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Should I Get My Boss a Gift for Christmas?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

Should I get my boss a Christmas gift, and if so, what? I do actually like them — we’re friendly — but a) I don’t want to look like an ass-kisser; and b) I don’t want it to turn into some awkward thing where they feel obligated to get me one in return, or create an expectation of gifts next year. Should I just skip it altogether? — Sharon H., Davenport, IA
Gift-giving should be an authentic expression of kindness, without expecting reciprocity or currying favor. Some organizations specifically prohibit gift giving from an employee to their manager to prevent claims of favoritism or jealousy. After all, if one of your colleagues got your boss a Bose headset, what would everyone else think? And in today’s environment concerning allegations of sexual impropriety, I suspect more companies will be adopting this type of policy to eliminate any perception of preferential treatment, bribery or coercion.

If you’re unsure of protocol, consider checking with your colleagues on what’s typically done in your office. If your boss is universally liked, you might want to suggest everyone throwing in a modest contribution for a holiday gift rather than going it alone.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with going alone and getting your boss a gift if you follow some simple rules:

  • Be sensitive to the reason and the season: Gift-giving is personal, and it’ll be very awkward if you discover that this person celebrates a different religious holiday, or none at all.
  • Be modest: Gifts that scream “expensive and ostentatious” really are tantamount to bribes.
  • Be discreet: You should exchange the gift with your boss in private. This makes the gift more personal; it also prevents embarrassing or shaming colleagues who aren’t planning to do the same.
  • Be thoughtful: Personalize the present so that it it’s more than a perfunctory choice. Examples of office gifts that are appropriate and thoughtful include coffee mugs with clever sayings that reflect the recipient (stay away, however, from risqué quotes or double entendres); books that reflect hobbies or interests; and movie tickets for an upcoming film they’ve been talking about. Stay away from clothing (too personal); coffee gift cards (too boring); or salacious board games (Cards Against Humanity).

One final alternative to consider is a contribution to your boss’s favorite (non-political) cause in their name. Recognizing their passion for the arts, education, health or wildlife with a simple act of generosity during the holiday season will remind you (and them) of the true spirit of gift-giving. It’s also the ultimate answer to your question.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at askterry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.