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Should You Buy Your Boss a Gift?

Perplexed about the rules of gift-giving at work? We’ve got you covered.

By Alice Oglethorpe

Was your boss extra empathetic this year and allowed you to work off-hours so you could chaperone your kids on Zoom school? Did a colleague step up and help you close a deal? Do you feel closer to your coworkers than ever before, even though you haven’t been in the office together since March? If so, it may be the case that you want to show your appreciation for your team through individual gifts. But before you go asking for their home addresses and filling your online shopping cart with scented candles, take a moment to read our guide to office gift-giving etiquette. Just because we’re living in a new normal doesn’t mean some of the old rules don’t apply. 

Almost never get your boss a gift.

Yes, it’s tempting, especially if you really like your boss. But buying her a holiday present can give the impression that you’re sucking up. “It makes it seem like you want your boss to think positively of you when there’s a possible promotion or something,” says Barbara Pachter, author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success. It might also make your boss think she’s obligated to return the gesture—which is exactly what you don’t want to happen.

If you really want to, make it a team effort.

Why not suggest that a group of you chip in on flowers or make another simple gesture of appreciation? “This way, it doesn’t look like one person is trying to curry favor,” says Arden Clise, etiquette expert and author of Spinach in your Boss’s Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success. “If you go this route, don’t force anyone to contribute—you don’t know if someone is on a tight budget. And no matter who puts in money, the card should be signed by everyone.”

If you must go solo, stick with something small.

There may be the stray case for which you can bend the rules, like if you and your boss are super close or the office team is really small. But stick to a simple token. Sarah Wexler, a writer in Portland, Oregon, did just that. “I’ve heard that you’re supposed to gift down, not up,” she says. “But I always felt weird doing nothing. So I would choose something small, like a Christmas ornament, and my boss always seemed to appreciate it.” (Note: Definitely make sure your boss celebrates Christmas before getting her something too “Christmas-y.”)

Make Sure There Isn’t an Already-Established Protocol

“Some offices have a heavy gift-giving culture, and you don’t want to be an outlier,” says Kate Zabriskie, owner of Business Training Works, a soft skills training company. “If you’re new there, ask a colleague at your level about the holiday gift-giving practice.” Some offices have an annual Secret Santa exchange (and might be doing it over Zoom this year), which you should probably participate in. “Be a team player and have fun,” says Pachter.

Avoid personal presents.

“It’s nice to pick out something special, like a new cookbook for a cooking-crazy colleague, but never cross the line,” says Pachter. In other words: Don’t give someone a nightgown, jewelry, or perfume, even if you think they’ll love it. Also, resist giving tickets to an event they’ll need to attend with you—especially this year. And if you do give tickets to something, make sure it’s a group thing. “Otherwise it can seem like a date,” says Zabriskie.

If you’re the boss, you have a choice.

Don’t assume everyone loves a nice bottle of wine. “Unless you know people well, it can offend or seem inappropriate,” says Clise.“You don’t need to give anyone a gift, but it’s a nice gesture,” says Pachter. “Just make sure to get everyone on your team the same thing to avoid signs of favoritism.” You could send them  cookies from a bakery (this probably isn’t the best year to send people homemade baked goods, as folks are understandably concerned about germs), or something work-related, like a new coffee mug. “If your team is younger, a gift card can also work,” says Zabriskie. It may not seem personal, but it can be useful —especially if you opt for a “use anywhere” card rather than one for a specific store. “My boss gave me an American Express gift card for $100 and it turned into the gift that kept on giving,” says Danielle McGurran, 46, who works in public relations in New York. “I would use it all the time to get little things and it ended up lasting for months. Every time I got a coffee or a magazine with it, I felt appreciated.”

Keep your clients on the “to gift” list.

“Giving gifts to your clients is a nice way to show you appreciate them,” says Clise. “Just make sure to send them to the entire team and choose something everyone can enjoy, like a fruit or cheese basket.” Don’t make the mistake of sending a gift with your company’s logo on it—it’ll look like you found something lying around the office and wrapped it up. Go forth and gift responsibly!

Alice Oglethorpe

Written By

Alice Oglethorpe

Alice Oglethorpe is a former magazine editor who is now a freelance writer based in Chicago. She writes about health and happiness in life and at work.

See more of Alice's articles

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