One day in the company lunchroom, Jason Ibarra and his co-workers had a conversation about what they were going to buy their boss for the holidays. As the agency director at Exults Internet Marketing, Ibarra considered aloud how much to spend and asked: “What do you get a guy who probably has money to buy himself more than I can afford?”
In the workplace, holiday gifting can have big implications. Buy too extravagant a gift for a boss and you look like a suck-up. Worse, don’t buy a gift and you could come off as unappreciative. “It can be a little awkward,” Ibarra says.
Ibarra solved his dilemma by putting a black-painted jar in the lunchroom at his Fort Lauderdale firm. He suggested staff put in whatever they feel comfortable giving for the boss’ gift. They collected $250 and bought the boss a fishing rod, which they presented to him as a group gift for Hanukkah.
Etiquette experts say bosses should give their employees gifts to thank them for performance or dedication, but employees don’t need to give a gift back. In the workplace, giving should be down — supervisors to employees — rather than up. “Don’t feel the need to reciprocate if your boss is showing appreciation for your year of hard work,” says Amanda Augustine, a careers expert with TheLadders, an online job-matching site for career-driven professionals.
If you do give the boss a gift, do it for the right reason. “If you feel appreciative of opportunities this year to work in your organization and you’re pleased with the way you were treated, it’s nice to acknowledge a supervisor with something small and a handwritten note,” says Alice Bredin, small-business advisor to American Express Open.
Experts say the best gifts are handwritten notes and something consumable such as a platter or basket of treats. The worst gifts are expensive or too personal such as jewelry, cologne, or intimate apparel. If you’re giving a gift to curry favor, you might want to reconsider. “If you are not a cultural fit or under-performing, sending the boss a really nice gift is not going to save your job,” says Augustine of TheLadders. “The person is going to feel uncomfortable or offended, and, either way, I don’t think the outcome is going to be favorable.”
If you are new to the company, it pays to do a little research on precedent by asking a veteran employee. “On-boarding 101 is always enlisting someone who can tell you what you will not find in the company handbook,” Augustine says. If there isn’t a gift-giving precedent, she advises erring on the side of caution and avoiding giving “up.”
Surveys show the majority of employees spend less than $50 on a supervisor’s gift and the $10 to $25 range is the average. “Bosses usually make more than you so if you spend too much money, they are going to feel embarrassed,” said Elena Brouwer, director of the International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood.
This year, only about a third of employers of all sizes plan to give employees holiday gifts, and about a fifth will give non-performance based bonuses, according to a member survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. However, small-business owners may be less generous. This holiday season, fewer small business owners will give staff gifts (30 percent compared to 44 percent in 2012) or plan holiday activities to celebrate the season with their employees (32 percent vs. 40 percent in 2012), according to the 2013 American Express Small Business Holiday Monitor.
At South Florida’s Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors and Accountants, all employees received a handwritten note from their supervisor and a $100 bill during the firm-wide holiday party. It is a 15-year tradition. Joanie Stein, a senior manager in the tax department, says the notes, presented in person by the supervisor, are as appreciated as the money. Beyond the firm’s gift, she prefers not to give or receive presents at work to either those above or below her in the hierarchy. “In our office, staff works for multiple managers. You don’t want to show favoritism so it would be all or none.”
Of course, company culture, size, and politics factor into workplace gift-giving, too, Stein notes. “In some businesses, it’s common for a secretary to buy something for the boss because they have a one-on-one relationship on a daily basis. We work with multiple staff during the day so it’s different,” she says.
For bosses gift giving can be just as thorny as it is for employees. You don’t want to get too personal or show favoritism. Each year, Rosalie Hagel, a senior partner at M Silver in Fort Lauderdale, gives her staff carefully selected gifts. “I try to come up with something personalized to each member of the staff, but I have to give the same level of gift to everyone to be fair.” She says she doesn’t expect a gift in return but has received small gifts from employees such as cookies, lip gloss, and nail polish. “It’s usually accompanied by a note, so it’s more about the nice gesture, and I appreciate it. I don’t think bosses today should expect to go home with armfuls of presents from staff.”
Even as Hagel chooses gifts for employees, she is pondering the complexity of what to buy her new bosses. In January. her public-relations firm merged and became a division of Finn Partners. Now, she has three supervisors in New York and plans to buy them something related to their interests without going overboard. “One loves chocolate, so maybe I’ll do that.”
Meanwhile, some businesses organize gift exchanges to simplify gift-giving. This year, a little more than half of companies plan to arrange Secret Santa or White Elephant exchanges, according to the SHRM holiday survey. Most set a price limit. Augustine advises: Stick to the rules, and if you want to exchange with a co-worker with whom you have a rapport or friendship, do it outside of the office. “In the workplace, you don’t want to make gift-giving awkward.”