A Guide to Gift Giving in the Workplace During the Holidays

The holiday season is without a doubt my favorite time of year. I have always been obsessed with Christmastime. For me, it’s much more than a national holiday; it’s a feeling. I love bright, twinkling lights in every color imaginable. I adore my cute Christmas tree dressed with ornaments that I light each evening when I come home from work. My stockings are hung far in advance just so I can enjoy seeing them in my living room. I watch every cheesy romantic Hallmark holiday movie known to humankind; even the ones I’ve seen years past. I always plan, too far in advance, who I am buying gifts for and what those gift ideas are. I do my Christmas shopping way too early, which typically has me finishing my shopping and wrapping gifts before Thanksgiving even hits.

Yes, I am a tad into Christmastime.

One of the lessons I have learned about Christmas along the way is that gift giving in the workplace can be a sensitive topic. In some work environments, the act of celebrating holidays is welcomed and employees are encouraged to participate to share the holiday spirit. People dress in festive colors, participate in gift giving rituals, and listen to holiday music. However, in other workplaces, celebrating the holidays is inappropriate. Some companies have strict policies concerning holidays, due to varying religious beliefs. In these instances, choosing not to acknowledge certain holidays is a course of action to show respect to employees who may not believe or may have their own beliefs.

Whichever setting you find yourself in, be mindful of your colleagues and the general culture of your office. Avoid bringing Christmas gifts into the workplace if this may cause office tension. If, on the other hand, your office culture does encourage gift giving, remember to follow this guide to gift giving in the workplace:

1. Check your company’s employee handbook before you buy your colleagues gifts. 

Sometimes gift giving is an ethics violation because your coworkers may feel obligated to reciprocate. Other times you might seem like you’re sucking up if you give your boss a gift and your colleagues don’t.

There are so many examples of how gift giving in the workplace can be ill-received. Before you decide to shop for your coworkers and/or boss, be sure you review the company handbook. Doing your due diligence is best to rest assured that you’re not causing office tension by buying gifts.

Pro-tip: if there is no policy concerning holidays in the office outlined in the handbook, you might consider asking your company’s human resources department to address this. HR can create a policy to give employees a clear understanding of what is and is not permitted in the workplace during the holiday season.

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2. Never give a gift in the workplace out of obligation.

Just because your work BFF bought your manager a gift does not mean you need to as well. Your manager cannot punish you or treat you differently than a colleague based on gift giving. Don’t return the gesture of gift giving because your coworkers or boss decided to give you a gift, either. You are under no obligation to give gifts unless it is an act of kindness that you yourself would like to demonstrate.

It may seem awkward to accept a gift and not have anything to give in return, but this is not what the holidays are about. Gift giving does not need to be an exchange of presents to be appreciated. It is simply an opportunity to reflect your giving nature. Only give gifts if you want to; you don’t have to.

3. Be mindful  of favoritism.

Just like in elementary school when you had to give all of your classmates a Valentine’s Day card so no one felt left out, be sure you give all of your colleagues a small gift or don’t distribute any gifts at work at all.

You of course are not obligated to give gifts to your entire company, but if you work closely with a group of colleagues and only give your favorite person a gift, it can be translated as favoritism. Managers and bosses should especially be mindful of avoiding favoritism. It is unethical and inappropriate to only give gifts to the people you feel work hardest, are the strongest additions to the team, or overall enjoy the most. Either give a small gift to everyone or don’t bring gifts into the workplace at all.

Pro-tip: if you really want to give a coworker or your boss a gift but don’t want to come across as favoring certain people over others, plan a time outside of the office to exchange gifts. Meet before or after work to give the gift to avoid awkward office conversations and stares.

4. Consider giving a group gift in lieu of individual gifts.

Maybe your office is in dire need of a toaster oven or coffee pot for the community break room. Perhaps everyone has been planning on going out to eat for lunch as a team to build a sense of community. If you can afford to, consider giving a group gift to reflect your holiday spirit. This is a great alternative to individual gifts because you can include the entire team without risking favoritism or awkwardness.

Offer to pick up the bill (if you can afford to) when you’re eating out at a team lunch, or buy your break room a universal gift that all can enjoy. A community gift is an inclusive gesture that everyone in the office can share, enjoy, and thank you for. 

Pro-tip: organize a holiday event during your office’s company-wide lunch break to celebrate the holidays as a group. Plan a potluck so that everyone brings in their favorite holiday dish to share with the group. Organize a Yankee Swap or a Secret Santa event to ensure that everyone will get a gift. These are fun traditional ideas that everyone can enjoy.

5. Never gift money, promises, or other inappropriate gestures.

It is extremely poor form to gift money, IOUs, or other inappropriate gestures in the workplace. Giving others money can put a sour taste in people’s mouths. A gift card to someone’s favorite coffee shop is one thing, but cash is extremely inappropriate. It can come off as though you’re trying to earn a raise, get promoted, or force your way into the good graces of your coworkers and/or boss.

Instead, opt for an inexpensive, personal gift (or no gift at all). Ideas such as candles, hot cocoa mix in a mug, ornaments, or other small gestures are far more appropriate than money, promises, or IOUs.

Pro-tip: if you’re a boss, money is acceptable to gift to your employees. Oftentimes bosses will gift their staff gift cards or Christmas bonuses as a gesture to thank all of their employees for their hard work all year. This is a completely appropriate gesture if you are in a position of authority in the workplace.

6. Don’t lose sight of why you want to give a gift.

If you really want to give a gift, remember to aim to please, not impress. Don’t get hung up on flashy products, overly personalized items, or over-the-top gestures. This is your workplace. You have every right to share the holiday spirit (as long as your company permits it) but don’t get so caught up in it that you forget why you’re giving the gift.

Opt for more inexpensive, fun ideas that will make your colleagues or boss smile. As tacky as may it sound, even a sticky note with HAPPY HOLIDAYS written across it can be well received. Restrict your urge to splurge on gifts to your family, significant other, and friends. Your coworkers and supervisor shouldn’t be the people you spend the bulk of your money on. Give a gift because you want to please your office pals, not because you hope to impress them. The point is to bask in the holiday spirit, so don’t lose sight of that.


There are many dos and don’ts to be mindful of during the holiday season, especially in the workplace. While the holidays are the best time of year, remember to follow your company’s policies about holiday parties in the office and try your best to include everyone so that no one feels left out. After all, Christmastime (just like all holidays) is a time of year we spread cheer, laughter, and love to everyone we know. This year, enjoy the holidays, spread peace and joy, and remember to follow this guide to gift giving in the workplace.

Have you ever participated in gift giving in the workplace? Share your tips in the comments!