Should gifts for your boss be on your holiday shopping list?

Holiday gift-giving is something you enjoy doing, but in the workplace, it can make for some awkwardness and uncertainty, especially when it comes to your boss.

Should gifts for your boss be on your holiday shopping list?

Don't exchange office gifts before reading this first.

Tis the season for stressing over this time-honored conundrum: Gifts for your boss. First of all, should you even get your boss a gift? And if so, what kind of gift is considered appropriate? And—more important—what isn’t?

In a recent survey from staffing firm Accountemps, the majority of human resources managers (58%) said it’s perfectly acceptable for employees to give their boss a gift.

But since every workplace culture is different, what’s most important is for you to get a feel for what’s acceptable concerning office gifts in your organization, says Kate Zabriskie, founder and CEO of Business Training Works, Inc., career coach and etiquette expert. “The sooner you can find out what the procedure is in your workplace, the better,” she says. If this is your first holiday on the job, be proactive and ask around.

You might very well find that the company has a policy of no gift giving, which will make your life all the more easier. However, if you are in a culture where people do exchange gifts, you don’t want to be the accidental grinch who doesn’t participate.

Get out the nondenominational wrapping paper, and check out our general guidelines to help prevent you from making a festive faux pas, as well as suggestions for gifts for your boss that won’t get you any uncomfortable looks.

Don’t spend too much on office gifts

According to the Accountemps survey, HR managers recommend that employees should spend somewhere in the ballpark of $20 on gifts for bosses. That way, it won’t come across like you’re giving them a luxury item to score points, but you’re still acknowledging them at holiday time. But again—take your cues from the norms of the office.

Consider what the boss likes outside of work

Gifts that reflect something you know about the person’s interests or hobbies can be a big hit—Zabriskie once had special honey shipped to a client who she knew kept bees—so think along those lines. For instance, if your boss loves to travel, has an affinity for a particular sports team, loves different types of teas, or is a Star Wars buff, gifts that align with those interests might be a good fit.

Watch out for anything that could be deemed off-color or send the wrong message

Any gift with a possible sexual, political, or religious overtone is an automatic no, says Zabriskie. “Even if you think you’re aligned with this person politically, for example, it’s the kind of thing that can backfire on you.”

Along those lines, be careful about gag gifts that could cross HR lines or be offensive to others. Even such seemingly innocent gifts could go wrong.

When Teresa Rose of North Carolina purchased a gift set from a shaving company for her boss, she was sure that he would love it. “On gift day, he happened to have some scruff on his face, so the first thing he said when he opened it was ‘Are you telling me I need to shave?’” says Rose. While he was most likely just joking, she was still embarrassed by the remark, and it caused her to second-guess her gift-giving judgement.

A good rule of thumb: Be careful about personal grooming or appearance-related gifts.

Manage your own expectations

As they say, it’s the thought that counts, so you have to resign yourself to the fact that you can’t control what your boss might do with your gift. “I gave my old boss an expensive bottle of cognac. He never opened it, and then a couple of months later, I watched him give it away as a gift,” says Carol Curry, a Staten Island business owner who used to work in finance. (Another good rule of thumb: When it comes to alcohol, unless you know for a fact that your boss loves craft beer or a particular liquor, you could be treading into tricky territory, Zabriskie says.) 

While that can be frustrating to see, try not to take it to heart. “You’re not walking in that person’s body,” Zabriskie says, “so you can’t expect them to wear or use a gift in front of you.” It’s also a reason why gifts like clothing, perfume, or jewelry can be iffy, since you don’t want your boss to feel obligated to use something that isn’t their taste.

Safe gifts for your boss

Now that you have an idea of gifts to avoid, here are some safe shopping selections if you’re stumped:

  • Food. “Consumables are great,” says Zabriskie, especially because they won’t amount to more “stuff” that the person doesn’t really need, like another paper weight. Treats (chocolates, baked goods, etc.) that your boss can enjoy or share with family and friends are usually a good bet.
  • Group gifts. Ask early on if it’s customary for your workplace to take up a collection for the boss. That can save you the trouble of having to shop on your own. 
  • A donation in their name. “If you know your boss is active in a particular charity, that’s a great gift,” says Zabriskie.
  • A heartfelt written holiday greeting. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong by just wishing your boss a wonderful holiday and thanking them for a great year.

Get some reassurance

Knowing what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace seems like it should be a no-brainer. But don’t risk it. Want some help staying off the naughty list? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you’ll get career advice, job search tips, and much more sent straight to your inbox to help prevent you from making a well-meaning but poorly received gesture that could embarrass you for years to come. We can’t promise that we’ll save you from every cringe-worthy workplace gaffe, of course, but we’ll do our best to warn you. Think of it as our gift to you.