Don't get your boss a gift, says Mister Manners, but put on your game face for Secret Santa

Thomas Farley is Mister Manners.
Courtesy Thomas Farley

Americans plan to spend an average total of $35 on holiday gifts for coworkers this year, up from last year's $26, according to the National Retail Federation.

If you're lucky enough to have a great team of coworkers, you might consider them friends or even something like family. But when it comes to gift-giving, think twice before treating them that way and getting everyone a present. That's according to etiquette expert Thomas Farley, aka Mister Manners, whose clients range from JP Morgan Chase to the United States Army. 

"I highly recommend not going down that rabbit hole, to the extent you can avoid it," he says. "It gets very complex, and there is invariably somebody that you're going to leave out, and it can get very expensive." Likewise, he says, don't worry about giving your boss something. Workplace gift exchanges like Secret Santas, though, are a different story.

Here are Farley's top tips for navigating office gifting.

Don't skip the office holiday party, says etiquette expert

Video by Courtney Stith

Should you give presents to everyone you work with?

I so respect the instinct, and the generosity of someone who feels that they are in a workplace that they love and they simply want to give presents to everyone. And even if you are financially able to do so, my concern is you are opening up a Pandora's box and making many of the people you're giving gifts to feel guilty because they don't have presents to give you back.

There is no expectation as a colleague that you are giving to every single member of your team. That responsibility really is on the boss.

Don't feel that you need to be giving a present to the boss. Because frankly, if you give a gift to the boss, especially if it's a pricier one, then the boss is thinking, 'Wow, maybe this person doesn't need such a raise.'

It can also can appear to your colleagues like you're trying to curry favor with the boss and maybe make them look bad because they didn't get a present for the boss.

What kinds of workplace gifts might be inappropriate?

You don't want to give anything too personal. So clothing, for example, could be considered very personal, especially where there's a man and a woman giving a gift to one another. You would not, for example give a tight sweater. I would stick with something that shows a personal touch without being overly intimate or overly personal.

I would also think long and hard about do you give any kind of alcohol, particularly if this person may have had an issue with alcohol in the past.

My concern is you are opening up a Pandora's box and making many of the people you're giving gifts to feel guilty.
Thomas Farley
Mister Manners

So although your motivations may be pure and thoughtful, you may unwittingly be giving a gift that is problematic.

One of my favorite gifts to suggest in a workplace situation is either a beautiful coffee table book on a subject that you know the individual absolutely loves, or if you give a gift card to their favorite store or favorite restaurant for them to then go and enjoy with the people in their lives.

Do you have to participate in Secret Santas or gift exchanges?

You want to be perceived as a team player, as someone who is caught up in the excitement of the good colleagues, and the wonderful job hopefully you've all done throughout the year. So to skip out on a gift exchange where typically the financial barrier of entry is quite low, is going to make you look like someone who just doesn't want to be a part of the team.

Put on your best game face, pick out a fun gift, and make the best of it.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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