It's the most stressful time of year—at least when it comes to gift giving. Should you give your boss a holiday gift? And if so, what is appropriate and what is the cultural norm for your office environment?
The very nature of gift giving strengthens relationships. Done right, it's a positive move. But if done wrong, it can result in problems as favoritism and even harassment or discrimination issues can arise.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about workplace gift giving.
SEE: Photos: 13 great holiday gifts for the boss (TechRepublic)
Do I have to buy my boss a gift?
This common question has a definitive answer: No. You do not have to buy your boss a gift. You are never obligated to give a gift to someone with power over you. It's more likely that your boss should feel obligated to give you a gift, not vice-versa.
That said, "the best gift you can give your manager is to be a great employee. Giving your boss a gift can look like you're currying favor, so it is discouraged," said Arden Clise, president of Clise Etiquette.
And even more important, make sure you talk to HR or read the employee handbook to see if gifting a boss is allowed. In some companies, it is prohibited.
What if everyone else gives the boss an individual gift?
If you know the office culture, and that your co-workers typically give individual gifts to the boss, then take this into consideration.
However, a reasonable boss would never penalize anyone for not giving them a gift. Consider the norm for your workplace and give a gift if you deem it appropriate.
Should I chip in for a group gift?
If your co-workers are buying your boss a group gift and ask you to chip in, then you probably should.
If this is typically how your department handles gifting the boss, unless you have strong objections, the best thing is to follow their lead and contribute however much you're comfortable giving. Typically, in most offices, $20 is considered generous per person, and $5 or $10 per person is quite acceptable for a group gift.
"I would suggest making sure everyone is either in or out of the group gift. You don't want to be the only one who didn't participate in the group gift or went solo. Looks a little 'off' from the team," said Richie Frieman, author of Reply All...And Other Ways to Tank Your Career.
If I decide to buy a gift, how much should I spend?
How much you spend is determined by your job title, and that of the person you're buying a gift for.
Laura Handrick, HR analyst at Fit Small Business, said, "The amount you spend on your boss depends very much on your relationship. If you are an admin buying for an executive, you might limit your gift to $20, but if you're a VP buying for your SVP, then by all means, spend away."
The amount you spend is a delicate balance. If you spend too much, you'll risk offending your co-workers who will likely think you're trying to gain favor. Remember, lavish gifts are never acceptable in the office.
Frieman cautions, "Don't break the bank. Your boss knows what you make."
What should I buy my boss?
Figuring out what to buy your boss is the toughest part. When in doubt, give a gift certificate to their favorite coffeehouse or lunch spot. Or give holiday cookies—those are always welcome. Make sure you're aware of any dietary restrictions or allergies before giving a food gift.
A classic gift is a bottle of wine or a bottle of bourbon, but be sure that your boss indulges in the occasional glass of vino or spirits before purchasing liquor.
"The best gifts are something that speaks to your boss's interests. Ideas include a jersey or hat of a favorite sports team, a donation to a charity your boss cares about, a nice mug with a gourmet tea for the tea drinker, or a box of fine chocolates," Clise said.
Other options include a small item for their desk, such as a frame or pen holder, or an accessory for their electronic devices. Avoid gag gifts, because the risk is too high that you might offend.
Do not give a personal item such as cologne or clothes. Even flowers can be perceived as overly personal, unless it's meant to be an arrangement for their holiday table.
What should I do if my boss buys me a gift?
If your boss buys you a gift, show your appreciation and send them a thank you note.
Frieman said if your boss surprises you with a gift, and you don't have one to give in return, "Play the humble-card and just admit that you weren't sure if you were allowed to get your boss a gift. Follow it up with not knowing the proper protocol. But I'd also bring something you baked as an offering to them—something more personal or showing you care."
Does it matter if your boss observes a particular religion?
Most office environments celebrate the holidays without focusing on a particular religion, so you don't have to feel obligated to give a gift particular to the holiday, whether Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. However, giving a whimsical Festivus gift, a la "Seinfeld," isn't the best route, either.
Sharon Schweitzer, business etiquette expert, author, and the founder of Access to Culture, said, "It is wise to exercise caution and be certain your gift will be well received. Depending on the relationship with your boss, or your knowledge of your boss practicing a certain religion, you may wish to select a group gift that honors this practice."
Common sense plays a big role in what you purchase, if anything.
Handrick said, "If your boss practices a religion like Jehovah's Witnesses, that eschews gift giving, or has made it clear they don't want a gift due to their religious beliefs, then consider a homemade gift like a tin of cookies for the whole office instead. Obviously, if your boss is Jewish or Muslim, a bobblehead Santa wouldn't be appropriate."
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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 People, W and Women's Wear Daily.