Gift-giving at work: Do’s and don’ts

Flummoxed by the peach-scented candle you received as a holiday gift from a co-worker? You must not be a “Saturday Night Live” watcher. The hunk of wax was the thoughtless gift in a recent skit that hilariously captured the dread that can accompany trying to figure out what, if anything, to purchase for bosses, co-workers and clients.

Many people already struggle to find gifts for those they know well, like a spouse or best friend. So the idea of picking a present for someone they’re not especially close to can create a whole new type of holiday stress. And that anxiety multiplies as these nervous shoppers realize they must navigate their colleagues’ different faiths and cultures to ensure any token is appropriate.

Then there’s the whole the question about whether you’re even supposed to show up with a package, or two or 10.

Relax. You don’t need to call in sick for the second half of December. Office-giving guidelines can help you avoid potential pitfalls. Even better, take solace in knowing that presents given in a professional setting are supposed to be rather generic.

“Think safe,” said Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, which specializes in executive leadership and business etiquette training. “But do put some thought into the gift.”

The top rule is to not give anyone anything that’s too personal. In general, that means anything that touches someone’s body should be avoided. Sweaters, shirts, jewelry, even scarfs are big no-nos. Perfumes and lotions are also a bad idea. Not only do they touch body, many people are very sensitive to scents.

That sensitivity also bars products like aromatic reed diffusers and yes, candles from consideration. It’s also best is best to avoid gag gifts. (unless it’s a certain joke for a SNL fan). They’re never as funny as them seem and can be misconstrued.

What can you buy? One reason so many people gain weight during the holidays is that food is a safe bet. Most people will appreciate a box of candy or cookies. Liquor is also acceptable unless you know the recipient doesn’t drink alcohol. Gift cards are also a universally good idea.

Even within those limitations, it’s still possible to give a gift that shows some effort went into its selection. When giving candy, why not buy the kind you know is your colleague’s favorite? Know that your wine-drinking boss loves pinot noir? Ask for a recommendation at a well-stocked liquor store.

A gift card to a sporting goods store probably doesn’t make sense for your nonathletic colleague, though the avid reader would likely adore a rectangle of plastic good for a few new best-sellers at a bookstore. Drugstores and other retailers carry a wide variety of gift cards, so it’s easy to pick up those that reflect your colleagues’ interests all at the same time.

Make sure that whatever you give is nicely presented and accompanied by a hand-written note, said Gottsman. That will go a long way to making the gift more personal.

However, the issue of whether you should even give gifts and to whom you should give them are trickier matters than selecting presents because so much of that depends on a company’s culture. Check to see if your employer has any guidelines or rules about the issue.

If not, here are a few standards to keep in mind during the holidays. In general, gifts flow down, so there’s no reason to feel compelled to buy your boss a gift. However, it’s fine to give a small sign of your appreciation. Gottsman suggested asking colleagues if they would like to join together to purchase something as a group.

If you work on a team, it’s unprofessional -- and just not very nice -- to bestow presents to only a few select members, unless you do it outside the office. If you get an unexpected gift, don’t feel obligated to reciprocate. A simple thank you is enough. Still, some people do keep boxes of cookies or candy in their desk for those awkward moments.

One way to avoid the issues of gifts between colleagues is organize a Secret Santa or grab bag. In those cases, be sure to stick to any agreed-upon price limit. Don’t show off by spending $50 when the target was $15. It will make everyone uncomfortable.

And unless you really have personal beliefs or financial issues that keep you from participating, join in even though the last thing you need is another box of cookies. “It shows team spirit,” said Gottsman. “You don’t want to look like the Grinch.”