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The Etiquette of Getting Gifts for Coworkers

A woman stares in disbelief, which is a reaction to gifts for coworkers

‘Tis the season to be surly, stressing out once more over what to get whom in your own personal Whoville. And while shopping for friends and family can test your patience, finding the right gifts for coworkers, especially ones that are either below or above you on the org chart, can easily imbue you with all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.

But it doesn’t have to be so vile. Before you drive one gridlocked mile, or plod down another crowded mall aisle, remember there’s plenty for which you can smile if you remember these words of prudence and guile.

The gift police

Otherwise known as your HR department, the gift police are there to ensure everyone stays off Santa’s naughty list. Chances are your organization has a gift-giving policy that applies throughout the year, not just on holidays, and whether you’re a manager or not, now is a great time look into what that policy is. You may find there are few restrictions on the actual items you’re allowed to get (since common sense should dictate that – see below). However, you may be surprised to find that your organization forbids giving alcohol as a gift. A nice bottle of wine or whisky may seem like an obvious choice for a colleague, subordinate, or boss – especially if they fancy themselves a connoisseur of sorts – but be sure to clear it with HR first.

For all you know, the recipient may have a problem, and your organization won’t want that kind of trouble.

The other restriction you may come across involves the value of the gift. Some organizations may limit gifts for coworkers at $50 or even $25, and the reasons are obvious: an expensive gift for a subordinate can imply favouritism, which can later lead to claims of discrimination. Likewise, if a subordinate buys their boss something expensive, it can look sycophantic and cause conflict within the team.

But look on the bright side – it’s easy to see – at least you know what not to buy on your next shopping spree.

Money is – and isn’t – everything

Whether your organization has a formal gift-giving policy or not, there are obviously guidelines you should follow when getting gifts for coworkers, particularly regarding price. For the same reasons mentioned above, you should keep the cost at something reasonable. A $50 or $25 gift may sound cheap to some in monetary terms, but that depends on how much one makes and what kinds of expenses they have in their lives.

It’s never okay to assume one can afford something. Besides, even the least expensive gift can be the most touching.

Gifts for coworkers: The heartening, the handy, and the humbug

Whether fun or thoughtful, gifts for coworkers should always be appropriate. And while “appropriate” is a subjective term contingent on the nature of your relationship with someone, no matter how chummy you are with a coworker, it’s best to just play it safe. The best gifts for a coworker, whether they’re your subordinate or supervisor, is something that acknowledges you’ve taken notice of their interests. Anything that has to do with their hobby or a cause they believe in makes a wonderful present. If they’re into golf, get them some golf balls or a novelty sculpture of some sort; if they participate in a charity run every year, make a donation in their name to that charity; if they’re a foodie, pick up an interesting recipe book – there are tons of hidden hardcover treasures in the discount sections of bookstores.

However, it’s important to remember that if someone is really into something, they may not need what you’re thinking of.

The last thing a baker wants is a book about baking, and no candlestick maker need read “The Art of Candlestick Making”. Interest is one thing; expertise is another. Do you like being told you can do your job better?

Then, of course, there are bad gifts. Being gifts, they’re obviously well-intentioned, but they really miss the mark. Such items include anything that suggests someone needs to improve something about themselves. Stay away from diet books, relationship books – or any kind of self-help book for that matter – not to mention scales, deodorant…you get the picture. Avoid anything spiritual, and while gag gifts may seem like a lot of fun, if they’re lewd in nature, they’re simply not appropriate for the workplace.

The holidays are for everyone; no time for disdain. So it’s best not to give gifts about the sacred or the profane.

There’s no room for grinches in groups

What’s the ultimate solution to finding gifts for coworkers? Don’t go it alone. Managers can get their team members to pool their resources to throw a holiday party while subordinates can all pitch in and get one nice gift for the boss. When it comes to team members buying gifts for each other, you can’t go wrong with Secret Santa; it’s anonymous and each person only has to get one gift under a certain set price. Group activities such as these do away with virtually all of the frustration and potential hazards that individual shopping can bring. And if you are personal friends with someone on your team and you really want to give them a gift, save it for after work.

What’s the best way to stay holiday dismay? To find all the widgets, gizmos, and gadgets; the thingers, majiggers, doodads, and contraptions? What’s the best way? The best way that you say? Why, go in as a group – that’s how real teams play. 

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