GiftsNot planning on giving gifts to your colleagues this year? You’re not alone: according to Spherion Staffing Services‘ WorkSphere holiday survey, most Americans workers are right there with you. Fifty-six percent of them won’t be buying presents for their coworkers, and 59 percent aren’t getting their bosses anything, either.

While the economy has improved since last Christmas, putting a little more cash in people’s pockets, money’s not the only reason why employees aren’t buying gifts this year. Forty-three percent of employees “who aren’t planning to buy gifts for anyone at work for reasons other than money” feel that buying gifts for everyone would be “too much;” 28 percent of these workers feel they simply don’t know their coworkers well enough to buy anything for them; 23 percent worry that giving gifts would make it seem like they were trying to curry favor with others. 

Indeed, navigating the ins and outs of workplace gifting can be a tortuous journey, and many employees would rather not deal with it altogether. But those who would like to give their coworkers a little something need not fret: Sandy Mazur, president of Spherion, is here with insights and advice on how to observe holiday office decorum and gift coworkers for no money at all. Why is gift-giving such a fraught experience in the workplace? What makes it so confusing and difficult to navigate?

Sandy Mazur: Gift-giving at work can be a land mine for employees to navigate, and, according to our recent WorkSphere holiday survey, more than half of workers are not

Sandy Mazur, President of Spherion Staffing Services

Sandy Mazur, President of Spherion Staffing Services

planning on giving gifts at work this year. For those workers who do plan on giving gifts, it can be tricky for several reasons. First, deciding how much to spend on coworkers can be stressful. If you spend too little, you could be viewed as cheap or unthoughtful, but if you spend too much, your colleagues may think you are trying to gain favoritism — a concern for 23 percent of survey respondents who don’t plan to give gifts this year.

Second, it’s imperative for workers to be considerate of others’ holiday observances and religious practices. If you choose to partake in gift-giving, remember that coworkers often celebrate differently, and you should give gifts according to their individual practices.

Third, it is sometimes hard to decide who gets a gift and who doesn’t.  This can be especially challenging at a large company where it’s unmanageable to give something to everyone. Forty-three percent of workers reported giving gifts to everyone being “too much” as a top reason they chose not to gift gifts this year. If that is a concern but you still want to give gifts, a best practice is to trim the list of recipients down to only those with whom you regularly work and have frequent interaction.  

RC: Is there any “gift-giving etiquette” that people should be aware of in the workplace?

SM: A good rule of thumb is to stick to “safe” gifts, such as food, plants, flowers, or even office supplies. It’s best to stay away from culturally sensitive, political, or religious gifts that could be unintentionally offensive. Religious gifts are especially tricky, since many people celebrate different customs this time of year, such as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza; others don’t celebrate anything at all. Gag gifts can also be tricky and should usually not be considered for work gifts.

Another sticky area is always around the price of gifts. If your company has a gift-giving policy or formal program, adhere to the agreed-upon price point and give gifts of similar value to everyone. You don’t want anyone to feel shortchanged or for it to appear you’re showing favoritism.

Lastly, if you do bring gifts into the office for coworkers, try not to be too conspicuous. You should in no way feel bad or guilty about bringing gifts to coworkers whom you work with, but you also don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or create any friction or tension at work. 

RC: Should employers allow gift-giving in the office? Why or why not? Does it depend on the specific employer?

SM: Each employer should use their discretion regarding whether or not to allow gift-giving in the workplace, as there are advantages and disadvantages to both. For example, allowing employees to celebrate the holidays with gift-giving can boost morale and foster employee engagement; however, employers should also set parameters so that company holiday celebrations and activities don’t become too distracting and interfere with employees’ productivity.

RC: Is there anything employers can do to cultivate an environment where gift-giving is acceptable but not required?

SM: An employer can cultivate this type of environment if leadership sets the tone for the rest of the company. If your boss gives gifts to his or her reports, it shows that giving gifts is acceptable. And, as long as there is no formal gift-giving program or activity like a  “Secret Santa” or “White Elephant,” employees should not feel pressured to participate or gift colleagues if they don’t want to. Gift-giving continues to be a personal choice for workers, and they shouldn’t feel forced or obliged to do so in the workplace.

RC: What are your suggestions for low-cost (or no-cost) ways to gift coworkers? 

SM: Our survey findings reveal that many workers aren’t able to afford gift-giving this year, and some are pursuing seasonal work and leaving paid days on the table for the sake of making money. Fortunately, there are several no-cost ways to “give back” to your coworkers this holiday season, including:

  • Donating vacation days: Some companies allow employees to transfer vacation days to their colleagues. This is a great option if you have a “use it or lose it” vacation policy at work and have extra days you won’t be able to use or roll over at the end of the year.
  • Bake simple treats for everyone to share and enjoy: Find out some of your coworkers’ favorite goodies and bring them to the office to share. You can even bag them individually so they feel more personal.
  • Take a task off their plate to lighten their load: If you notice a coworker is overwhelmed with work tasks or personal errands, volunteer to help out by taking some on yourself.
  • Give them a handwritten note of thanks for all their support throughout the year: In the digital age of efficiency and convenience, receiving hand-written notes is all too uncommon. Making the effort to write a personal note of appreciation goes a long way in conveying your thanks.

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