The Worst Holiday Gifts Employees Have Ever Received (And How To Do Better)

A book on how to improve work performance is not the way to go. Here's how to nail a gift for a colleague.
Don't project what you think your co-worker wants.
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Don't project what you think your co-worker wants.

If you’re receiving a gift from colleagues or your company this holiday season, opening that present may reveal an unpleasant surprise.

And if you have ever faked the enthusiasm of “uh...thanks?” to a thoughtless, weird, inappropriate gift at the office, know that you are not alone. Nearly 90% of employees said they have faked a positive reaction to a gift they received from employers, according to an October survey of more than 1,000 U.S. employees conducted by corporate gifting platform Snappy.

Please don’t give employees tickets to your son’s little league.

In the survey responses, employees got real about some of the worst gifts they have received from employers. These poorly received presents included:

  • A book on how to be better at your job
  • Season tickets to the CEO’s son’s little league
  • Melted chocolate coins
  • Old stale cookies
  • Deli meat
  • A seat belt cutter
  • Quail from a boss’s hunting trip
  • Company logo junk
  • Plaque
  • Lanyard

Cue the forced smiles of gratitude. Any gift related to work advice is bad because it has an implicit judgment about performance behind it.

If there’s a performance improvement needed with someone, give that book separate and apart from the holiday season, so it doesn’t have the implication, ‘I’m not doing something right,’” said Amy Polefrone, the CEO of HR Strategy Group.

Gifts with the company logo are impersonal, and largely unwanted ― 72% of workers in the Snappy survey said they would prefer not to receive a present that includes such an embelm. “Corporate-branded materials, those are really designed for marketing purposes. Set those aside when it come to holiday gift-giving,” Polefrone said.

Jeff Galak, an associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched the social psychology of gift-giving, said thoughtfulness is a key component in whether a recipient appreciates a gift.

“When the gift appears to be thoughtless, like a mug with the logo of your company, it doesn’t even meet the very minimum expectations that exist in an office exchange,” he said.

Giving a gift centered around work also defeats the point of an office gift exchange that is “meant to be a distraction from work, not a reminder of it,” Galak said.

How to be better at giving gifts to your colleagues

Don’t force it. Let’s be clear: No person should be obligated to buy a colleague a gift, and unless your boss is participating in a gift exchange, you should not buy your boss a gift at all. That can be seen as currying favor. What you can do for your boss is write them a note of specific positive feedback as appreciation for the year’s work.

Bosses should make it clear that gift exchanges are opt-in activities with low price barriers to entry. If you want a humorous example of why rules are needed, consider the “Christmas Party” episode of “The Office.” Terrible boss Michael goes above the $20 limit that was set and buys an iPod, then suddenly changes the exchange from a Secret Santa in which participants get a gift for one specific person to a Yankee Swap, in which people can pick and swap for gifts. The festive celebration becomes a competition, and the change of rules unleashes chaos among Michael’s staff as they compete to get the iPod.

Ask what your colleague wants (or ask their work friend). Galak said asking someone directly what they want as a gift is “super taboo,” but his research has found that recipients are not seeking the drama of a big reveal moment.
“We refuse to ask them what they want, because we think we’re compromising our gift-giving. And that’s a huge error,” he said.

The best gifts turn out to be the ones that we actually can use. In a 2016 study Galak conducted with colleagues Julian Givi and Elanor F. Williams, he found that gift-givers focus on the moment of the reveal, while recipients actually prize a gift that is useful and versatile.

“Givers are thinking about the moment that recipient opens the present and looks at it, how big a smile are they going to have on their face,” Galak said. “Recipients don’t care about that. That’s a one-second moment in their experience, whereas their use of the gift has a much greater influence on whether they like that thing.”

To find a gift that is useful, you need to find out what your colleague wants. If you don’t know someone that well, “Don’t project what you would like. Go with something that they might be able to use, like a Target gift card,” Polefrone said, citing boxes of chocolate, coffee shop gift cards and a pair of movie tickets as other options.

Galak said asking around the office is a good idea if you have no idea what to get a co-worker you drew in the Secret Santa. “Givers think if they ask for help, it somehow makes their gift less thoughtful. ‘They should’ve known you so well that they could figure it out on their own,’” he said is a common thought. But he added, “Most people don’t know each other that well, and asking for help is great.”

Use all the hints you can get. On online gift exchange tool Elfster, for example, you can put items on a wish list as hints for the secret gift-giver. Take advantage of those sites. Galak, who has personally participated in Reddit’s gift exchanges with strangers, said he has always gotten his recipient exactly what they ask for and the response has been “universally positive."

If you’re a manager, your gift can be time or an experience. Of course, you also do not have to get a physical gift if you’re a manager wanting to show appreciation for your team. Try hosting a potluck meal or take your team out to lunch for the holidays, suggested Polefrone. “People really do better and they feel appreciated when they get a chance to know people outside of the office,” she said.

Or maybe try giving your team back their personal time if you are a manager with that power. “The older I get, the more I love the gift of time,” Polefrone said. “Let people leave early for the day. That’s really memorable.”

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