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What to get your boss for a holiday gift

4 min read


If you Google “gift ideas for your boss,” you will find pages of results, mostly from companies that sell gifts.

However, if you search “should I get a holiday gift for my boss,” the consensus answers seems to be “absolutely not!”

At least according to Miss Manners (Judith Martin), Emily Post, Ask a Manager (Alison Green), and the Evil HR Lady herself (Suzanne Lucas), all very credible workplace etiquette experts. They say it’s either blatant sucking up, or could at least give the appearance of sucking up. Holiday office gifts should be given “down” but not “up.”

On the other end of the boss gift giving continuum, you find holiday gifts that will impress your boss. While I think the idea of giving a holiday gift to impress your boss is pretty slimy, I have to give the author credit for being transparent.

Where do I stand on the issue of holiday gift giving for the boss? Somewhere very close to the “don’t, it’s poor office etiquette”, but perhaps not that extreme.

Yes, I think it’s never appropriate to give your boss anything too expensive, but I can come up with a few thoughtful, inexpensive ideas that would be appreciated without crossing the line into sucking-up territory.



Here are a few guidelines and ideas for boss holiday gift-giving:

  1. Never spend any more on your boss than you are spending on your co-workers.
  2. If you are a boss yourself, always spend less on your boss than you spend on your own employees.
  3. Stay away from gifts that are too personal or intimate, i.e., nothing that you would buy your spouse or significant other.
  4. DO NOT fall prey to most of the crap on lists like this. No, thank-you, but I really don’t need a Dachshund letter organizer or a desktop skee-ball machine.
  5. Stay away from self-help books, like “How to be a Better Leader”. The boss may think you are sending a message.
  6. While a small, work-related framed picture is sometimes a good idea, a framed picture of yourself is creepy. I would also avoid a picture of you and your boss with your arms around each other. That just might make your co-workers a bit uncomfortable the next time they are in your boss’s office getting reprimanded for something and you’re staring back at them being hugged by your boss.
  7. Homemade goodies are definitely OK. Everyone loves Christmas cookies, including this boss. A small plate, not a gift basket that takes up the entire desk.
  8. A nice pen would be OK, especially if you’ve noticed that your boss favors a certain type of pen.
  9. Anything “Dilbert.” Good bosses don’t take themselves too seriously.
  10. Something with an inspirational leadership quote. Even better if you’ve heard your boss mention the quote.
  11. A card, with a nice note.
  12. Group gifts: What about the group gift from “all of us”? Some would say that a group gift is a way to work around the appearance of sucking up. However, the group gift can also be fraught. First, if you are the organizer, your co-workers may see you as sucking up. Plus, you now not only have to find a gift that you hope your boss with like, but you also have to please all of your co-workers.

Then, who decides how much to chip in? This person just started a new job and was asked to chip in $100! While $100 may seem ludicrous to some, it must have sounded reasonable to someone. If this ever happens to you, and you either think it’s too much to spend or you just don’t want to chip in, you can always quote me or any of my sources and say “no thank-you, it’s not considered proper office adequate.” And if you are the organizer, please don’t get cute and leave names off the card of those that didn’t chip in.

Good luck, and please don’t forget to count your blessings and have a wonderful holidays!

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of About.com. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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