Holiday gifting in the workplace and how to do it thoughtfully

Something happens to time as soon as September hits. No sooner are children boarding the bus for their first day of school then – bam! – it’s the holiday season! Retailers and manufacturers can barely contain themselves. The moment Halloween goods are cleared from shelves Christmas trees, Santa hats, gift wrap, ribbons and all manner of festive holiday goods are there to replace them. Despite retailers’ extreme preparedness, more than a few of us join the holiday fray in December, last minute buying frenzy be damned. Whatever your nationality or religion, it’s hard not to get swept up in the hustle and bustle of buying presents.

This is equally true in the workplace. Unless you’re a newbie, you’ve been through a holiday season or two with your organization, so you know how they do things. Perhaps management uses this time of year to dole out bonuses, if they still do that at all. Maybe departments do their own thing or everyone comes together for a company party, with partners or without. Holiday festivities are often the first things to go in an economic downturn or when a company is struggling. So bringing back the party is a positive sign.

Regardless of how or to what degree your organization marks the season, it’s a time for bringing people together. After all, it’s the end of one year and the beginning of another, a time when the world seems to take a collective breath and step back from whatever precipice it’s teetering on even if briefly. There’s no better time for reflection of what was and anticipation for what could be.

Here are some suggestions for how your team, department or organization can think about marking the season and exchanging gifts, what those gifts might be and how to bestow them with sensitivity, thought, and most importantly, heart.

holiday gifts for the office gifts for work

Decide how your team will mark the season.

Have you historically exchanged gifts? Instead of purchasing something for everyone, do what many organizations do: promote a ‘Secret Santa’ idea, where team members draw names and purchase a gift for that person. Everyone gets something and no one’s on the hook for mass purchasing.

Concerned about the office politics of assigning gift buying for specific people? Gift pools are also becoming popular. Everyone buys a unisex gift, which is thrown under the tree. Everyone who bought a gift gets to pick a gift at random, and voila: instant festivity with no name coordinating!

Whatever you decide to do to celebrate the season, the sooner you solidify office holiday plans, the better. Everyone has holiday responsibilities and plans galore, so give your team plenty of time to figure out what needs to be bought, wrapped, baked, decorated or planned for!

Let people know what you want.

You may be close to your coworkers but there are still things you don’t – and probably shouldn’t – know about each other. When you’re writing your name on paper for the draw, include suggestions for a gift. Would you prefer a gift card? If so, for what? No sense getting someone a coupon for liquor if they don’t drink or spending your hard earned dollars on something that’s going to be re-gifted or end up in a garage sale.

Set a spending limit. 

It’s harder and harder to find appropriate gifts without spending a lot of money, something no-one has lots of, especially during the gift-giving season. Make your limit reasonable and make sure everyone’s ok with the amount ($10-50 is a good standard to work within). Be considerate; what’s pocket change for some may be grocery money for others. Be respectful if someone says the budget is too much. 

Think about alternate ways to mark the season.

Suggest that as a group you volunteer at the food bank or homeless shelter. Or pool the money you would have spent on gifts and make a team donation to a charity that resonates. Most organizations have philanthropic and community service initiatives and their HR departments are receptive to company time spent in service.

If your company has a trust or foundation directed towards a particular charity, consider making a team donation. Then go out and have a wonderful lunch together and raise a glass in true holiday spirit, knowing you’ve made a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.

Consider homemade gifts.

Homemade gifts are the perfect answer for people long on talent but short on cash, and tell people you care enough to invest time into making a gift. Make sure your gifts are useful and not overly personal. Also, avoid religious themes;we live in a diverse society that requires sensitivity when gift giving.

Host a holiday potluck or cookie buffet.

Let’s face it: food brings everyone together, and very few people will turn down an opportunity for free food! A holiday potluck or cookie buffet (in which everyone on your team brings in a different Christmas cookie) is both festive and affordable. It allows everyone to contribute and is a great way to celebrate the season as a team, without making the focus spending money.

Throw a holiday decorating contest.

Not all gifts are material! Sometimes sharing a good laugh and some time together is plenty. Give every department (or person, in smaller teams) a small tree or snowman to decorate. Set a date near the end of the holidays to get together to admire all the wacky and wonderful creations and the thought that went into them. Add a small prize for the 'best in show', if your organization thrives on a little friendly competition.

Share good news stories.

Instead of gifts, have team members write down the things they’ve enjoyed about working together during the year, special notes for people who went above and beyond. You’ll be letting people know how much they and their hard work are appreciated. And who couldn’t use a little appreciation?


Giving gifts is as old as time. Hunting, gathering and the sharing of food, the exchange of goods for safe passage, the giving of a ring to mark the value of and commitment to marriage (not to mention the 198-carat diamond Catherine the Great received) – all of these fall under the banner of gift giving.

Yet, sometimes, the best gifts you can give are the intangibles, like shared good humour as your team races towards a tight deadline, or being a dependable team member with a strong work ethic. You don’t have to wait for a special occasion to bring your best to the workplace. That’s the best gift you can give, for the holidays or otherwise.