The potential for awkwardness runs high when it comes to exchanging holiday gifts with coworkers. How much is too much—or too little—to spend? What should you do if you didn’t buy for everyone who bought for you? Is your boss’s hand sticking out just a little too expectantly?
To combat any lingering holiday etiquette questions this season, we’ve come up with 12 rules of office gift-giving—guaranteed to keep holiday gift exchanges pleasant and HR-approved.
1. Know the rules.
Unlike Fight Club, the first rule of office giving is to talk about office giving. Some companies actually prohibit it to fend off favoritism or awkward moments, so if you aren’t sure where yours stands, ask your boss or HR.
Also find out about any official guidelines, says etiquette expert Elaine Swann. Some offices prefer a Secret Santa or white elephant model, both of which involve purchasing one gift vs. enough for the whole staff, while others implement formal spending limits. In which case...
2. Respect prescribed spending limits.
Spending $100 when the stated max is $20 may seem generous to you, but it makes for a lopsided—and, therefore, pretty awkward—exchange, Swann says. Besides, keeping your spending within reason is good for your holiday gifting budget, too.
3. If there aren’t any, try to suss out the sweet spot.
Even when there’s no set limit, it’s still wise to keep a light touch price-wise, says Daniel Post Senning, great-great-grandson of etiquette guru Emily Post and cohost of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. According to Swann, a good rule of thumb is to spend about $25. (Too little, and you’ll be the office Scrooge.)
4. Don’t feel pressured to gift up.
As a general rule, you don’t need to buy a gift for your manager. In fact, it’s possible that doing so would create the impression that you’re trying to buy favor. If you really want to express your appreciation for your boss with a gift, go in with your coworkers on a (reasonably priced) group gift that she’ll love, Swann suggests.
5. Don’t get too personal.
While we want to give meaningful gifts, avoid any presents that could make someone uneasy. This includes clothing—especially items like lingerie (for obvious reasons)—or even lotions, which may irritate the skin or aggravate allergies.
6. Stay away from gag gifts.
“Be careful with humor and things you think are funny, witty or sarcastic, unless you really, really know someone would appreciate it,” Senning says. What’s not funny is hurt feelings because your coworker doesn’t know how to take your gift of a wine glass the size of a wine bottle. And on that note...
7. Avoid passive-aggressive gifts.
Also steer clear of anything that could come off as a not-so-subtle reminder of what you perceive to be people’s faults, Swann says. That means not gifting your sleepy deskmate a coffee maker or giving a fridge locker to that person who emails the entire office every time someone moves his yogurt.
8. When in doubt, stick with more superficial gifts.
When gifting in a professional environment, keep things simple. Candy, candles and even gift cards are okay, Swann says. Small, portable presents—like a keychain bottle of Sriracha or a flavor infuser water bottle—may be especially appreciated by urban commuters (and hot sauce lovers).
9. If exchanging more meaningful gifts with work friends, take it outside.
Most of us spend at least 40 hours a week with coworkers—so, of course, there are some relationships that’ll naturally transcend the workplace. For those friends, it’s okay to give more expensive or personal presents. Just make sure the exchange takes place outside of the office to avoid making others feel left out.
10. Include a gift receipt.
11. When in doubt or short on funds, give the gift of baked goods.
Holiday gifting can definitely add up. So if money’s tight, but you still want to demonstrate your appreciation for your coworkers, never underestimate the power of cookies, brownies or peppermint bark left in the communal kitchen.
12. If you receive a gift from someone you didn’t buy for, accept gratefully.
Despite good intentions, we’ve probably all ended up on the receiving end of a gift we didn’t see coming. Don’t stress—not every gift needs to be reciprocal, but do make sure you accept it well with a heartfelt thank you. “It’s also a great moment to be sure someone’s on your list for next year,” Senning says.