Am I Obligated to Give My Boss a Holiday Gift?

Workplace gift-giving etiquette is less complicated than you think.

Man wrapping gift at work.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and eclipse_images/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Every December, I’m inundated with questions about gift-giving at work: Are you supposed to buy a gift for your boss? What if you’d prefer not to but colleagues pressure you to chip in for a group gift? How much are you supposed to spend on coworkers, if anything? Must you pretend to be grateful for a terrible gift from your employer?

Gifts for bosses cause the most angst by far. Etiquette is actually quite clear on this point: Gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward. In other words, it’s fine for your boss to give you a gift but you shouldn’t give gifts to your managers. That rule exists to prevent employees from feeling pressure to purchase gifts for the people who sign their paychecks, and because it’s unseemly for managers to benefit from employer/employee power dynamics that way.

Nonetheless, many people do feel obligated to purchase gifts for their managers—and some are subjected to weird office pressure to contribute to group gifts even when they’d rather not. This account is pretty typical of what fills up my inbox at this time of year:

The company I work at has 200 employees. We get a Christmas bonus. Because it is the president who gives the bonus, the executive assistant asks each employee to contribute $10 toward a gift for the president, which is usually toward a trip. I don’t believe this is right.

Sometimes those collections become truly inappropriate, such as the low-paid workers who were expected to chip in to send the boss’s whole family to a ski resort.

And when group gift-giving to the boss has become a tradition, it can feel awkward to try to stop that tradition:

Every year someone in the department solicits money for gift cards for our boss, as well as her boss and her boss’ assistant. We’ve been asked to contribute $50 every year. I have always hated this tradition but have felt pressured not to make waves. … This “tradition” has been going on for at least 10 years, and gifts are presented almost ceremonially on a specific day when there is a holiday lunch.

This year I am the leader of our group, so I want to use my influence to stop the flow of gifts upward. I’m quite sure all the people who typically donate would be fine ending this practice, especially since almost half do not celebrate Christmas. It’s the managers who are more likely to be offended by the department suddenly stopping the gift-giving without any discussion. I feel comfortable enough to address this directly with my boss, but how should I handle her boss? I don’t feel that I’m in a position to talk to her about it, and my boss has a terrible relationship with her own boss.

The problems don’t stop there! When gifts are exchanged at work, it quickly becomes clear that some people are better gift givers than others:

My boss (also the CEO; it’s a very small company) gives us gift cards to a restaurant as our holiday gift/annual bonus. She is aware I’m allergic to tomatoes, but she continues to give me a gift card to an Italian restaurant. This is also her favorite restaurant, and she gets the gift cards because she earns bonus cards that she uses herself. I literally cannot eat anything at the restaurant. Is there a way I can bring this up without sounding tacky? It hurts my feelings and annoys me every year.

Company-provided gifts don’t always fare any better:

When I was starting out my first job when I was an office manager, I had to arrange the delivery at end of all three shifts for frozen turkeys for 200-plus people. Every single person complained—everyone. And it was a logistical nightmare to time delivery so they weren’t sitting end of shift.

Also, it was the day before Thanksgiving. What the hell is anyone going to do with a 20-pound frozen turkey without time to properly defrost?

And then there’s this mysterious choice:

At my Old Job, my manager decided to give us all presents at Christmas for the first time ever after seeing other managers in our division give their employees small gifts (think gingerbread mix with a gingerbread man cookie cooker or a small cheese/sausage basket). Our gift was a small unbranded cellophane baggie with nine thumbtacks (three each of chartreuse green, bright orange, and fluorescent purple). Huh? Those thumbtacks were the only thing I left on my bulletin board when I departed. 

And while some people love office gifts exchanges (like Secret Santa or Yankee Swap), they can sometimes go awry:

Trying to do Dirty Santa with legit gifts that people will enjoy tends to be disastrous—all anyone really wants are the gift cards and booze gifts, and people that put thought into selecting a gift are hurt that no one wanted their gift, and everyone who leaves without one of the most-wanted gifts feels ripped off that they brought a better gift than they received or guilty that they’re about to trash or re-gift whatever they wound up with.

Although nothing really tops this:

Once, during a Secret Santa, I got a (unused, thank God) plastic hospital bedpan.

Really, we might all be better off if we limited our office holiday gift exchanges to cards and baked goods. But assuming it’s unrealistic to put a total stop to workplace gift swaps, let’s at least agree that gifts shouldn’t flow upward and that no workplace should pressure people to contribute to gifts or gift exchanges. If you’re facing that pressure yourself, it’s fine to say, “I can’t this year,” or “That’s out of my budget.” It’s not Scrooge-ish to set limits on what you spend for the holidays, and your co-workers will get by fine without that soap-on-a-rope or scented candle.