Office Holiday Gifts that will put you on Santa’s Good List

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The holidays are coming, and along with gifts for friends and family, you likely have gifts for coworkers on your list.   In case you happen to have ?????? next to them on your list, here are a few guidelines to follow, and a few suggestions. 


First, know your office.  The customs and expectations for gift giving vary widely by office and city.  Even if you have been giving the same thing to the same people year after year, it’s worth checking with coworkers to make sure what you’ve been doing has been consistent with what others at your level are doing.  Just as you want to be sure that you are not giving significantly less than others, you also want to be sure you are not giving significantly more than others, unless it’s a carefully considered decision.  (This advice isn’t about saving money; it’s about not wanting to cross a line between a holiday gift and an extravagance or making anyone feel less than.  It’s also important to not “show up” anyone more senior with whom you share an assistant.) 


Second, make sure you are including everyone you should.  Again, your coworkers can be helpful here.  Of course you want to include the people who come immediately to mind.  But you should also include the people who make your career and life possible.  For me, for example, when I was practicing law that included my administrative assistant and legal assistant, as well as the people in the mail room who would stall the Fed Ex person by instigating debates on the merits of the Cubs and White Sox long enough for me to get my package out by the last pick up.  Later on in my career, that included the security people who walked me to my car, cleaned it off after snowstorms, and brought me snacks late at night.


In thinking through who to include on your gift list, remember the adage that you give “down,” but not “up.”  It does not apply in every situation, but in general, the most you should do for your supervisor is a holiday card.  If your office is one of the few where you are expected to give your supervisor a gift, consider a group gift where you and your coworkers chip in on a tangible gift.  Even then, something nominal is probably best. 


Once you know who is on your list, it’s time to figure out what to give them. 


Unless you know precisely what your assistant or other staff you supervise would love and give it with a gift receipt, in general, cash (or a cash equivalent like a gift card to a store or restaurant you know the recipient likes) is likely preferable.  (Again, this varies by office and industry – cash is expected in most law firms, while it would be out of place in other settings.) 


If you do want to give something tangible, either in addition to or in place of a cash gift, here are a few things to avoid and some tried and true ideas.  (These are not affiliate links.) 

-       No clothing, other than perhaps a scarf or gloves.  The only exception is a wrap for someone who works in a freezing cold office and is always cold.  (With a gift receipt.) 

-       Many gift lists this time of year recommend plants or other things intended to brighten the recipient’s cubicle or office.  Resist.  Unless you know the recipient enjoys raising plants, for example, you are basically giving them a project that they have to maintain or risk your seeing they let it die.  Same with candles (you can’t burn them in the office anyway) or cute office supplies or mugs.  Unless you know that the recipient likes them in general and would like the one you are picking out in particular, you risk sending a message that you have mistaken him or her for a 14 year old with a penchant for glitter, rather than an adult who you respect as a professional.  (This may vary for people with whom you are friends outside the office, but odds are your assistant has no desire for the “cute” binder clips or stapler you saw online.  He or she would rather have a gift card or cash.  Trust me.)     

-       This is not the time for life lessons or self-improvement gifts.  That means no planners, no books on organizing or time management, and definitely no books on how to improve skills the recipient already has or should have.  I once saw an attorney give his assistant a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style as a holiday gift.  Let’s just say it was not a gift intended to match her interests, and instead of admiring his wit, his assistant (and the others who sat around her) knew exactly what he was getting at.  It did not improve their relationship or his relationships with others.    

-       No regifting unless you have an office white elephant gift exchange where regifting is expressly encouraged.  You would think that would be obvious, but, again, I saw a different attorney first have his assistant write a thank you note to a client for a gift the client sent, then give it to the assistant as her holiday gift.  And it was not as in “I think you’ll get more enjoyment out of this than I will – would you like it [in addition to your holiday gift]?” – the partner gave the gift to his assistant as her gift.   Of course the entire office ended up hearing about it and the partner looked like an unappreciative cheapskate.   

-       Be careful with liquor – it’s definitely an example of knowing your office and the recipient.  Even if it’s the custom in many offices, the particular recipient may not be excited to receive it.  Fancy coffee or tea may be safer. 

-       Many well-intentioned people consider a gift to a charity that the recipient supports.  That can be a wonderful and meaningful idea.  It can also seem as though you are giving the recipient the gift of your receiving a tax deduction.  Better to give the recipient a gift and let him/her choose to donate to the charity. 


Now that I’ve just eliminated about half of what you’ve probably seen posted in articles on what to buy your coworkers, what’s left if you want to give a non-cash gift either in addition to or in place of a cash gift? 

-       One option for a gift for a group (the copy room staff, for example) is to ask the department supervisor if you can cover lunch for them one day.   If it’s a large group, ask some coworkers to do it with you.  They’ll likely appreciate not having to come up with their own gift.   

-       Another idea for a group is to consider something along the lines of a fruit basket rather than yet more cookies or sweets, which they are probably already receiving from vendors.  (Harry & David pears are a great go-to for groups.

-       For an individual, a great gift that anyone with business cards can use is a business card holder.  You can never have too many, and this one from Levenger can be used for cards or as a wallet, and it can be monogrammed.  It also arrives nicely boxed. Levenger also makes nice portfolios that can be personalized as well.    

-       Consider whether the recipient might like upgrades of things she or he already uses.  If the recipient likes to take notes in notebooks, s/he might like a nice Moleskin notebook, for example.  Or if the recipient has a particular snack he or she likes, an upgraded version or case of them can be appreciated.


December is a wonderful time to express appreciation to your coworkers for their help throughout the year, but remember that it’s not the only time.  If you missed the boat before everyone took off for the holidays, a note and good wishes for 2018 when they’re back in January (with or without a gift) can still go a long way to deepening and enhancing your relationships.   


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