Etiquette Hell or Gift Giving at the Office

Mary Kelly —  December 12, 2016 — 2 Comments

unwanted-christmas-presents-ebay-sell-gumtreeI am usually the designated Scrooge on a library staff. I don’t want to do extra work or pay for extras just for holiday giggles. You can read my post on this here. But to continue the holiday hell theme, I would like to talk about gifts between staff and bosses. For bosses, this is tricky. Maybe you do appreciate your staff and want to do something for them. Your heart is in the right place, but this has the potential to become a big problem. Please, do yourself a favor and read my absolute favorite author and spiritual inspiration on all things managerial: Alison Green’s Ask a Manager . Read it even if you are NOT a manager. It’s good advice for anyone. Every year, she has a discussion on all sorts of holiday related issues, including gifts!

The general rule is that gifts flow downward, as in from boss to staff. Staff should never gift up the chain of command. Even without meaning to, you can invariably cause another employee to feel pressured to give. Both in and out of libraries, this has happened to me and so many of my colleagues that I think our office culture really needs to make this clear even to the extent of creating a policy. Library people are particularly vulnerable to this practice as it can prey on our service-oriented mindset.

My most egregious example is of a boss that suggested that I make a donation to the library for the holiday season as a personal gesture. First thought: I have a personal gesture for you right here! Second thought: Is this optional? I mean really optional. Many (perhaps even “most”) employees will view this as a professional request and not optional. Even if the boss says “volunteers only,” employees will naturally feel that it really isn’t voluntary – or if it is, you will hold it against me later if I do not volunteer. My daughter refers to this office dynamic as being “volun-told.”

It isn’t just holiday time that we need to be concerned about how we solicit participation or money. I have been in places that want everyone to kick in for flowers or a gift from the staff. Again, the pressure to participate needs to be held in check. If the organization wants to do something like send flowers for a funeral or a baby shower, then the organization should be paying for it. Bosses can provide information for employees if they want to participate individually. I had a co-worker long ago tell me that she felt pressure to pony up for a retirement gift, and she had been employed by the organization for less than a week. She didn’t even know the retiree in question.

As a working person since the 1970s, I am here to tell you that I have personally bought more popcorn, candy, t-shirts, hats, candles, crafts, Girl Scout cookies (ok, that one I don’t mind as much), and assorted other overpriced detritus from various organizations to show support. In reality, I do support these efforts,but I do it off the clock or through my own volunteer work. What I don’t appreciate is the boss walking up to each employee with an order form for ugly candles so his kid can win a band trip. Even if you don’t think that is a problem in your office, just assume it is and clarify to everyone.

So before you think I am a giant party pooper, I have also had the pleasure of working in offices where a boss would absolutely die before asking for a donation for anything. I have seen offices that any giving is voluntary: A piggy bank in the break room, a sign-up sheet for cookies. No discussions. No pressure. Participate or don’t. Gifts are an etiquette minefield and are intended to be positive for both the giver and receiver. Let’s just make sure that happens by eliminating any possible perceived pressures.

Mary Kelly


Co-founder of and library utility player. Lover of: library data, spreadsheets, collection quality, cats and cardigans. Follow me on twitter @librarymary40

2 responses to Etiquette Hell or Gift Giving at the Office


    Some great observations! I will comment though, that I love to give my supervisor a very small “thanks” gift during the holidays, delivered so that colleagues aren’t aware the gift was given. (The “gift” is usually something like a few pieces of candy, for example; more of a gesture gift.) I feel this has been appropriated since I’ve been fortunate to have supervisors with whom I can be friendly with, while keeping the professional relationship, as well as the supervisor/supervisee dynamic, strong. I’ll sometimes joke that “I’m taking off my employee had for a moment,” when we talk.

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