Should You Buy a Holiday Gift For Your Boss? My Answer Is No — Here’s Why

Coworkers exchanging gifts


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Taylor Tobin1.84k
June 19, 2024 at 11:49AM UTC

With the holiday season fast-approaching, employees and employers may soon find themselves juggling any number of seasonal workplace traditions, like office holiday parties, charity drives, and the eternal question: “Who do I need to buy presents for at work?”

The answer to this quandary will inevitably based on your office culture. Some employees swap gifts with only their close work pals, some office managers arrange large-scale gift exchanges, some companies provide holiday bonuses, and some bosses like to offer their reports personal gifts as a token of appreciation. 

But regardless of your specific office norms surrounding holiday gifts, there’s one rule that deserves universal acceptance: employees should not give presents to their bosses. Why? Read on to find out...

The power dynamic between a supervisor and her employees means that gifts should always “flow downwards”.

According to workplace expert Alison Green of Ask a Manager, “etiquette says that gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward -- meaning that gifts from bosses to employees are fine, but employees shouldn't give gifts to those above them.” This dynamic comes from the power differential between employers and their reports; if you feel an obligation to buy a present for the person who assigns and evaluates your workload, then there’s an inherent pressure to impress, which may lead to overspending on the employee’s part and will always result in a manager inappropriately benefiting from her position atop the power totem pole. 

For a good manager, excellent work and strong motivation from her reports should be gift enough.

We’ve all heard stories of employees feeling pressured to contribute cash to their boss’s holiday gift or to come up with something unique and meaningful all on their own. But here’s the thing: for a good boss, your commitment to your work, your reliability, and your consistently-strong performance is all the gift they need.

If your boss has an obvious expectation of a present purchased by her employees, that reflects poorly on her, explains management consultant Aubrey Daniels: “If the boss expects [a gift], s/he is a bad boss to begin with and a gift may act as a positive reinforcer for bad boss behavior. [Also,] if a gift affects the boss’ behavior toward you, it is not a healthy work situation for you or the boss.”

In the case of an office-wide gift exchange in which the boss participates, stay within the exchange’s normal rules and boundaries.

Some workplaces do office-arranged gift swaps, like a White Elephant grab at the holiday party or coworker “Secret Santas”. And, in certain circumstances, the boss also participates in these exchanges. Assuming that your boss is a reasonable human being (and not a Michael Scott-esque gift exchange saboteur), it’s best to remain within the established boundaries of the gift swap, even if you’re assigned your boss as a giftee. If the defined spending limit is $20, cap your gift budget at that amount and handle your shopping as you would when picking a present for any other colleague. 

Bottom line: the boss shouldn’t benefit disproportionately from any type of holiday gifting in the workplace.


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