Gifting the Un-Giving: Do You Buy Your Boss a Gift?

Some bosses are sensitive mentors you stay friends with years after leaving the job; others, to say the least, are not. I’ve had both—bosses and managers I hated to stop working for, and still keep in touch with, and, now, one I have a hard time tolerating.

Yet, despite the emotional difficulty of working with this man, I’m planning to get him a holiday gift. It looks like I’m not the only one who has to shop for a person (or people) they have no desire to reward with a gift. According to a November 2015 survey conducted by Dr. Paul White, creator of the Toxic Workplace Prevention and Repair Kit, being expected to buy gifts for one’s colleagues or a supervisor, or being required to participate in “Secret Santa” and “white elephant” gift exchanges, top the list for most hated holiday workplace practices.

I would welcome an office Secret Santa pool of gifts with a maximum amount of money tied to it, like $15, so nobody gets carried away. I wouldn’t have to deal with my anger issues that way—the injustice of feeling compelled (even obligated) to spend money on a gift for a person who causes me tremendous grief.

Last summer, my gift problem was solved, without even trying, when, just by luck, I happened upon the perfect gift: a metal corkscrew shaped like a pair of glasses. My full-time job (outside of freelance writing for Training) is as a managing editor for an online optical industry magazine, and my boss is an avid wine drinker, so the corkscrew was perfect. It was also cheap—no more than about $5 from a true emporium of junk located around the corner from my office. I was strolling through the store, which consists mostly of inexpensive merchandise imported from China, when I spotted the corkscrew, and declared to the friend I was with, “Oh, I’ll just get him this.”

If you do decide to abstain from gifting your boss, the tricky part is he or she may still give a gift to you. That’s my situation. No matter how cheap my gift to him, I’m almost guaranteed to get the same thing as always from my boss: a bottle of liquor (though I hardly ever drink, and never alone) and a scarf and mittens, which he purchases with his wife’s employee discount from the accessories manufacturer where she’s an executive. Knowing this is coming, can I really respond by giving him nothing? So, I’ll be back at the emporium this Saturday searching for the “perfect” gift again.

As a manager, what do you think the best gift is for an employee? It’s a little impersonal, and shows that you may not really know the employee, but a Visa gift card for $50 (or $100 if you’re really well off and generous) is hard to beat. If you are a sensitive manager, in touch with your employees, another nice option is to give them a gift card to a particular store aligned with their interests—an interesting local bookstore if you know they love to read; a clothing shop you know they love; or even a gift card for a one-year membership at a museum you know they like to visit.

As a Human Resources or Learning professional, what is your role, if any, in guiding workplace gifting? The first role I can think of is making sure holiday gifting doesn’t turn into holiday harassment by creating activities, parties, or money-spending that employees don’t want to participate in, but feel obligated to go along with. Do you think it ever makes sense to simply make a rule that, other than gifts and bonuses from the company, there should be no gift giving from employee to manager, or vice versa? I think many of us would be relieved if that kind of rule were enacted, and would look forward to a little gift card from the company as a whole.

In addition to gift cards, and individual acknowledgment of the holidays, companies also can gift their employees in the parties they throw. The differential in what your company does for you during the holiday season, and what your friends’ or relatives’ companies do for them during the season, can cause angst.

My sister, for instance, works for a billion-dollar liquor distributor, and the size and prosperity of her company, compared to mine, really shows this time of year. Last weekend, my sister, not meaning any harm, texted me a photo of the room (not the table, the room) at her annual holiday party devoted to desserts. When we had dinner the day after she texted me the photo, she pointed out that, actually, the holiday party as it now exists has been scaled back (so, note that the room of desserts is the scaled-down version). In years past, the company would send, and pay for, town cars to take employees and their dates to the party. Even with all this luxury, my sister, who has a seven-month-old baby, said she and her husband almost didn’t attend. Despite the cushy arrangement, she still found the annual party a chore. That says a lot about whether the holiday party is ever something people look forward to.

Next week, I’ll be attending not my company’s holiday party, but the company “Holiday Happy Hour.” To get us excited, or entice us to attend, it says on the invitation that there will be “drink specials and happy hour pricing.” How indulgent. In other words, we’re expected to pay for our own drinks. In a charitable (or embarrassed) gesture, the managers at our company took up a collection of $20 each to amass a fund of $220 for food to go with our drinks. A work friend told me that, by her calculations, that means if most of us attend the happy hour, we each will get exactly one complimentary slice of pizza.

The truth is, if you have a job that allows you to pay all of your bills, and also provides decent health insurance coverage, you’re lucky this holiday season. My favorite holiday celebration idea? To have a company-wide holiday raffle in which the proceeds go to a charity such as Toys for Tots. Or maybe instead of money, the entry ticket to the raffle is the donation of child’s gift. Then, when the drawing of the raffle takes place, the company can offer something as simple as Christmas (or should I say holiday?) cookies and eggnog (spiked and plain) with seasonal music playing. What do you think?

How is your company celebrating the holidays this year? Do you give managers and employees any guidelines on gift giving? Did you have a holiday party this year? What was it like? Is there anything you would like to do differently next year?

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