Workplace gift-giving should be fun and rewarding–here's how

Most experts say a workplace gift exchange is a fun way to share the spirit of the season. Bringing the holidays into the office can be a rewarding morale-building exercise that can pay off well into the New Year if you observe some simple rules.

Santa, Check Your Bag It’s fine to share the holiday spirit, but be aware of pitfalls associated with office gift-giving By Buddy Nevins Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

Break out the Chia Pets. Dust off the college team mug. Dig the scented candle out of the closet. It’s time for holiday gift-giving at the office.

Office gift-giving is as much a part of the holidays as lights in the windows and mistletoe over the doors. But at some workplaces, the practice is frowned upon.

Should your office play Santa or Scrooge?

Most experts say a workplace gift exchange is a fun way to share the spirit of the season. Bringing the holidays into the office can be a rewarding morale-building exercise that can pay off well into the New Year.

“Modest holiday gifts make employees feel their work is being recognized. This helps spur teamwork,” said Betsy Bowers, associate vice president for internal auditing and management consulting at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

Workplace gift-giving takes many forms.

There is the “white elephant” gift exchange, in which employees give a gift they have been given and don’t want. There is the grab-bag exchange, in which employees draw a modest gift out of a bag.

Some offices purchase a group gift for the boss. In others, the boss is given carefully chosen individual gifts.

In short, there is no one gift-giving template that is perfect for every workplace.

Bigger enterprises with many employees sometimes have more formalized rules, and some forgo celebrating the holidays as companywide policy. Big businesses, however, are often broken into smaller divisions or branch offices where holiday gift exchanges are allowed.

That is because at a smaller workplace, employees feel more like “family,” Bowers said.

So every December, just before the holidays, Pensacola Association of Realtors Chief Executive Officer Chuck Michaels and his half-dozen employees take an hour or so to share the spirit of the season. Gathering in the office, staffers exchange small gifts costing less than $10 with co-workers whose names they had earlier pulled out of a hat. Michaels treats everyone to a ham and cheese platter.

“It’s a way to share the holidays together,” he said.

The Rules of Gift-Giving

The gift-giving scene is repeated at workplaces throughout Northwest Florida and can be enjoyed anywhere, as long as a few rules are followed.

The first rule is that workers shouldn’t feel expected, much less be required, to give or get gifts.

“I do not expect gifts for doing my job,” said Lise Diez-Arguelles, an associate in business communication at Florida State University’s College of Business in Tallahassee.

Even if employers give gifts to employees, “employees should not feel they must reciprocate with gifts to their bosses,” Bowers said.

The second rule is that giving no gift is better than giving an inappropriate gift in the workplace. It is never right to give anything that could be interpreted as demeaning or discriminatory or that calls unnecessary attention to race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Such gifts could violate federal discrimination laws, which prohibit a hostile work environment.

Gifts that are off the table include:

  • Those with a political or religious message. Holiday gifts that include a cross, a Star of David or other religious references should be avoided because they might offend a coworker. Politically themed gifts also might be upsetting to some, so leave those bobblehead dolls of the president at home.
  • Intimate clothing and adult-oriented gifts. That X-rated gift that had your frat buddies roaring with laughter could get you fired. Please note that this includes not only obviously sexual material but also movies, artwork and books that some might consider racy.
  • Watch out for explicit music CDs. Even though societal standards on language have relaxed, if the music has a parental warning, it is probably improper for the workplace. So leave Snoop Dogg’s latest at home.
  • Liquor. Unless the workplace is a bar, restaurant, liquor store or nightclub, forget about giving that 12-year-old bottle of Scotch.
  • Anything that could be interpreted as romantic. Most flowers should be avoided because they can be misunderstood as sexual harassment. Perfume is also out, especially from a male administrator to a female employee.
  • Items such as soap or body lotions. Those receiving them may believe the gift implies there is something amiss with their personal hygiene.
  • Humorous items. Be very careful of these. Leave the whoopee cushions on the shelf. What seems funny in the store might just leave you looking like a jerk at work.
  • Cash. Unless everybody at the workplace gets a bonus for the holidays, avoid monetary gifts. Never give your boss cash, as it could be construed as a bribe to get special treatment. It also must be remembered that the IRS considers “holiday gifts, other than cash, with a low market value” as a minor employment benefit that is non-taxable. But IRS Publication 15-B states that “cash and cash equivalent(s),” such as gift cards or use of a charge or credit card, “no matter how little, are never excludable.”

One variation on a cash gift is to make a donation to a charity in the employee’s name. Jennifer Sadler, public relations manager for Navy Federal Credit Union, which has its largest call center in Pensacola and has several Northwest Florida locations, said her company provides opportunities for its hundreds of employees in Northwest Florida to give gifts to the United Way over the holidays.

Despite the long list of forbidden holiday gifts, you and your colleagues can still enjoy the holidays.

“If a boss gives holiday gifts, they should be for everybody,” said FSU’s Diez-Arguelles.

Bosses shouldn’t play favorites. Those gifts for all employees should be roughly the same. Nothing can destroy the atmosphere in a workplace faster than when employees believe they are not getting equal treatment.

It is OK to give a classical music lover a CD of the opera while giving a rock ’n’ roll fan a Paul McCartney album because the gifts are perceived as having the same value. But bosses shouldn’t give one golf lover a free day at the country club while giving another a free pass to miniature golf, because they are not equivalent.

Three inexpensive workplace gifts that employees can enjoy include plants suitable for the top of a desk, an isokinetic hand-exercise squeeze ball, or a computer mirror that attaches to the monitor.

The Secret Santa

One of the best ways for employees to give gifts to one another is through the “Secret Santa” or grab-bag system, and as with the Pensacola Association of Realtors, even the boss can participate.

The grab bag requires everybody to spend roughly the same amount, eliminating feelings that one employee is getting preferential treatment over another. It also removes accusations that an employee is trying to win favors by giving the boss an especially lavish gift.

Don’t ever feel you have to give your boss a gift on holidays, university experts said.

“Business etiquette rules do not require an employee to give a gift to your boss on any occasion,” the University of West Florida’s Bowers said.

“No employee should feel obligated to remember the boss,” agreed FSU’s Diez-Arguelles.

If an employee believes the boss should share in the holiday cheer, business consultant and in Business blogger Lahle Wolfe warns that “gifts should be given to honor an existing relationship, not with the intention of hoping to establish a new one. I am completely against giving holiday (or other gifts) at work to try and win your boss’s favor or make up for poor performance on the job.”

Bowers believes a good, acceptable way to give a gift to the boss is by purchasing a group present.

“A group gift gives everyone the opportunity to participate and not have any one employee ‘show up’ co-workers,” she said.

Appoint someone in the office to collect a modest amount of money from each employee. Don’t pressure anyone into contributing, and don’t tell the boss who contributed and who didn’t, which would create divisions in the workplace. That would be the exact opposite of the unity that holiday gifts should help achieve.

Once the money is collected, decide among yourselves on something appropriate, keeping in mind the gifts you should not give that are listed above. The reality is that employees can’t impress with an expensive gift because your boss most likely makes more money. So the gift should be relatively inexpensive, but genuine and heartfelt.

“Keep the gift simple and stay away from giving personal items,” Bowers said.

One potential idea is to chip in and take your boss to a nice holiday lunch. At some firms, the employees hold a potluck luncheon, treating their boss to home-cooked goodies. A large greeting card signed by everyone is a nice, harmless, inexpensive way of showing that the boss is appreciated.

If the employees can’t put together a group gift, you can give an individual present to the boss if you keep it simple. The gift should be given discreetly — maybe put it quietly on the boss’s desk — to avoid embarrassing fellow workers who didn’t buy anything.

If a card is attached to the gift, avoid writing anything too personal. Avoid promising anything, like “I’ll do a great job next year.” And avoid any language that might seem like an attempt to butter up the boss, such as “You are the greatest boss in the world.”

Always remember that no matter what you give for the holidays, the greatest gift that you can give your boss and fellow employees is free — doing the best possible job all year long.