Tech & Work

The do's and don'ts of giving holiday gifts to your co-workers

Everyone wants to know whether they need to give gifts at work, how much to spend, and what to buy. This list of do's and don'ts will help you maneuver your way through the holiday season.


Shopping for co-workers can easily mean a plethora of candles and desk toys that they'll likely be re-gifting after they leave the office.

There's no need for a mediocre gift, however, with all of the fantastic choices available.

Of course you're not required to give a present to your co-workers, but it's a nice thing to do, and it keeps your comrades happy. And creating goodwill in the office can mean more accommodation the next time you're a bit behind on a project and need to reschedule a meeting with your teammates.

There are a few guidelines to follow with gifts for your co-workers, just as when giving a present to your boss.

SEE: Photos: The best holiday gifts for co-workers (TechRepublic)

Do's

Do decide who is on your list

You definitely don't have to give a gift to everyone in your company, but giving a small gift to co-workers in your department, or those people you interact with on a daily basis, is appropriate.

Sharon Schweitzer, etiquette expert and founder of Access to Culture, said, "Research the office policy on gift giving. Are there any policies limiting gifts to a division? If you are a fairly new hire, inquire with a trusted colleague about the organizational culture around gift giving for co-workers and support staff. Is it wide open, or are there unwritten rules in place? For example, do colleagues exchange best-selling books and wine? Provide gift cards to support staff? Don't be the office Grinch by forgetting."

Do stick to a budget

Keep it reasonable when deciding how much to spend on a gift for a co-worker.

Gift exchanging events around the office often have set price limits. For instance, there may be a rule set that gifts should not exceed $30. If there's no hard and fast rule in place, try to spend a similar amount to what your coworkers will generally be spending. If you have no idea because you're a newer employee, ask a colleague what the norm is for your office, said Peter Yang, co-founder of Resume Go.

And less works, too. Justin Lavelle, chief communicators officer at People Looker, said, "Aim to spend about $10-$20 on a co-worker's gift. It's almost impossible to find a thoughtful gift for $5, but a $10 Starbucks or iTunes gift card is always appreciated and doesn't look cheap."

SEE: Gift Guides for Techies (TechRepublic Flipboard magazine)

Do choose a thoughtful gift

Food gifts are often welcome, but keep in mind any dietary restrictions or food allergies. Gifts of alcohol and wine are also appreciated by many, but don't give it to someone who doesn't drink, or whose religion prevents them from consuming liquor. Other options are fun items for their desk, or a gift certificate to a favorite lunch spot or coffeehouse.

"If your office is participating in a secret Santa gift exchange, rely on your coworkers' personalities, hobbies, interests, and favorite colors. One co-worker may enjoy canvas painting, so a new brush set may be appropriate. Another colleague may listen to Michael Buble, so a DVD will be perfect. Incorporate the personal insights they share about their interests as a guide in choosing a thoughtful gift," Schweitzer said.

For the most part, gifts that you wear on your body are not appropriate gifts for co-workers; this includes perfume, lotion, clothing, and jewelry. Even flowers can be taken the wrong way. A rule of thumb is that if you'd buy it for Valentine's Day for someone you're dating, you shouldn't purchase it for your co-worker.

"The gift should be something appropriate to show in the workplace, not something risqué. A present that can be used in the office is an ideal gift, but it's also okay to buy a gift of a more personal nature as long as you use your judgment to gauge what is appropriate," said Nate Masterson, HR manager of Maple Holistic.

If you work in a small work team, individual gifts are nice, and it's okay to get the same thing for each person, such as an ornament or a box of chocolates.

Toni Purvis, etiquette consultant and owner of Paradigm One Consulting, said, "If you are buying a gift for a co-worker, think of practical yet thoughtful things they can use and would appreciate. For example, you may have a co-worker who buys a salted caramel mocha frappe at 9:30 am every day from the downstairs cafe, so a modest gift card to that specific cafe, or even a re-usable mug from the cafe, would be a great gift to share. Consider their habits and hobbies when deciding upon a gift."

bernardasv-office-gift.jpg
Image: BernardaSv/iStock

Do remember the support staff

Schweitzer said, "The support staff makes any office hum smoothly and efficiently. In every office I've worked in, they are the lifeblood and the first on my list, along with the boss. Skipping the support staff would be professional suicide. Include all support staff, mailroom employees, runners, messengers, receptionists, administrative assistants, secretaries, and all other professional staff I failed to list."

Don'ts

Don't exchange gifts in front of others who didn't make your list

If you give gifts to just a few co-workers, do it after hours or when no one is around. Another option is to take them to a private lunch and hand out the gifts at that time. Think back to elementary school and how the teachers always insisted that you needed to share with everyone. Same mind-set, only now you're an adult. And thoughtful, kind adults don't let others feel left out.

"If by tradition, buying a gift for one co-worker means you must also buy a gift for everyone else, then it's usually best to either go all in or not at all. Of course, things also depend on how confident you are in keeping your gifting festivities a secret. If a close co-worker or two really want to exchange gifts with just you and no one else, be sure at the very least to get the point across that this should be something done on the down low. If other coworkers find out they were not a part of your gifting inner circle, this can create tension and jealousy that ultimately hurt work relationships," Yang said.

Don't be negligent of other people's beliefs

Even though you're in the holiday spirit and want to spread a bit of cheer, it doesn't mean that everyone else has the same beliefs as you.

A particular religious connotation can only be included on the gift if you are employed by a religious or spiritual organization. Or if you are 100% certain that a religious gift will be welcomed by the recipient.

"It is wise to exercise caution and be certain your gift will be well received. Depending on the relationship with your co-workers, or your knowledge of them practicing a certain religion, you may wish to select a group gift with others from the office that honors this practice. There is no obligation to do so, and many employees may be uncomfortable giving anything other than a secular gift," Schweitzer said.

Don't feel pressured to exchange gifts

Remember, you are under no obligation to give a gift to a co-worker. Even if everyone else exchanges gifts, it's still okay to skip the holiday gift-giving routine. If you are given a gift, and are not reciprocating, simply smile and say thank you and be sure and follow-up with a thank you card.

Lavelle said, "You should never feel obligated to buy your co-workers a gift or contribute to a group gift, especially if you're not in a good financial position to do it. Office gifts should never be mandatory or expected. When asked about contributing to a group gift or if you'll be exchanging gifts, simply say, 'I'm going to have to pass.' Do not go into long explanations or feel guilted into it."

Don't forget your common sense

The overriding rule that supersedes any of the previous rules is to use common sense. If you think a gag gift might be over the top, don't do it. If you think a slogan on a coffee mug might be pushing the boundaries, don't do it.

Follow your innate sense of what is right and wrong. If you are unsure of whether to give a particular gift, play it safe and skip it.

Also see

    office-gifts-lightfieldstudios-credit.jpg
    Image: iStock/LightFieldStudios

    About Teena Maddox

    Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

    Editor's Picks

    Free Newsletters, In your Inbox