Office Gift-Giving Etiquette

How much should you spend and what is an appropriate gift for a co-worker?

December 8, 2008, 3:32 PM

Dec. 9, 2008— -- Finding a Christmas gift for your spouse is hard enough. But what about getting something for your co-worker?

How much should you spend? What is an appropriate gift? To whom do you need to give gifts and whom can you ignore?

There are plenty of office horror stories.

Imagine getting a wrapped six-pack of beer or working with somebody who gives out portraits of himself. Or take the employee who gave a co-worker a voodoo doll of the boss. Guess what? The boss found out and wasn't too happy.

Will You Consider 'Regifting' This Year? Tell ABC News

Those are all real examples uncovered by a survey of advertising and marketing professionals done by The Creative Group, a staffing agency..

Megan Slabinski, the company's executive director, said that the first rule of gift-giving is to put some thought into what the person would actually like.

Otherwise, you risk sending the message: "This was on sale at Costco this week."

But even workers who put a lot of thought into gifts sometimes struggle with office exchanges.

Emily Van Engel, an urban planner in Jackson, Wyo., has participated in several office Secret Santas, Yankee Swaps and other gift exchanges. There is usually a dollar limit on what people are supposed to spend for the small gifts. But somebody always seems to spend more.

One year, Van Engel bought some nice lip balm for the group gift swap. She ended up getting a much more expensive Swiss Army knife.

"I felt I was cheap, even though I was following the budget," she said. "It's made me think about going over."

Another time, one of her co-workers went over budget and bought a nice case of beer and received a glorified slingshot that throws rubber chickens in exchange.

"It just seems like everyone in the office has a different interpretation of what it means," Van Engel said. "Sometimes, it's a question of listening to directions and following rules."

Office gift-giving can get very complicated, said Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute, Emily Post's great-granddaughter and author of "Emily's Christmas Gifts," an illustrated book for kids.

Secret Santas

When swapping gifts through a large exchange, like a Secret Santa, Senning said to keep the whole process relatively inexpensive.

"You really want to get something fun," she said. "You don't want to bring something that's going to risk offending somebody."

If you are giving gifts to one or two close friends in the office, Senning said, exchange them outside the work place.

And don't think about giving to your boss.

"You don't get into giving gifts for your boss," she said. "It looks like you are trying to curry favor."

If you feel you need to give something to the boss, do it as a group gift from the entire office.

Louise Fox, owner of The Etiquette Ladies, added that "your gift to your boss is doing your job well year-round."

Considering the ongoing financial situation, people shouldn't expect to get gifts, she said.

"A person is not meant to spend more than they can afford," Fox said.

Bosses who give gifts to administrative assistants should think carefully about their gift choice, especially if the recipient is of the opposite sex.

Her advice: stay away from lingerie, perfumes, roses and clothing.

"The key is to use some social intelligence, common sense," Fox said.

Also steer clear of personal items or gifts you might think are humorous, she said, such as a blow-up doll.

"They usually fall really flat," Fox said. "Other people don't quite think they are as funny as maybe you do, and they can send a very bad message. Maybe you just make a big batch of cookies and give each person a nicely-wrapped take-home box."

Thoughtful Gifts

Mary Mitchell, author of the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette," said the single most important thing to remember is that "the gift is about the person you are giving it to. It's not about you."

"It's got to be something that would please them," Mitchell said. "That supersedes any other considerations."

Not everybody has the financial wherewithal to provide an expensive gift, and Mitchell said we shouldn't feel compelled to, either.

"It's really incumbent on us to be creative about what we can do for other people," she said.

That might mean offering more of a service instead of a physical gift or it might mean writing a very nice note with a token gift.

"It's always an effort to really write down your thoughtfulness," she said. "It takes a few minutes to write down on a card or a note: 'I'm wishing you a happy holiday season,' But you know what, taking those couple of minutes can be so uplifting."

And one final tip from Slabinski: Always have a few extra gifts wrapped and laying around in case somebody surprises you.

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