By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published in Harvard Business Review.
The winter holiday season is a time of giving and showing appreciation. As difficult as it may be to figure out what to gift family and friends each year, it can be even trickier when navigating gift-giving in a professional context.
Whether it’s your boss, another team member, or a client, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t feel obligated or pressured to spend money or give a gift. But if you do decide to give some holiday cheer to your work colleagues, here are some factors to consider.
While the act of giving a gift is intended to be a simple gesture grounded in generosity and appreciation, several industries, such as financial services, health care, pharma, and medical devices, as well as other companies have strict gift-giving policies. These policies are typically in place to not only prevent bribery, but also conflicts of interest, or the perception thereof.
Richard Bistrong, CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery, advises to check with your compliance leader and company code of conduct if you work in a field where gift giving is particularly sensitive in nature. He also recommends that, regardless of your field, if your gift is international or cross-border, you should also check with your company, so as not to run afoul of its code of conduct or certain international anti-bribery laws. “What might seem innocent to the gift giver could be perceived as trying to inappropriately influence a decision maker by the regulators, regardless if that person is a public official or commercial employee,” Bistrong said.
Don’t break the bank. This is not only for compliance purposes, but also to avoid causing the discomfort some may feel in receiving a more lavish gift. “Going overly extravagant on a gift can make someone feel uncomfortable, especially if it is obvious that they didn’t put the same amount of extravagance into what they gave you,” said Lindsay Roberts Schey, gift-giving expert from TheGiftInsider.com.
She shared that for work colleagues, $25 is a typical average price for holiday gifts, but it could go up to $50. She added, “If it’s a large office and you are gifting to many, $15 to $25 is appropriate.” Schey also added, “Never try to out-do your boss. Spend less than they do.”
One way to personalize your gift is to make a donation in your colleague’s name to a charity that they support and is meaningful to them.
Or you can tie the gift to the person’s outside interests. If you’re not already familiar with what those are, do a little sleuthing on social media or ask others who know them. “Consider their hobbies, interests or things they may need for their workspace,” Schey suggested. Examples might be a personalized notebook if they like to journal, a picture frame for their desk to hold a favorite photo, or a coffee shop gift card or a heated mug to keep their drink warm. One colleague who knows that I’m a Francophile with a sweet tooth gifted me a box of pastries from a local French bakery, which was the perfect gift for me!
But be sure to stay away from any gifts that are too personal, as some risk being too intimate. Schey advises to stay away from jewelry or clothing, for example.
Research shows that people who receive experiential gifts feel closer and more connected with the gift giver. Movie tickets or a restaurant gift card can be a small indulgence that your colleague wouldn’t have planned for themselves.
One year, a close colleague of mine had been working particularly hard and was in dire need of some self-care. She was extremely touched when I gave her a spa gift certificate. The research also shows that giving experiential gifts can have a connecting effect even if you aren’t participating with the recipient, since they’ll be thinking about you during the experience.
If you manage a team, another option is to organize a group outing, such as a holiday lunch or dinner, or an activity like ice skating or an improv class. While you’ll want to be inclusive in whatever activity you organize, it should be optional to participate, so no one feels pressured to attend.
Everyone loves a good laugh. A whimsical but useful gift can be both fun and funny — gifts such as a mug that says “You’re on Mute” or a notebook that says “List of Things I Won’t Get To” allow us to laugh at ourselves while giving us something we’ll actually use.
However, you want to stay far away from anything that might be perceived as too edgy, crass, vulgar, or offensive in any way. Again, you don’t want to risk making anyone uncomfortable or violating any boundaries. “Save the gag gifts for friends and family,” Schey advises.
While perishable items are generally acceptable from a compliance standpoint, and can be good to share amongst several people, unless you know that the recipient consumes the specific items you’re sending (like my French pastries), this can be a bit of a minefield if the recipient has dietary restrictions, problems with alcohol addiction, or religious constraints.
“Do a little digging before you gift food items,” Shey advises. “If you are unsure, try something prepackaged. If it’s not for them, they can share with family and friends.” When in doubt, you can ask directly if they drink wine or have any dietary restrictions, or give a gift card to let them choose something that works for them.
We all love to learn and grow. You might consider gifting a colleague a business magazine subscription or a gift card to an audio or brick-and-mortar bookstore. Or you could buy them a book on a specific topic of interest, whether it’s written by an author they like or from a genre they are drawn to, such as biography, business, or history.
You don’t need to spend money or give a material gift to give something thoughtful and bring a smile to your colleague’s face. Consider writing a hand-written note of appreciation. Christopher Littlefield, an expert in employee appreciation and the founder of Beyond Thank You, shares: “One of the most meaningful gifts you can give another colleague is a handwritten note letting them know you appreciate them. This is an opportunity to let the person feel acknowledged and highlight what you enjoy most about working with them.”
Littlefield recommends that you may start your message with a line like, “As we get to the end of the year, I just wanted to let you know I really appreciate ____ about you.” Share a specific characteristic, something they did well, and how it impacted you in a positive way. He added, “Gifts will often be forgotten.”
Giving gifts to your coworkers during the holidays need not cause you a lot of stress, break the bank, or even cost any money. By following the guidelines above, you’ll increase your chances of bringing joy to your colleagues while showing appreciation and creating warmth and connection.