Dear Life Matters,
I am unsure of how to handle the holidays and gift giving at work. I joined my current company in June so I have only spent a few months getting to know my co-workers and have not yet experienced the holiday season with this new group. I have heard from others that some people in the office bring in gifts for others and today I received my first gift from one of my colleagues. I was surprised as I do not know this person as well as others in the office, but now I am worried about whether or not I should return the favor with a gift and how many other people in the office might exchange gifts. What should I do?
Dear Worried Gifter,
The holiday season is meant to be a time of celebration and joy, but having uncertainty about how to handle gift giving can definitely get in the way. Holidays are experienced differently at everyone office so unfortunately there is probably not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some companies have formal policies about how to handle the festive season and other times the hidden cliques within the office become more apparent during the season of giving. While there is not one full-proof way to handle this dilemma, I hope that the suggestions below might give you an idea of how to celebrate the holidays with your new team.
Start by asking a trusted colleague for advice. Find someone who you think might be more neutral on the gift giving topic and find out what their strategy is. Ask questions to find out the history and politics of gift giving in the office and how they personally navigate this time of year. While each person may have a different way of handling gift giving, determining what others do and how they view gifts might help you assess the situation.
Consider sharing a few ideas about how the office can come together to celebrate and share gifts in a more organized way. For instance, a structured gift exchange like themed giving (i.e. all team members bring an outdoor activity item under $10) or a white elephant exchange (bring something nice that you no longer use at home). These activities can help bring the group together and the exchange can be more like a game than who is giving what. If your office mates are more giving-focused, consider suggesting a charity-focused gift exchange.
This could be a process where each person picks a name out of a hat and gives a small donation in honor of that person to a charity they care about. Alternatively, you could explore purchasing a toy that you believe that person might have enjoyed as a child and after the celebration donate the items to a charity toy drive.
If it is not the right time or place to make suggestions about new gifting ideas, consider a gift that everyone in the office can enjoy. Perhaps bringing in a gift basket filled with treats along with a note from you wishing each person a happy new year would be an easy way to show your colleagues that you appreciate them without having to go out and purchase a gift for each team member. If you’d like to make your approach more personal consider writing an individual note to each team member and handing them out in person while letting them know that there is a gift for everyone in the lunch room.
Finally, if you do feel obligated to provide an individual gift, but you are unsure how to plan, consider purchasing gift cards to a retailer that you frequent. Have the cards ready to go in your desk drawer in the event that you receive an unexpected gift. If at the end of the season you still have gift cards left you can use them during the year for your regular shopping trips.
Good luck and have a wonderful holiday season!
Katrina Davy is a Santa Monica-based professional career counselor who holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Visit her at http://www.kdcareer.com. Got something on your mind? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters!