What You Should—and Most Definitely Should Not—Gift Your Co-Workers

A faux fur blanket on a chair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chanasya.

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As a workplace advice columnist, my inbox overflows this time of year with questions about holiday gifts: Are you supposed to get your boss a gift? What about your employees? What gifts are appropriate? How much should you spend? Should you really have to chip in to send your CEO and his family on a luxury ski trip? (That was a real letter. The answer: no.)


Etiquette has a lot to say on gift-giving at work. Most importantly, gifts at work should flow down, not up, meaning that employees should not feel obligated to give gifts to their managers. Power dynamics between a manager and an employee make it inherently fraught for someone junior to give a gift to someone more senior.

I’ve seen far too many workers feel pressured to buy a gift for the person who signs their paychecks, so “gifts flow down, not up” is a rule I feel strongly about. As such, this gift guide focuses on gifts managers can give to their employees. And there are rules for that, too! Here are some dos and don’ts, based on my years of experience.


First, gifts don’t need to be super personal, but they should be thoughtful enough that they don’t totally overlook who the recipient is, like giving wine to an alcoholic or ham to a vegetarian. You want your gift to convey “I’m thinking of you,” not “I am oblivious to key facts about you.”

There are, of course, some things you should never give because they’re just too intimate for a work relationship, like lotion, perfume, or lingerie (I wish that last one were obvious, but sadly, it’s not). Gag gifts are best avoided unless you know the recipient’s sense of humor very well.


You also need to ensure relative equity across your team. It’s fine to give different gifts to different people, but make sure they’re all of roughly equivalent value, since otherwise you’ll look like you’re playing favorites.


How much you should spend can vary dramatically by industry and profession. Partners at big law firms might spend hundreds of dollars per gift, while a manager at a small business might give gifts in the $10–20 range. Use your judgment based on your experience and the workplace culture. (If you’re uncertain, ask other managers what they’re doing.) But since most of us aren’t corporate lawyers, the gifts I recommend here are on the more affordable end.


Now, my suggestions …

A Really Nice Pen

This is the classic professional gift for a reason. Most people don’t buy themselves really nice pens, and if you haven’t written with one lately, let me remind you they are truly a joy to write with. You can find luxury pens that cost hundreds of dollars if that’s your thing, but here’s one that’s more affordable while still far fancier than what’s in the office supply closet. Bonus: Every president from Reagan onward has used Cross pens to sign legislation.

A Truly Cozy Blanket

With so many people stuck at home this year, there’s an argument for gifts that put a premium on comfort and coziness. (Those are two of my highest values even outside a pandemic year, but surely now is the time for them to take center stage for everyone.) I have two of these furry throw blankets and can attest that they’re like being wrapped in the embrace of a friendly bear.

An Extremely Comfy Fleece

Is there anything cozier than being enveloped in fleece? There is not. As a longtime connoisseur of fleece, I highly recommend a half-zip: It’s part jacket, part sweatshirt, and entirely pleasing.

A High-Quality Portable Charger

This two-port charger can charge the average smartphone four times and still have some to spare. An especially nice feature is that, unlike a lot of other chargers, its screen shows the exact amount of charge that remains so you know just how much juice you have left.

A Yeti Tumbler

Yeti tumblers have a reputation for being the best-insulated tumblers because they really do keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold. I’ve found unmelted ice in mine the next day. They’re weirdly durable, satisfying to hold, and deeply loved by their owners. Your team will love theirs too.

Something to Perk Up a Home Office Space

If your team members are working from home, many are probably shoehorned into spaces that aren’t especially comfortable for working, like the kitchen table or a small corner of the living room. Why not get them something that will make the space they’re stuck in a little nicer? One option is a foot hammock, designed for resting your feet. It’s the same idea as a footstool, but slightly weirder and thus more fun.

A Fancy Olive Oil

I have been gifting fancy olive oil for years. It feels luxurious, almost no one is allergic to it, and it’s something people often won’t buy for themselves. (The same is true of fancy salt if you prefer that.) Nicolas Alziari extra virgin olive oil is high quality, it makes a delicious salad dressing, and the can it comes in is so attractive that you can leave it out on your kitchen counter. Castillo de Canena smoked arbequina extra virgin olive oil is another delicious and beautiful-looking pick.

A Spotify Subscription

Give the gift of ad-free music! This Spotify gift card lets you give a one-year premium subscription to the music streaming service. And if anyone already subscribes, they can put the gift card toward extending their membership. In an era when many are surrounded by noise at home—working partners, kids in remote school—a way to shut out the noise can be particularly indulgent.

A Seamless Gift Card

With the usual holiday dinners and lunches canceled this year, a Seamless gift card for restaurant delivery is a good way to let your employees have a meal on you—and because they can choose from a wide list of restaurants, you don’t need to worry about getting anyone’s dietary restrictions right.

Finally, if you’re unsure about what to give, and none of these gifts do it for you, consider simply giving money. In fact, even if you’re not short on gift ideas, consider giving money anyway. Everyone likes money.