Privilege Blog

Should I Give My Boss A Gift?


The worst holiday present I ever got came from someone I quite liked. It wasn’t an insult or lump of coal. Nor was it wrapped in glitter paper, to explode into the carpet and sparkle like a drunk party-crasher.

Nope, it was simply a present from a peer at work. Wine maybe. But it was all done up, with a card and an envelope. And I had nothing to give in return. “Hells bells!” as my father might say.

Workplace giving can be tricky.

Oh, at a Fortune 250 company,  it’s OK. HR makes sure you know who to give presents to, and when, and how. Or, at a startup with lots of cash in a time of limitless albeit eventually unfounded optimism. There you can give anybody anything. Whoopee, we’re going to be millionaires! Oh, wait, we’re not! Any gifts given or received are nothing compared to the mansions we will not be owning.

However, in an tense office, gift-giving sparks the the power and influence grid like mosquitoes in a summer bug zapper. At dusk. Bzzt! Bzzt!

So let’s review the Highest Principle And Do’s And Don’ts Of Workspace Gift-Giving, shall we?  (Here’s an aside for the grammar-particular on do’s and don’ts. I am aiming for more accuracy on the blog, but I confess precision’s not my strong point.)

The Highest Principle Of Workspace Gifts

  • Gifts cost, either money or time
  • As a result, they can create a transactional sense of obligation
  • The intensity and nature of the obligation will vary with the power differential between gifter and giftee.

If You Are A Manager Setting The Guidelines

  • Do use the season as a time to team-build.  The team lunch or team dinner can be a wonderful occasion.
  • Do make sure you understand the budget and alcohol policies.
  • Do reinforce team culture.
  • Do consider a team-specific Secret Santa program. Open the gifts at the dinner/lunch, especially if you have set the expectation gifts should be funny or endearing, not routine.
  • Don’t surprise anyone – even if you don’t want to set group norms, let your direct reports know your plans, and that you do not expect or want gifts from them.
  • Don’t mince words – Lesson #1 of becoming a manager is How To Speak Directly. Make your expectations and guidelines clear, in a supportive and leader-like way.

If You Are The Subordinate Giving To Your Boss

  • Do ask your manager. If asking would seem weak in your company culture, at least update him or her on all your gift plans, in passing.
  • Do consider giving homemade food, or nicely-made if you don’t cook. Food feels the coziest of all the gifts, and the least like a power play.
  • Don’t curry favor. But you wouldn’t, would you?

If You Are Giving To Your Peers

  • Do check with your manager. He or she can raise the topic at the staff meeting for the next level up, to see what other groups might be thinking.
  • Do be aware that if you give something to your peers when they don’t expect it, you may make them look and feel bad.
  • Don’t go overboard with fancy wrapping and cards, unless your workplace is design, marketing, or crafts-oriented.
  • Do give your gifts to colleagues-who-have-become-personal-friends outside the office

May all your Christmases be bright, may all your office parties celebrate a shared success, and may all your glitter stay where you dang well put it in the first place.


Photo credit: Gillian on Flickr, with my tongue-in-cheek-text-overlaid. BTW, Kim French of Girls of a Certain Age has a good story about her worst office Christmas present ever, here.

28 Responses

  1. mostly unrelated, but might amuse you: my next running-goal prize (you know, the one i have my jar of dollars for in the closet, a la my beladora victorian pendant) is a satin bag kim france helped design for JOLIE/laide. i’m 45 km from being able to open it.

    more related: the idea of scaling down wrapping kills me. it’s good advice, but you know how i love hand-cut snowflakes. good thing i’m no longer in an office? (i always gave my peer/supervisor-ish colleague an intricately wrapped minibar bottle of some bizarre liqueur; it was a running joke between us, and seemed to go over well. her cube looked like a hotel refrigerator after we worked together for several years.)

  2. We have a team made up of a nest of prime, sub and sub-sub contractors, plus a few clients thrown in for good measure. The ethics of who can give anyone anything and when they could give it are boggling.
    My best strategy is to stick to homemade food.
    The cost of the ingredients might edge up towards the $20 limit, and if I billed my time the gifts would certainly be over the limit, but we all know that a woman’s time in the kitchen isn’t worth anything; I gift away with no worries about an IG investigation.

  3. Dear Lisa,

    I have been a silent reader since a long time, but now I have to comment:

    I love to read your articles, you write excellent, you have a wonderful personal style and your advice is always great!

    Thank you for all your perfectly written blog post!


  4. I remember one year when I was a young mother and my husband was a young attorney. There was a gift giving tradition at his law firm. Each attorney was expected to gift his secretary with a certain amount of money. All well and good expect for the fact that this monetary amount was substantially more than we could afford to spend on gifts for each other.

    I still find gift giving at work to be fraught with difficulties. Even though I am at home, I’m always in charge of the gift my husband gives to his secretary–and it is always expected to be money along with something I have baked. While I have always considered myself to be a very generous person, the work related gifts just seem awkward to me.

    1. Law firm wives, IMHO, have true job responsibilities, and I do not know if they are often acknowledged.

    2. @Susan, This sounds like a bonus, coming directly from those for whom the person works. I can see how disconcerting that expense would be when you were not expecting it. However, the amount you and your husband agreed to spend on one another is not material to your argument, as the lawyer might say.

    3. No, bonuses, were paid by the law firm at large. This was just a Christmas gift—a generous one. It was entirely separate from the bonus. I’m not saying that our gifts to each other were related–just that we could not afford to give each other the equal of what we gave his secretary. That’s just a fact of the early years of his practice. I mention it just as a memory.

    4. @Susan, In that case, it’s like the Christmas tip we give to our apartment concierge: a thank you for services rendered. BA gift that engenders resentment is an obligation, not really a gift. I can see why as a young associate, he did not want to rock the boat, and I hope today the practice is more voluntary and flexible.

    5. It was an obligation and that was my point. Gifts at work should not be obligations, but in some cases (due to tradition) they are.

  5. Ooh, now I’m re-thinking the little boxes of festively wrapped chocs I was going to get for my new boss and my old boss. Maybe I’ll just offer the boxes to the two different offices that make up our team as a general offering towards the festive spirit.

    (PS – I was currying favour a bit…)

    1. You can offer the chocolates, put them in the kitchen, and send an email to the whole office:). That generally gets noticed.

  6. I’m all for the things you bring (homemade or close facsimile) to share.

    In a company large enough for an HR dept. there will be a gift acceptance policy for gifts from suppliers or business partners, but not always a peer gift giving one- you can’t legislate goodwill.

    And we should all be aware some persons do not celebrate Christmas.

    1. At a big company, if I were unsure about peer gifts, where I agree there may be no overt policy, I would ask HR in a heartbeat what to do.

  7. The last few years I worked, we had trouble getting a Christmas party off the ground at my school. Too many young teachers without full-time contracts and/or with young families who could not afford the ticket for the dinner and venue rental. So I and my assistant dept. head planned a pot-luck lunch for our department on the final day of classes. We held it in our very large department office (tons of room)… everyone pitched in to decorate and heat up or set out food depending on their class schedule (it was a regular teaching day right up to the end.) My co-head and I bought a selection of gifts of food/small gifts/wine etc, decorated them with bows but left them up-wrapped and set them on a table in the back room. We then made a huge sign “Santa’s Grotto.” As we ate and chatted, we drew names for the order of visits to the “grotto.” Everyone chose the gift they wanted…that way we did not give non-drinkers wine. There was friendly swapping and lots of hilarity. I never bought my boss a gift… learning early from a much admired principal that it was better to give to those further down in the trenches than you..than to those above you.
    Great topic Lisa. Loved the aside on apostrophes!

  8. During my teaching years, we always exchanged gifts within our team, usually five fifth grade teachers. That felt right and was always fun. But we struggled what to do about our assistant principal and principal. We ended up giving a “team gift”. It never felt right to me. We were always anxious that other grade level teams would be giving them gifts so we didn’t want to look bad. A straightforward announcement from the principal would have helped. Well, just another example of the poor leadership we endured!

  9. That Kim French link is glorious. Hilarious and nice to feel some solidarity in being the recipient of truly unfortunate gifts!

    1. @Vanessa, Yes, I agree. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in having received some truly awful gifts and wondering if there was some sort of passive-aggressive message intended. It’s good to be able to laugh about it now.

  10. This post was timely. I am working in a new school, consulting with numerous teams. One team has a culture of thoughtful exchanges of gifts between all 20 of them, and have included me in these discussions (to my horror). I have decided to give something to all the secretaries, contribute generously to the collection for the custodians, and bring a nice large tray of good bakery cookies to the office.

    Our administrators have forbidden any display of trees, wreaths, Santa objects, etc., because we may offend those that are not Christian. I completely agree with this. Yet, why oh why do we have to be tortured with the mysteries of workplace Christmas gift traditions?

    Administrators need to provide guidelines on this – ideally, that exchanges should be outside the workplace. I appreciate the common sense written here!

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