Should I Give Gifts to My Colleagues This Holiday Season?

November 29, 2021 9:00 am Published by

Tips for Navigating Holiday Gift-Giving

It’s the time of year when many of us are starting to think:

“I’d like to get my colleagues (or boss) a gift for the holidays, but what? I don’t want it to look like I’m just trying to ‘look good.’ But I don’t want to give them some trinket that will come across as schmaltzy. What should I get them… if anything?”

I’m going to give you some advice to consider, some of which may surprise you.

Unfortunately, in most work settings, the way gifts are given (as well as what is given and when they are given) reinforce our negative view of gifts in the workplace – they are either a meaningless trinket, something self-serving (a form of advertising through logoed items) or manipulative.

First, consider not giving a gift now. Wait, and give them a meaningful gift later, after you have taken time to consider and explore. Thoughtless gifts—those gifts bought hastily in response to tradition or a feeling of obligation—with no real personal investment of time or reflection, not only miss the mark but also communicate a negative message. The gift seems to be a perfunctory act and not a real expression of appreciation. Such gifts do little to positively impact others.

One of the key points I learned from my friend, John Ruhlin, author of Giftology, is that a gift has more impact when it is not expected — when it arrives as a surprise. Giving a gift now (during the Christmas season) is not going to surprise anyone. So, wait – maybe until the second half of January.

Secondly, as an alternative, write them a note. Not just any “Happy Holidays!” card, but one where you take some time to think about:

  1. What you want to say – what do you value about them (how they treat you and others, what they do that makes your daily work easier, character qualities they have that you admire).
  2. How you want to say it – think about the words you use, choose them carefully, maybe even utilize a thesaurus to find synonyms of words you usually use.
  3. The way the message is conveyed – if you are like me (my handwriting is terrible), you may want to type it and print it on nice paper; for others, a nice handwritten note is special; or include a picture that conveys part of the message.

If You Do Decide to Give a Gift . . .

Consider the following tips: No matter what gift you choose (or when you give it), there are things to keep in mind when searching for the right fit. Here are three tips to help you on your journey to finding the perfect workplace gift:

  • The best gift requires a little thoughtfulness. Thoughtless gifts, which are those bought hastily in response to tradition or a feeling of obligation, not only miss the mark but also communicate a negative message. These gifts are a perfunctory act and lack a real expression of appreciation.
  • Don’t skimp on a personalized card. Pairing your gift with a thoughtful note can further personalize your appreciation and deepen its impact. A hand-written note shows that you took a moment to reflect upon what you value about that person, what unique contribution they make to your team, and that you care enough to communicate this to them.
  • Remember, the gift may or may not be a “thing” – it could be an experience (tickets to an event or sporting event they would really like; a gift card to a nicer restaurant than they typically would choose). A truly impactful gift is one that shows you took some time and effort to get a gift that would be meaningful to them. 
  • If you choose to give gift cards, participants from research we conducted report preferring gift cards specific to a store more favorably than just a generic gift card. But the caveat is that there is still a large minority who enjoy the more generic gift card. In fact, gift cards from Visa, for example, allow people the freedom to purchase whatever they want.
  • Various types of flex time or comp time are also highly desired by more and more employees (paid time off, flexible hours, working remotely). Since personal time is a valued resource for many of us, being able to take some time off to run errands, do our Christmas shopping, exercise, go to doctor’s appointments, or even sleep-in, is typically received gratefully.

A feeling of obligation to mark the holidays and the end of the year by buying gifts can complicate our workplace relationships. If you do decide to give gifts to your boss or coworkers, remember that it doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. Learning what people will enjoy requires an effort from you, but this level of thoughtfulness will always pay off in the end.

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November 29, 2021 9:00 am


  • Alena Scandura says:

    Thank you for this post. I am a fan of your work and try to consider the recipients ways of being appreciated when gift giving. When I directly supervised people, I took the time to get to know them personally which helped immensely. Now, I do not have direct reports, but chair two big committees. One committee has mostly entry level staff, and the other committee is C-Suite and Senior Staff. Altogether, there is close to 30 people. I am struggling to find ways to show appreciation to these very different individuals, whom I do not know very well. I feel somewhat awkward/shy about doing anything for the more senior staff. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • Paul White says:

      Alena, you do have a rather unique situation. First, working with committees is different than directly with staff – because you will see and interact with them less frequently. Second, thirty people is a lot. I have written a piece on showing appreciation when you manage large groups which may be helpful. Essentially, you have to prioritize – those you work with most closely, those that you want to make sure don’t leave the organization, and those who are discouraged. Regardless of their position (C-suite or new employee), people want to know they and their efforts are valued. To be viewed as genuine, you must be specific in your communication about what you value about them.

      One strategy actually might be to request that each person fill out the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory, so you could identify the best ways to support and encourage them. (You could spread it out over time, if needed.) I hope this helps!

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