The 10 dos and don’ts of gift giving in the workplace
Article3 mins03 March 2020
Harmless fun - or a social minefield? It’s time to decode the complicated modern etiquette of gift giving at the office.
With every holiday season, birthday and farewell, comes the ritual of gift giving. And while swapping presents might seem a harmless way to bond with co-workers, it needs to be handled with sensitivity, say workplace experts. These 10 do’s and don’ts will help you navigate the social minefield of workplace gift giving.
1. Check everyone’s on board
In today’s high-pressure work environment, workplace gift giving can seem like just another chore, or even cause stress, says Donna McGeorge, workplace author, speaker and mentor.
“Let’s face it, I barely know what to get my husband as a gift, let alone someone I work with and may hardly know,” she says.
Swapping gifts also sets expectations, cautions workplace consultant, facilitator and author Michelle Gibbings.
“If you do it for one person, then others expect to be treated in the same way. Fairness is important.”
2. Establish a norm
Although a formal HR policy might be overkill, says McGeorge, some simple guidelines can be useful.
Discuss with your team which events they’d like to recognise with gifts.
“I think as a team it would be a good exercise to decide at the beginning of the year what the norms would be, creating an open dialogue about what’s expected.”
“Be mindful of cultural differences and never do anything that is likely to embarrass the receiver.”
3. Limit the spend
An agreed upper spending limit for team gift exchanges such as Kris Kringle can help keep the peace, says McGeorge.
“A team leader recently suggested $50 per gift, and the whole team said: ‘woah - too much!’,” she says. “He lowered it to $30, but I still think that’s a bit high. A token gift – the $5 bath bomb or candle - is ok, and I think it should never be over $20.”
4. Keep it optional
Nobody should feel pressured to participate in workplace gift giving. “Respect people’s positions, financial circumstances and differing expectations,” says Gibbings.
She also recommends keeping collections for gifts private, “so people aren’t put in the position where they are expected to pull out their wallet in front of everyone else.”
5. Don't overdo it
Splurging on a showy gift for a co-worker or boss can seriously backfire, says McGeorge.
“In many organisations the giving of gifts is seen as a breach of ethics policies,” she says.
“I know of a few corporates that have to declare any gift received over $50 from anyone - internal or external.”
She adds: “It’s a risky political game to play. You don't want people feeling obliged to reciprocate, and certainly others may view it as inappropriate.”
6. Skip the food
How about baking a tasty cake for your co-workers? The experts urge caution here, too.
“Food is becoming increasingly risky these days,” says McGeorge.
“You’d think chocolates would be fine, except are they vegan? Do they have allergies? Is the chocolate sourced ethically? What about a bottle of champagne or wine? But are they a drinker?”
Adds Gibbings: “What’s appropriate depends on the circumstances and how well you know the person.
“Be mindful of cultural differences and never do anything that’s likely to embarrass the receiver.”
7. Play it safe
“Movie tickets, dinner vouchers or bookstore vouchers are pretty safe,” says McGeorge.
Both experts also recommend handy office items, such phone chargers, keep cups or USB sticks.
“Flowers and plants are great, too,” says Gibbings.
“What’s important is the intent and sentiment attached to the gift. A handwritten card with a personal message is often more valued than a gift.”
8. Don't get personal
Gifts that could be interpreted as more bedroom than boardroom are a definite no-no, say the experts.
“Be wary of anything that’s too personal, particularly if you don’t know someone well,” says Gibbings.
“Unless someone has explicitly told you something like: ‘Oh! I love Flowerbomb by Viktor and Rolf,’ I’d be steering clear of those personal gifts like perfume or clothing,” says McGeorge.
“With the possible exception of a scarf. But again, only if you know they wear scarves.”
9. Be careful with jokes
“Humour gifts can be a disaster,” says McGeorge, who knows this from experience.
She herself was once gifted a joke item so wildly inappropriate that it made her question the signals she’d been giving out to workmates. “The person who gave it thought it was hilarious!” she says. “To this day I have no idea what I did to indicate I’d be okay with something like that.”
She adds: “Humour is so personal. If you know someone well, and it’s a widely known ‘in joke’ then it might be okay. But it’s unwise to do anything remotely risky in a work environment.”
10. Be gracious
If gift-giving really isn’t your thing, extricate yourself politely, recommends McGeorge.
“If you’re not comfortable about it, maybe reciprocate once and then say something like: “I’d prefer in future if we didn’t exchange gifts… let’s make a date to have lunch or shout each other a coffee instead.’”
“Relationships at work matter, so if you accept a gift, be grateful for it,” says Gibbings.
“If there’s a reason why you can’t or don’t want to accept a gift it can be wise to make that clear upfront.”