run into very shaky territory as they could be seen as bribes. Managers especially should familiarize themselves with policies concerning workplace gift giving, though all employees can benefit from the knowledge.

Gift-giving practices at many places tend to take place without formal advice from human resources. Instead, the activity becomes part of the company culture, perhaps even varying by department. Newcomers may find it difficult to pick up on what to do until they’ve been there a while. Even seasoned team members may struggle with the questions posed earlier.

Need some advice? As a general rule of thumb, etiquette experts regularly provide these suggestions:

DO respect downward flow. This tip involves staying aware of power dynamics. People generally do not see a problem with a manager recognizing her assistant’s birthday with an appropriate present. Exchanges in the other direction become more questionable.

DO err on the side of caution when selecting a gift. If any doubt whatsoever exists about the item’s appropriateness, scrap the idea. Avoid things that could be thought of as too personal or intimate (such as perfume, nightwear, or risque books) or overly extravagant gifts. Avoid suggestions of romance by favoring a seasonal bouquet over long-stemmed red roses. Also, reconsider gag gifts. Besides potentially embarrassing someone or hurting feelings, they sometimes venture into sensitive legal territory. (Is an Over the Hill mug funny for someone turning 50 or a sign of ageism?)

If you are a boss giving gifts to subordinates, DO aim for consistency and equality. DON’T forget anyone. DO keep item prices in the same range. DO aim for a thoughtful gift. (For instance, gift cards are fine, but try to choose a place you know the person will use. A cat owner might appreciate one for a pet store. A chocoholic may love visiting a local confectionery. Nobody will probably be keen on a restaurant that takes a tank of gas to get to because it is 12 cities over.)

Have a co-worker who is a friend out of the office as well as in it? It is your right to exchange gifts with someone special, but DON’T do so on-site. There’s no need for others to witness.


Many people and companies prefer to avoid individual gift-giving completely. Plenty of inclusive, less stressful ways exist to celebrate occasions or show appreciation.

A highly popular route is giving a group gift. People might chip in to buy an item off the registry of a co-worker who is getting married. They may decide to send a floral arrangement to the funeral of a team member’s spouse. Acting together displays unity and can help control expenses. Contributors often appreciate not needing to come up with ideas on their own. When doing a group gift, just be sure to extend the invitation to join – or to bow out – to everyone. People should not feel pressured, as their relationship to the recipient may be limited or their own financial situation strapped.

Look for other ways to act as a group, too.

  • A holiday season office gift exchange such as a Secret Santa or a grab bag allows fun participation for interested employees. Again, nobody should feel forced to partake. Set a reasonable price limit to enable more people to join in.

  • A manager can do something nice for the entire staff. Throw a holiday party on a Friday afternoon. Schedule a team outing to a sporting event, movie, or museum. Give each team member a coupon for two paid hours of time off for Christmas shopping. Put out a breakfast spread before the last staff meeting of the year.

  • Be festive without exchanging Christmas gifts. Decorate cubicles. Hold a potluck or cookie swap. Conduct a holiday trivia contest or movie marathon. As a bonus, deciding as a staff what activities to do promotes camaraderie.

  • Standardize how birthdays get recognized. Perhaps hold a themed luncheon at the beginning of each month in honor of those who will be having birthdays during that time period. Or, consider taking the celebrant out to the local diner on his special day, with other attendees pitching in to cover the cost of his meal. If actions such as decorating the birthday person’s desk are part of the workplace culture, be sure to figure out who does what (such as the person who last had a birthday being responsible for paying it forward). Hurt feelings result if someone gets forgotten.

  • Establish a “Sunshine Fund.” Employees contribute a fixed amount at the beginning of the year. This money then gets used by a social committee to act on behalf of the group for special occasions such as sending flowers when a team member is hospitalized or buying a gift when someone has a baby.

Times may exist, though, when a boss or a teammate truly wants to bestow individual sentiments. Perhaps someone went above and beyond in a time of crisis. Or, maybe the person is hitting a milestone birthday worthy of extra attention. Isn’t a present appropriate?

Despite the sincerity of the intention, problems could still result. Others getting wind of the present may wonder why they didn’t receive special recognition, especially in similar circumstances.

Consider the power of a well-written thank you note instead. This thoughtful gesture puts feelings into words, and the recipient will likely cherish it. Specify exactly what you are grateful for or how much you wish the person the best on the occasion in question. Knowing someone cared enough to compose such a letter is bound to make the lasting impression you desire.