No good deed goes unpunished often holds true when it comes to holiday gift-giving at work. Instead of stressing about the cost, etiquette or unspoken rules around gifting this season, follow these simple steps to avoid the most common mistakes.


Give gifts to the boss, someone else’s boss, the boss’ boss or anyone, in general in a higher position. When employees give gifts to other employees in roles above theirs, it creates the impression they are trying to gain favor, special attention or just plain kiss-up.

On the flip side, bosses who accept or expect to get gifts can give the impression to subordinates that they will provide something in return.

Do not try to win the best gift-giver competition. This is not high school and your picture will not be placed on a wall with the note: most likely to give the best gift. Let it go.

Trying to give the most unique, special or expensive gift creates an unnecessary vibe of competition. Oddly, co-workers often become annoyed when presented with gifts that far exceed their own in creativity or expense.

Many workplaces have written but unread policies in the handbook about gift-giving. Knowing those rules is especially important to managers, to whom employees may look for guidance on gift-giving. If they exist, do not disobey the policies already be in place.

Even when channeling The Grinch, do not try to skip out, avoid or accidentally forget the gift exchange. Whether you were a part of it or not, the office came up with a relatively neutral, politically correct way to celebrate the holidays: play along. Avoiding the white elephant exchange is not worth it.

Finally, don’t give gifts to close colleagues in front of others to which you are not giving anything. Take it outside the office.


Follow the lead and the rules. If you are a leader and gift-giving is allowed in the office, then check in with colleagues on whether and what they generally give. If it is not consistent, check with HR. They key is to follow the practices already in place (assuming they work).

For leaders: be consistent and fair with team members. Give the same gift to everyone on the team or gifts of the same value. If exchanging gifts with co-workers, stick to an established value. If there is not one, or if gift-giving can be uneven, it is OK to talk to colleagues about what works and what does not.

Thoughtfulness beats cost every time. Instead of spending a lot of money, show you have listened to the person throughout the many hours you have worked together. Smaller, thoughtful gifts with a note of gratitude specifically reflecting on something they did or said during the year can go a long way.

The bottom line is: remember it is the holidays and try to find a way to keep the celebratory spirit. If gift-giving is causing stress, financial hardship or negative perceptions, then talk to HR (or whomever has the power to change or create a policy) and get something in the works for the following year.

If you are in charge, then take charge and set some parameters around the office that reflect the culture and the needs of the staff.