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The ethics of workplace gift giving


As the end-of-year holiday gift-giving season approaches, you may start to stress about buying gifts for colleagues. Workplace gift giving can be tricky. You may wonder what to buy, who should receive a gift and how to go about the process of giving presents at work.

Thankfully, the etiquette is less complicated than one might think.

Below are the do’s and don’ts of giving gifts at work. Let these essentials guide you through the upcoming holiday season and into the new calendar year.

Do check your company’s policy on workplace gift giving.

Before you put together a shopping list, it’s wise to check your company’s gift policy.

Such policies help a company avoid conflicts of interest, both real and perceived. Because there’s ongoing potential for gifts to be exchanged between employees and customers, vendors, suppliers, job applicants and other business stakeholders, it’s smart to have a clear company gift policy in place to prevent problems down the road.

A company gift policy should:

  • State from whom company employees may accept a gift
  • Outline the circumstances under which an employee may accept a gift
  • Offer guidance about what is and isn’t appropriate to accept as a present
  • Define what is allowed or prohibited

Wondering what to do if your company doesn’t have a gift policy in place as the holiday season gears up? Fret not. The following guidelines will help you as you consider handing out workplace presents.

Don’t give presents to your superiors.

A reliable rule of thumb regarding workplace gift giving: Gifts should flow down the supervisory reporting line, not upward.

Thus, a boss or manager may give presents to direct reports, and employees can laterally exchange gifts with each other. But employees shouldn’t give gifts to supervisors. 

This rule protects employees from feeling pressure to purchase gifts for the people who sign their paychecks. Following this policy helps avoid any appearance of a quid pro quo, or the expectation of special treatment.

If there’s a special occasion to celebrate, however, the entire team may collect money to purchase a group present for a manager or business owner. Should a team wish to celebrate, say, a supervisor’s 20th work anniversary or exceptional professional achievement, a group gift will show appreciation without giving the appearance of favoritism being sought from a specific employee. 

Don’t give gifts near performance review time.

Timing is everything with workplace gift giving. Presenting a gift to your manager right before your annual review can send the wrong signal. While your motives may be innocent, your intentions may be perceived as an attempt at bribery.

Similarly, if you anticipate an upcoming internal position vacancy for which you plan to apply, now is not the time to ply the HR team with gifts.

Do keep it professional.

Always consider how your gift choices communicate your intentions in the workplace. You want to think through how the giver – and onlookers – may interpret your gift.

Avoid giving personal items someone might wear (perfume, clothing or jewelry) or items typically not allowed in the workplace (alcohol, gag gifts or any item that may offend others). Invest instead in edible gifts, appropriate books or other gender-neutral items that reflect your thoughtful intentions in a professional manner. 

Do aim for inclusion.

As the year winds down, no one wants to be left out of the holiday fun. Suggest holding an end-of-year celebration with a voluntary gift exchange, one open to everyone willing to participate. Who knows? A bit of merriment might be just the thing to boost seasonal morale.

A gift exchange isn’t an excuse to give a cheap, lousy present, however. When choosing a gift for an office exchange, take the time to select an appropriate, thoughtful gift. This will keep the recipient from feeling short-changed. 

Also, be mindful of hosting gift exchanges where “stealing” is allowed. This practice may result in hard feelings. The ultimate objective with office gift exchanges should be to have a fun event in which all employees feel they are valued equally.

The same can be said of team workplace gift giving. If you decide to give a book or a company-branded item as a gift, for example, providing the same gift to everyone on your staff shows your clear intentions as a team-building manager.

Do observe the gift-giving spending limit.

Observe formal spending limits for workplace gifts. Exceeding the set amount is likely to make coworkers feel uncomfortable and, again, may invite misinterpretation of your motives.

Giving cash as a gift is considered unacceptable – unless, of course, the company provides it in the form of an employee bonus. On the other hand, gift cards and gift certificates can be acceptable gift choices. The gift card for a major retailer wrapped imaginatively can be a big hit with coworkers.

Don’t pressure employees to participate.

If your office is collecting money for a group gift for a colleague, cash-strapped colleagues may feel uneasy. Feeling the pressure to give more than they can afford can breed negativity, feelings of exclusion or resentment.

Should a team member have a baby, is hospitalized or experience a loss, sending the employee a fruit basket or flowers from the entire team is appropriate. If there isn’t room in the budget to cover costs, invite volunteers. Never pressure someone to contribute, however, no matter how much you believe they can afford it.

The same guideline applies when asking employees to donate to philanthropic causes. From time to time there may be good reason to invite people to make a voluntary contribution to a charity. Some businesses may see lasting value in coming up with a long-term strategy for supporting charities. For example, a voluntary matching gift program is one way your company can show appreciation by matching employee contributions to nonprofit organizations. 

Do set a company code of ethics that addresses workplace gift giving.

If you’re a business owner or manager, a major part of your role is to shape company culture. With that responsibility comes the opportunity to establish and enforce clear policies and procedures designed to give everyone piece of mind. 

Upholding a code of ethics will help set clear expectations for employees to practice and demonstrate equal treatment and non-discriminatory actions in the workplace. And, yes, this can include gift-giving guidance during the holidays and beyond.

For more information on management issues, download our complimentary e-book: 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.