Office Politics

Episode #21: How to Navigate Holiday Gift-Giving at the Office

December 10, 2019

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Episode #21: How to Navigate Holiday Gift-Giving at the Office
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Episode #21: How to Navigate Holiday Gift-Giving at the Office

It’s the holiday season. The calendar is packed with different holidays and reasons to celebrate that serve to remind us that life is pretty darn sweet.

But, sometimes navigating holiday traditions such as gift-giving can get a little tricky, especially in the workplace.

I can’t promise you a drama-free holiday, but I can give you my best answers to common questions about holiday gift-giving at the office.

What can I give that’s thoughtful and inexpensive?

I have two main suggestions for you to pull off a gift that’s a little extra…but doesn’t cost much.

The first is to go the custom-printing route. There are so many ways you can make custom items online that are both cheap and easy. Three sites that I’ve personally used for Real-World Feminist swag are UPrinting, Vistaprint, and Zazzle. You can get customized coffee mugs, journals, stickers, all kinds of stuff on these sites. Shop around and price compare—it’s a highly competitive market and I’ve found that prices and promo codes vary wildly.

Get clever here with printing. Don’t just think names and monograms—think bigger! Do you have a team name, slogan, or better yet running joke? Think of something you could print on the item that will make them smile.

My second suggestion is to tap into pop culture for inspiration. The thing about cool pop culture items is we all tend to love these things, but rarely buy them for ourselves. Are you all binging Schitt’s Creek or the Handmade’s Tale together? Why not find a cool item that reminds you of all of the show and your team spirit? Don’t just go to Amazon. If you search on Etsy, you will find something awesome. Search on “Schitt’s Creek coffee mug” and you will see what I mean.

Do I have to give my boss a gift?

The short answer is no.

Unless your boss has the emotional maturity of Michael Scott on “The Office”, it’s safe to say that he or she is not expecting a gift from you.

If you are working for someone special and you wish to use the holiday season to acknowledge it with a gift, my advice is to keep it small and thoughtful.

You’d be surprised how appreciated a card with a heartfelt note is. Sincere thank you notes are rare, so genuine notes of gratitude are always appreciated.

I manage direct reports. Do I need to give them a gift?

No one needs to do anything when it comes to holiday gifts.

But, I advise you to show your appreciation with some gesture during the holiday season. It could be a team lunch at your favorite pizza joint or a couple of rounds of happy hour drinks.

If you decide to go the gift route, try your best to make it meaningful. If you go a gift card route, know their tastes and interests well enough to customize it to them. If you know they love fly fishing, a gift card from an outdoor shop will be better appreciated than a generic Starbucks or Visa card. Not because of the amount, but because of the extra thought.

Whatever you do, keep it equal! It’s safest to go with one item that would work for all. You don’t need people comparing gifts…or worse yet, price tags.

Can I opt-out of the office Secret Santa gift exchange?

It truly depends on the situation.

The best organizers make it easy to opt-in or out. They’ll send an email saying, “reply to me if you’d like to participate.” In this situation, it’s easy to opt-out. Depending on the phrasing of the email, you can decline or not reply at all. If you decline, keep it simple and polite. No need for excuses; less is more.

But, some organizers make it near impossible to opt-out. Perhaps it’s a small office or group. Perhaps they are happiness bullies. In this situation, the drama is not worth it. Suck it up & spend the 20 bucks.

What should I do if I pull the name of someone I barely know?

Whether you pull a friend’s name or a total stranger’s, treat it the same way. Go all in, and make it count! Make an impression as a thoughtful person who went the extra mile. You may make a new friend out of the move. At the very least, you’ll always be remembered as an awesome person.

I’ll compare two stories from my past.

One year, a co-worker I didn’t know pulled my name. I lived in South Philly at the time; my neighborhood had inspired a new love for Frank Sinatra. My Secret Santa sent me a Sinatra themed holiday e-card a couple of days before the exchange (before memes existed, e-cards were a thing), and gave me one of his classic albums on CD. She didn’t pick a “best of” or popular one I might already have; she went with the well-rated, yet-not-typical pick.

Now, that is called winning the Secret Santa game. That was at least 15 years ago, and it still sticks out in my mind. (Thanks, Donna!)

And then there was another year. When I got 10 dollars of scratch-off lottery tickets. I know this will sound petty AF, but I am not going to make excuses for my 20-something self. I was Pissed (yes, with a capital “P”). That person was dead to me. Honestly, I would have just preferred to be handed 10 bucks—and I spent half of the party saying that to other people.

See it as a chance to make an impression with a person you don’t know. Be like Donna.

I pulled the name of my boss/some big-wig. Do I need to spend more?


The dollar amount is set with intention. They know that there are income differences amongst people in the mix, so the amount is set with that in mind.

No matter who you pick, keep it within the set rules. There is no obligation to go above that amount at all.

By the way, if you pull a big-wig’s name, a small and thoughtful gift is a great way to make an impression with them. Not because of the gift itself, but because of the work and ingenuity, it took to come up with the idea. Don’t dread it—embrace it as a way to get your name known.

Take my advice, and your work gifts will become some of the easier items on your holiday to-do list!

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