To Give or Not to Give: Navigating the Nuances of Office Gift Exchanges


office gift exchanges

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Whether you can take them or leave them, the holidays are fast approaching, and with them comes the tradition of gift-giving. For some, the thought of buying and giving gifts can be a personal hell, while others look forward to the hustle and bustle of shopping at crowded stores, perusing items online, or even hand-making special items for their co-workers.

To me, one of the most awkward aspects of holiday gift-giving is deciding how to go about it. This involves figuring out who to give to and determining what to give, all while finding the time to make the purchases and factoring the expense into your spending budget.

The whole notion of coming up with gifts for folks with whom you may or may not be especially close or even like can be stressful. Of course, your work culture, relationships with coworkers, financial status, and personal opinions about the holidays also influence your thoughts on the practice. So as not to sound like a total Scrooge, allow me to say I think there is a proper place for office gift-giving provided certain guidelines are followed.

Be sure to create an office gift exchange policy

First, be sure to check out your organization’s gift policy. Many people may not realize their company has official rules governing gift-giving and receiving. If you’re not sure if your company has a gift policy or if you’re unclear about what it is, check with Human Resources to learn more about your organization’s rules for gift giving.

Set ground rules that include everyone

Second, if you and your staff do decide to swap gifts during the holidays, make sure the exchange takes place on a level playing field. Not only can it be uncomfortable, embarrassing, and bad for employee morale if the office pet gets more and/or better gifts than others, but it could potentially be grounds for grievances. I know of one company that was able to ensure equitable birthday celebrations with a simple solution: when your birthday rolled around, you were responsible for bringing in enough doughnuts for the whole work unit to enjoy. That unique approach ensured everyone received the same treatment on their birthday.

Ideas for making office gift exchanges a pleasant and enjoyable experience for all

  • Don’t make it mandatory, but if you do decide to go the gift-giving route, be sure to be inclusive. Employees should be given the option to participate, with the understanding that their decision to opt in or out is perfectly acceptable. It’s also important to assess which holidays your employees celebrate — whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any other number of cultural traditions — and then plan accordingly.
  • Set a spending limit and stick to it. Not everyone enjoys the same financial status, so be sure to determine a reasonable and agreed-upon amount for the gift exchange. Then stick to it, so no one is shown up.
  • Use common sense when choosing gifts. This is a hard rule to dictate because everyone’s ideas and tastes are different. A good rule of thumb to follow is to make sure the gift is not offensive, too personal, or in bad taste. If you have to stop and think about whether a gift is appropriate, it’s probably best not to go there.

Outside of the traditional gift exchange, there are other unique ways to approach the holiday gift-giving experience that not only are fun but also more economical and philanthropical

  • Choose to pool your money and make a charitable donation. As an alternative, band together and donate your time to help a good cause.
  • Select a gift-giving theme, such as fuzzy socks or favorite books.
  • Draw names. This streamlines the gift-buying experience, making it easier and more affordable.
  • Enjoy a group experience together, such as taking in a movie or concert or visiting a museum, with everyone paying their own way.
  • Consider a white elephant gift exchange, where everyone brings an interesting item from their home to re-gift.
  • Be creative. There are many alternatives that might be more suitable for your work setting than exchanging presents.

With a little thought and consideration, holiday gift-giving can be a stress-free, meaningful and happy experience!


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