Gift-Giving at Work: If it Makes Sense, Do It – No Matter What Experts Say

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Now that we’re deep into December and Christmas is just around the corner, I think it’s safe to ask – what did you give your Boss this year, anyway?

I don’t know about all of you, but I have given more holiday gifts for bosses – and co-workers and people who worked for me, too – than I care to admit. That’s waned a bit the last few years, unfortunately, as the end-of-the-year bonuses have gone south. A sign of the times, I suppose.

But, buying holiday gifts for people you work for and with never struck me as a problem. To me, it always seemed to be the right thing to do, especially when times were good.

Too bad I seem to be in the minority about that, and for the life of me, I don’t know why.

Is giving a Christmas gift to your boss a problem?

I’ve been reading a lot about gift giving at work the last few days, and the more I read the more surprised I get because there are a lot of real and faux experts out there who claim that giving a Christmas gift to a boss (or in some cases, even a co-worker) is a problem.

For example, The New York Times Bucks blog got into it this week, pointing out that “some bloggers have also joined the debate, arguing against giving bosses a gift this holiday season.”

One of those bloggers is Penelope Trunk, a person who seems to have no shortage of silly “advice” on this topic, including things like, “it’s bad for your company to have everyone give end-of-the-year gifts” and, “next year, remember to give a Thanksgiving gift to your boss because it’s a non-religious holiday and it’s about giving thanks instead of honoring Jesus’s birthday.”

I don’t know how many places Ms. Trunk has worked at, but I have never been employed at any company that gave out end-of-the-year holiday gifts (usually bonuses) that couldn’t afford it. What’s so bad about an organization sharing some of the rewards of a good year with the workforce? Believe me, if the company can’t afford it, they won’t give it. Yes, I know a little something about that, too.

And giving the boss a gift on Thanksgiving because it’s a non-religious holiday? I’ve never gotten an end-of-the-year bonus anywhere that was given to honor “Jesus’s birthday,” as Trunk would have it. What company with a functional HR department would ever allow that?

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If it was just Penelope Trunk yapping about how giving the boss a holiday gift is a problem, I’d probably just write it off as the result of too much egg nog or a lack of common sense, but do a Internet search and you’ll find a lot of bloggers and so-called experts – like this one on MSNBC — making the same silly (and sad) argument.

Etiquette expert Peter Post weighs in

The smartest advice on this – the only expert opinion that made any sense to me – came via that Times’ Bucks blog. They talked to Peter Post, etiquette expert at The Emily Post Institute.

According to Mr. Post, such a gift is a way of “saying thank you.” But while he recommends showing appreciation to bosses and coworkers, he doesn’t recommend giving each individual a unique gift.

Instead, he said managers should consider giving group gifts to their employees such as taking everyone out for lunch or dinner or giving everyone the same gift. Employees, meanwhile, he said, should consider pooling $15 to $20 each and buying their manager a gift from the group.

For the manager, a group gift or giving the same gift to everyone eliminates the risk of appearing to play favorites. Meanwhile, for employees, a group gift for the boss eliminates the risk employees will compete to give the best gift.

‘If you do it as a group gift then everybody is part of the process and nobody is outshining the other person,’ he said. “You keep the gift as something that it should to be, which is a way to say thank you.”

Now, I may not agree with all that Peter Post says about holiday gift-giving to bosses and co-workers, but it makes a lot more sense than some blogger lecturing that you shouldn’t give anybody in the office anything at all.

I believe in giving holiday gifts at work

Here’s my bottom line: Whenever it was possible, I tried to give my bosses/staff/close co-workers some token of appreciation for all they had done all year with a gift at the holidays. I didn’t tie it to “Jesus’s birthday,” or give it simply because I felt I had to. When I gave holiday gifts to co-workers, whether they be to staff or my boss, I did it because I wanted to share some of the blessings I had received during the year, blessings I had received from them and from the company alike.

Peter Post makes some good points, but I have always felt that holiday gift giving is an intensely personal act and that you – and only you – know if it is the right thing to do. Any expert giving you silly, broad-brush advice saying otherwise just hasn’t spent enough time in enough organizations to know what they’re talking about.

PS: Want some tips on some last minute gifts for that boss and co-workers you DON”T really like very well? If so, you’ll enjoy this video.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “Gift-Giving at Work: If it Makes Sense, Do It – No Matter What Experts Say

  1. Wholeheartedly disagree with “gifting up.” At an individual level, it is inappropriate; and at a group level it puts pressure on those who don’t want to give to do so.

    Not to mention that frequently “subordinates” are not in a financial position to do so.

  2. John —- it is definitely a nice gesture but I think bosses need to re-think what this does to employees.   If an employee get a gift from a boss, they then feel compelled to give him/her one.  If the employee doesn’t like his/her boss and still has to give him/her one, it is hypocritical.    And if the employee works with a big group of people (truly the same group — not just cross-functional people they work with) then if puts a sizeable financial strain on some peoples’ budgets.

    I have found a way to have fun with gift-giving.   
    1) Ask people to bring a “white elephant”  (something they have at home and hate but haven’t thrown out)
    2) Sit in a ring.
    3) The first person can either keep what they have brought or go to another person and get their gift (wrapped so no one can see).    They have to keep that gift and give the gift they brought to the person they took the new gift from. 
    4) Second person can either keep their gift, choose the one from the first person or take a new one wrapped up.   Again they give the gift they brought to the other person
    5) As you go around the circle you can take anyone’s gift and give the gift you are holding to that person
    6) Keeps going around the circle until you get back to the first person.   When that happens the game is over and everyone keeps the gift they are “stuck with”.

    A lot of fun as people try to convince the person who is choosing to take their gift and make up all sorts of reasons why their gift is so attractive.

    Another thing to do is have employees draw names and get a gift for that person.   The only rule is that the gift cannot cost over $______.    This does two things:  it makes each employee have to buy only one gift and it limits the amount of money spent/  Then everyone unwraps their gifts together at the same time.

    I have also worked at companies where only the boss gives gifts —- not employees.

  3. Time change, gifts should be given away from time to time in order to strengthen the relationship between employee and employer. As a token of appreciation, gifts should be given away so that there will continue to full fill satisfaction, improve job performance and efficientcy while reduce investment cost.

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