1 in 3 employees is planning to give their boss a holiday gift – but should they?

By giving a personal gift in a professional setting, the seemingly innocent gesture can put your boss in an awkward position.

As the leaves change colors and the holiday lights get strung up, the spirit of holiday festivities may enter your office with employee gift-giving. In a new staffing firm survey of more than 2,800 workers, more than half of respondents said they give out year-end presents to their colleagues at work.

For workers who do it, it is meant as a generous gesture, not a chance to curry favor.  Eighty-four percent of workers who give out holiday presents said they do it because they want to, not because they felt obligated to do so. Wanting to express your gratitude with a gift is okay with a coworker, but boundaries get murky when you attempt to give your boss a gift. Despite the potential ways this could backfire, thirty-five percent of respondents said they give a holiday gift to their boss. Should they? Experts said you need to be careful about this kind of gift exchange.

Gift-giving should flow downwards

By the very definition of their role, your boss is in a higher position than you. The power dynamics are skewed against you the employee. No matter how friendly you are with your boss, at the end of the day, they are the person in charge of your professional livelihood. They handle your paychecks and decide your assignments and promotions. By giving a gift, you are suggesting that you are attempting to upend this dynamic to your advantage.

“Employees shouldn’t give gifts to those above them,” Ask a Manager’s Alison Green advises. “Without this rule, people might feel obligated to purchase gifts when they don’t want to or can’t afford to, and managers should never benefit from the power dynamic in that way.”

By giving a personal gift in a professional setting, it blends personal wants with professional demands. This seemingly innocent gesture can put your boss in an awkward position, especially if they are judging your performance. They may question your motives. What if your boss is not particularly impressed with your performance? That’s what happened to manager David Couper who said he got an unwanted gift from an underperforming subordinate: “It was a little strange, as the gift came from someone whose performance I did not think was that good.”

If you still feel compelled to express your gratitude to your boss with a gift or you work in an environment of gift-givers and feel pressured to contribute, call in reinforcements from other employees on your team. Get your colleagues to write a card together. A handwritten note expressing thanks for a great year of support can be done at no extra cost. The collaborative gesture also shields you from coming across as a suck-up with ulterior motives to your boss.

Above all, employees should recognize that no good boss is going to want or expect you to give them a lavish holiday gift. They know that they are likely to earn more than you. What they want is for you to be an engaged productive employee. You do not need to spend money on them to express your gratitude over being their employee. The festive holiday spirit of gratitude is free.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.