Buying gifts for all your favorite people is a natural way to spread holiday cheer. But while you may have an idea of what to get your friends and family, giving gifts to coworkers can be confusing. Not only do you have to be mindful of your company’s guidelines, you also need to take your office culture and your relationships with colleagues into account.
If the complexities of office gift giving make you feel more bah humbug than merry and bright, these pro tips can help you navigate some common office holiday scenarios. Now you can stop stressing and start enjoying the festivities.
SCENARIO 1: YOU’RE CLOSE WITH SOME PEOPLE BUT NOT OTHERS IN A BIG OFFICE
You're certainly not expected to give everyone a gift when you work at a big company. But if you are giving gifts to some people, make sure that no one on your immediate team feels excluded.
“If you have a workgroup of eight people and give to all of them, then you may distribute gifts at work,” says human resources professional and etiquette consultant Jodi Smith. “However, if you are planning to give only five of them gifts, arrange an after-hours event.”
If you unexpectedly receive a gift from a coworker, be gracious and appreciative without expressing guilt for not having something for the person in return. “That exchange should be about their generosity,” Smith says. “Thank them, open the gift, thank them again and then ask about their holiday plans.” She adds that you could also bring the person a treat from a nearby café in the future, or you can make a point to do something special for their birthday.
The cues for how to handle the holidays at work come from the top down.
SCENARIO 2: YOU WORK IN A SMALL OFFICE WHERE EVERYONE IS CLOSE
The cues for how to handle the holidays at work come from the top down. If you’re the one in charge, let your team know what the plan is in advance. Or, if there's no protocol in place, Smith suggests asking for volunteers to create a holiday committee and choose how to celebrate as a team.
Within a small office, especially one in which people are close, a shared experience could be more meaningful than everyone exchanging tangible gifts. For example, some companies will foot the bill for a holiday lunch or dinner. Or, depending on your industry and your coworkers’ preferences, you may consider planning a group cooking class, post-work happy hour or team hike — and make it clear that participation is voluntary.
Whatever you do, make it fun and easy. “The idea is not to create additional stress for employees during a busy and potentially financially difficult time of year,” Smith says.
SCENARIO 3: THE OFFICE ARRANGES A GIFT EXCHANGE FOR THE ENTIRE STAFF
Chances are good you’ve participated in an office gift exchange before. The most popular ones are the Secret Santa/Kris Kringle event, where each person is randomly assigned a coworker for whom to buy a gift; or a white elephant/Yankee swap gift exchange, where you vie with your coworkers for the best gift of the bunch by either keeping a random gift box you choose or “stealing” one from someone else before you know what’s in yours.
For any company-organized event, always follow the rules, advises etiquette expert Lisa Grotts. She recommends setting a firm $10 cap for gifts — and be sure not to go over the spending limit.
Also, plan to err on the conservative side with your choice of present. “If it’s a Secret Santa where you’re assigned someone, stick with something that can be used in the office,” says workplace trends expert Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director of staffing firm OfficeTeam. “Even if it’s a lighthearted white elephant gift exchange, make sure your item is appropriate for the work environment. Alcoholic beverages, for instance, can be risky.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, hosts her company’s annual white elephant gift exchange and encourages wrapping your gift creatively. “If you’re giving a gift card, for example, wrap it up inside a huge box filled with tissue paper to throw everyone off,” she says. She adds that one of the most popular gifts to steal are big, fuzzy blankets — these are always crowd-pleasers, especially if you work in a particularly chilly office.
SCENARIO 4: YOUR TEAM WORKS WITH A LOT OF CONTRACTORS, INCLUDING REMOTE ONES
When possible, including everyone you work with in holiday activities is the best practice. But if you work closely with people who don't live near your office, you can still send cheer and appreciation their way.
“Coordinate with your boss on a group plan — especially if you have several off-site freelancers,” Sweeney suggests. “Make sure nobody has been forgotten.” She suggests sending gift cards via email or mailing gift baskets.
If you're on a tight budget and can’t afford to send gifts to everyone, take the time to write a sincere, handwritten card to each associate instead. Says Naznitsky, “Telling people how much you value their contributions can be very meaningful.”