Illustration: Ashley Siebels
The last quarter of the year will speed past so quickly, you might miss it if you look up from your computer screen. From office holiday parties, Secret Santa exchanges and client dinners that dominate your after-work calendar to juggling family gatherings and traveling home to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or any other religious day in December — it’s a lot to manage.
Add to that the challenge of figuring out the right holiday gift for your office mates and you might be about ready to snap. You want to aim for a gift that expresses appreciation without violating any appropriate boundaries. That’s why following professional etiquette standards is the right move for this season, according to industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert, Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D.
Here’s your guide to selecting a gift that’s just right:
How to start making the perfect gift list:
While your friend might be mandated to wear a suit and tie each day, your start-up culture might encourage athleisure on Fridays. Since every environment is different, reading the room and investing in the preferences of your manager, colleagues and employees will help you better understand what’s expected and accepted in terms of giving.
“You want to ensure that your gift giving is in line with what is done within the team and company. If you go overboard, or if you do not do enough, as compared to others in the office, this may reflect negatively on you,” Hakim says. “When you follow protocol in the office, then you are seen as a team player. Regardless, your gifts should be thoughtful, tasteful and meaningful.”
How to shop for your work bestie
That co-worker who makes you laugh, listens to your weekend woes and champions your work in meetings may have become one of your closest, most treasured friends. That’s why the approach to every box-with-a-bow should be evaluated differently.
For the colleague who you also hang out with on the weekends, you probably want to give something specific that shows how much you ‘get’ them or represents a personality trait you treasure, Hakim says.
“You might give a different type of gift to a supervisor than you would to a colleague or subordinate,” Hakim says. Instead of fretting over your gift ideas alone, she suggests asking a colleague you trust about standard practices, so that you spend the right amount of money and so that you include the right amount of people on your shopping list.
How to shop for your boss
Check in with a colleague you trust at work about their approach to gifting your shared manager. As Hakim notes, it’s not always a common practice to give a physical gift, though some token of appreciation — like a card — is always smiled upon. If you do want to bring out the wrapping paper, Hakim says to keep it small, yet thoughtful.
“Is your boss a good leader or motivator? If yes, a paperweight or item with a saying about motivation or leadership is a sure win,” she suggests.
You can also approach the boss gift from a team perspective. By rallying together your team, you can come up with one larger gift you can all chip in on. Maybe it’s concert tickets, a day at the golfing range, a massage or a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant. When it comes from the group, there’s less pressure to have the perfect present.
How to shop for your coworkers
Unless you’re at a super-small company, you likely have varying levels of friendship with your respective colleagues, both in your sector of work and cross-functionally. That’s why Hakim says to treat them differently and consider separate gift-exchanges, to reduce the risk of hurting feelings or inciting jealousy. For coworkers who you don’t spend much time with but still appreciate, a card with a gift card or a funny or sweet trinket for their desk will do fine.
To avoid breaking the bank, you may also want to suggest a secret santa or gift exchange to limit the number of gifts you’re responsible for buying.
How to shop for your employee
As a manager yourself, part of your job description is to ensure your direct reports feel valued, treasured and supported. This doesn’t just extend to their performance between 9 and 5, but also that you understand they have a life outside of the office, too. As a gift, Hakim suggests a gift certificate toward something they enjoy — whether it’s shopping online or trying new cuisines — that you know will make them happy. And if you can swing it at the close of a year, a holiday bonus is the most-appreciated token of thanks of all.
How to shop for your contractor
It takes more than a slew of full-time employees to build a business, and for the contractors whose relationship you want to maintain, an unexpected gift during the holidays can go a long way. Hakim says to pinpoint the freelancers and contractors that really go above and beyond on their deliverables and send them a personally handwritten note of thanks, along with a bouquet of seasonal flowers or a gift basket of sweets.
How to shop for your receptionist, doorman, cleaning crew
Administrators, security personnel and other often forgotten-about employees can fall off the radar of holiday gifting sometimes. That’s why Hakim suggests going the extra mile to personally shake their hand, thank them and give them a card, along with a box of candy or a Starbucks gift card during this time of year. Since they keep the office running smoothly — often with a positive attitude, no matter the circumstance — remind them of how indispensable they truly are to the workplace.