As we enter the season of holiday gift-giving, employees are showing each other appreciation for the year’s work through gift exchanges. In a 2018 survey from staffing firm Robert Half, more than half of the 2,800 workers surveyed said they gave presents to colleagues and 35% gave one to their boss.
But should we be giving gifts to our superiors?
A gift to a boss is not just a gift — it carries loaded meaning when you pay for a gift for someone who has influence over your career. “Obviously your boss has a lot of power over you and privilege and clout. It’s very strange and potentially awkward to give a gift at work,” said Lara Hogan, author of “Resilient Management” and the former vice president of engineering at Kickstarter.
Don’t feel pressure to buy your boss a gift.
Hogan said Ask A Manager’s Alison Green has informed her thinking on this. Green is firmly against this gift-giving practice because it goes against the power dynamic of the boss-employee relationship. “Gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward. That means gifts from bosses to employees are fine, but employees should not be expected to give gifts to those above them,” Green wrote in 2014.
Managers should not be financially benefiting from their relationship with you. “You’re the person that’s making less money presumably than the person who is one level above you,” said Cynthia Pong, the founder of Embrace Change, a coaching firm that helps women of color to transition in their careers. “It strikes me as weird that the person one level below would have to expend money, which is scarcer for them, for someone who is making more.”
And it also benefits you to not be setting the precedent of giving a gift to a superior. Consider the optics, Pong said: “You don’t want it to look you’re trying to low-key bribe your boss to be nicer to you or give you something that’s a benefit relative to the other people at your level.”
The best holiday gift for a boss is thoughtful feedback.
If you want to show appreciation for a boss who has been in your corner this year, you can do it for free without the hang-ups of buying them a gift.
Reflect on your working relationship and write them a short, sweet and specific note or a short email describing how they helped you and why you appreciate it, Hogan suggested. It should be short and thoughtful as, “Hey this one thing, it made x, y and z impact on me,” Hogan said. “Who doesn’t love specific and actionable positive feedback?”
You want to be cognizant of the length and tone of your note to keep it professional. Don’t pour out your feelings. “If you write them a long, sentimental letter, they may be uncomfortable with how to respond because it’s inappropriate for them to match that same tone,” Hogan said. “A short and sweet note requires nothing more than a simple thank you, and that is also the gift you are giving them.”
Can bosses join Secret Santas? It depends on how many bosses are participating.
Group gift exchanges like Secret Santa and White Elephant are popular in some work cultures. When in doubt about gift-giving policies, ask around for what is normal, because it’s situational. “Gift-giving depends on the company culture, dynamics, the vibes of the working relationship between the two people, and the larger context around it,” Pong said.
Hogan said to observe whether leadership is participating before the boss joins the staff gift exchange.
“If it’s just non-managers, non-leaders participating, do not be the boss that opts to participate,” Hogan said. “If someone is gifting you a Secret Santa [gift], especially if they directly report to you, that falls into the same awkward awful trap that we want to avoid.”
If you’re a manager, Hogan said it is your responsibility to make sure these group gift activities are opt-in and no one feels pressure to give gifts, period. “If you are participating in any way, make sure that you are lending your voice to make it as inclusive as possible for everyone.” Ways to be inclusive include setting a limit on spending that is as “low as humanly possible” and including remote employees, Hogan said.
Above all, don’t force an office gift exchange — that may be the greatest gift of all for an employee. “Be mindful of the means of people around you and their comfort level,” Pong said. “This time of year can get really awkward for certain people.”