Holiday gift-giving in the workplace: An insider's guide

By Brian O'Connell/MainStreet

Americans are busy enough without having to worry about shopping for gifts for co-workers and managers, but many still have to take the plunge anyway.

While companies are easing up on mandates on holiday gift-giving, 45 percent of U.S. workers say they give their office peers a gift during the holiday season, and 56 percent spend more than $20 doing so.

If you're planning on popping a present down on someone's desk at work this year, take some measured steps first, and focus on appropriateness, budget and creativity to maximize the office gift-giving experience, workplace etiquette experts say.

"The holiday time of year can be difficult when trying to figure out what kinds of gifts to give to your clients, your coworkers, your boss, and/or your employees," says Kim Zoller, a partner at Imagine Dynamics, a professional training and coaching firm in Dallas.

Giving a gift at the holidays is a chance to say thanks, says Kerry Preston, Zoller's partner at Image Dynamics, and co-author with Zoller of the book You Did What? The Biggest Mistakes Professionals Make. "It's not important to give something overly substantial in order for the gift to be appreciated," Preston says.

To get over the hump and do the job right, Zoller and Preston offer some concrete tips on holiday gift giving -- in the office and outside of it.

If you're buying a present for a business client, check your clients' policy on receiving gifts, Zoller says. "If there are no restrictions, select a personalized gift that is going to say 'thank you,'" Zoller says. Around $25 to $100 is an appropriate range that will be determined by the amount of business your client does with you, she adds.

"Make sure that you do not give them something that is going to embarrass them or make them feel obligated in any way," she says.

A charitable donation or a gift with your company's logo are "wonderful" and "popular" gestures, Preston adds. Just make sure you choose a gift that "won't be offensive to anyone." In many cases, restaurant gift cards fit that bill, too.

For co-workers, scale the budget down to between $15 and $25, and make sure to take care of any valued assistants, who don't make as much in salary and who would really appreciate a gift from you. Again, gift cards are a great idea, as are food and fruit baskets, even if they are less personal, Zoller and Preston say.

For co-workers at your own peer level, something professional, like stationary or a tie (for men), is completely appropriate. If you know the recipient well, a bottle of wine or some good cigars are good ideas, too.

Other experts advise knowing what is inappropriate, too.

"Keep gift-giving appropriate within the realm of the relationship," says April Masini, a relationship and etiquette experts based in New York City. "For instance, lingerie is not an appropriate gift for your boss. Nor is perfume or jewelry. A simple rule of thumb is, if it can be worn or if it's sprayed or rubbed on the body, like moisturizer or cologne, it's too personal for your boss or your colleagues. The meaning may be misconstrued as too personal and beyond the scope of a professional relationship. A book, a chess set, or a food product is perfect."

It's actually O.K. to give a gift that is personal, if you want to simply say "thank you" to a boss or co-worker.

"For Christmas, I give my direct supervisor and our chief executive officer a bottle of Veuve Cliquot," says John Glynn, a publicist at the James Agency in Scottsdale, Ariz. "It generally costs me $100 total. It's a small way for me to say thank you for letting me have a job I love at a place I like coming to everyday."

"I don't give it to them at the office Christmas party or in front of other employees," Glynn adds. "I simply write a nice note and go in their office and give it to them discretely. I don't want to make others in the office who may have a tighter budget than I do feel bad. And I don't want anyone to think I'm sucking up to them. But I want them to know that I appreciate them and the opportunity I'm given."

Some business professionals advise "threading the needle" with a gift that balances the professional with the personal. "Find gifts that are at the intersection of personal detail but with a professional use," advises Mishri Someshwar, an associate vice president with The National Society of Collegiate Scholars "For example, I had a manager who loved personalized stationery, so we got her a personalized Moleskine. She could use it at work, but she loved that it was personal to her."

You also can't go wrong with gift cards to Starbucks or a frozen yogurt place, Someshwar adds. "Depending on your industry and line of work, you can decide on the amount," Someshwar says. "Here in nonprofit association land, $25 is plenty."

Finding the right holiday gift in the workplace is tricky business. To get it right, find a good balance, don't overspend, and stay focused on keeping things professional. Do that, and your holiday gift giving at work should be an enjoyable experience.