Ask Mr. Happy Work – Should I Get My Boss a Gift?

Welcome to another edition of “Ask Mr. Happy Work”, where you ask me questions about work, careers, education, life, (or anything really), and I answer them!

Today’s question is about the topic of buying gifts for your boss at work.  Do you need to buy them a gift?  What should you get them?  What if you really don’t like your boss but everyone else is buying them a gift?  Let’s dive in and talk about it.

Ask Mr. Happy Work – Volume 5

Should I Get My Boss a Gift

Hi Mr. Happy Work,

What are your thoughts about buying a gift for your boss for special occassions such as birthdays, holidays, or other special events?  I’ve seen it done here and there at many of the companies I’ve worked at but the gifts are usually small and gifted because of a true friendship, mentorship, or mutual respect.

Recently however, I’m starting to see gift giving become more of a contest and political game amongst co-workers.  People trying to out do one another for who can get the best gift, or the feeling that you have to gift give (even if you don’t want to) since everyone else is doing it.  For example, the new company I just started working with is trying to get everyone to chip in $10 so they can buy the boss some crazy $300 gift.  I’m not into this idea at all and don’t really want to contribute, but I also feel like I’ll shoot myself in the foot politically by not participating.

So what are your thoughts on all this “get your boss a gift” madness.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

– Reluctant Gift Giver

Hi Reluctant Gift Giver,

Gift giving at work, especially to authority figures, has long been a tradition for many businesses. Buying gifts for the boss has been a way of showing thanks and appreciation for providing the opportunity to work and hold the position they have. A memento of “Thank you for hiring me”.  Likewise, sometimes bosses get their employees gifts, and sometimes it is mutual and gifts are given both ways.

While I would like to say that gift-giving at work is most often done out of friendship, kindness, or mutual benefit, the truth is that the majority of gift-giving is political in nature. If everyone in the office buys the boss a gift except one or two people, one would wonder why exactly those two people did not buy gifts. Perhaps they have personal situations that don’t allow them to buy a gift, but most people will (unfortunately) assume they don’t respect or appreciate their boss. This can lead to some tricky situations for those employees down the road.

Evaluating the Gift-Giving Situation

That’s not to say this is a black or white topic. You have to evaluate the gift-giving situation on a case by case basis. It’s not ALWAYS political. Some companies may not even do gift-giving at work for various reasons. In other cases, gifts may only be given when there is a strong friendship, respect, or appreciation for the person you’re getting the gift for. You do need to look at all the various factors at play.

The first thing I would look at is how gift-giving has been traditionally done at the company you work for. Is gift giving the norm or part of the company culture? Is everyone else (or the majority of people) giving gifts? Are there actual gift-giving days or events (like a Secret Santa)?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then you should join in on the festivities and gift-giving as well. You don’t want to be the odd one out. Isolating or separating yourself from the company culture or group norms at work can be damaging to your reputation at the company. Even if you don’t enjoy the actual activities, it’s worth sucking it up and joining the activity for the sake of the group and building your presence with others in the company. For better or worse, this group association and willingness to participate goes a long way towards success in many careers.

What if gift-giving at work is in more of a gray area? Some people do it, others do not… there isn’t an established tradition or norm for it at the company you work for. In these cases, I recommend looking at your relationship with your boss. If you don’t really know your boss well or feel they aren’t that great of a boss or haven’t treated you well, you don’t need to buy them a gift. Why would you?

On the other hand, if you really appreciate or respect your boss, go ahead and get them a gift! If you think they do a great job or they been a great mentor to you, get them a gift. Gift-giving regardless of the reason is always a nice gesture and that can go a long way to make someone feel special and appreciated.

Guidelines for Gift-Giving at Work

Let’s say you’ve decided to get in on the gift-giving. What is the best way to approach this?

I would first check to see if there was some group gift being organized. Often, employees will all pool together to chip in some money to buy a bigger and better gift for the boss than one person could alone. This means something as small as $5-10 can go a long way when everyone is contributing.

If you’re buying a gift on your own, I have a few guidelines I recommend.

Don’t go overboard. Keep gifts reasonable and modest. There’s no need to go all out and buy some crazy gift for the boss because most times that is seen as showboating and trying to buy the boss’s favor. Don’t be that person! A small gift personalized towards the recipient is great and goes a very long way.

I would also keep gift-giving a private event unless the gift is a group gift or there’s a public event like Secret Santa or birthday party. If you bought an individual gift for your boss, gift it to them in private. Presenting the gift in public, especially around other co-workers, just looks like you’re boasting. Your coworkers will likely not be impressed and probably just feel that you’re being arrogant or showing off! Even once the gift has been given in private, there is really no need to advertise that to others. Be humble and don’t bring up the fact you got the boss a gift unless the conversation comes up naturally.

Lastly, it’s important to be aware of what expectations gift-giving can create for the rest of the office or workplace. A boss that receives a gift one year may start expecting a gift every year. If people know you’re giving the boss an individual gift to the boss every year, others may feel unfairly pressured into doing the same.

This is most important if you’re trying to start a new event around gift-giving or starting up a group gift fund for the boss. How would the other workers in the office feel about this? Does it disrupt the company culture or go against what has traditionally been done? If employees as a whole are not fully on board with the new gift idea or practice, a lot of animosity can be created towards the person starting the new trend. A big divide can be created in the workplace and that is not good. Most importantly, you don’t want to be the person who creates that divide. Make sure to gather full group consensus before starting up a new gift trend or idea.

Some Final Thoughts on Gift-Giving

Gift giving at work can often be a necessity due to the politics of work. If it’s established in the company culture or the majority of people are doing it, it’s likely best you join in as well. Otherwise, if work politics are not dictating the situation, I feel that you can use your discretion to decide whether or not you want to get your boss a gift based on the relationship you have with them.  You may find that some bosses may not even want a gift (though most will still appreciate the gesture).

In the reader’s question specifically, it does seem that gift-giving is the “political norm” at the company. It can be worth further investigating exactly how many people are contributing or if this is a long-standing tradition or a new idea, but it will likely be best for this reader to just chip in their $10 and be on their merry way.

In the end, gift-giving is a nice gesture regardless.  The majority of people will appreciate the gift.  It’s just important to be smart about gift-giving so it doesn’t come across as brown-nosing or showboating.  Take the time to review the situation and the various factors at play.  Be mindful of the company culture, group norms, and politics.  This will allow you to give gifts (or not) knowing you’re making the right choice.  Happy gift-giving!

Yours Truly,
– Mr. Happy Work

Do you have questions about work, careers, education, life, or anything else you want to know?  I want to hear from you!  Send your questions in today!  

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