Skip to main content

Whether it’s a luxury holiday gift, a birthday present, an anniversary or wedding gift, or even a “just because” everyday present, the etiquette rules of gift giving are difficult to master. But no worries. Our correspondent Julie Chang Murphy, trained anthropologist and savvy gift-giver, breaks it all down for us in our ongoing series, luxury lessons: the gift giving etiquette we all need to know. Wondering about the etiquette of gift giving in a business setting? Here’s how to give the best holiday business gift at work to clients, employees and even the boss.

why is giving gifts at work and in business settings so tricky?

Sometimes it feels like you need professional credentials or another degree just to navigate the business of workplace gift giving. All the anxiety surrounding gifting seems to coalesce and peak when it comes to the office.


Join our community

For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier newsletter. And see luxury in a new light.

sign up now >

What is appropriate to give to someone more senior than you? How does it change when that person is of the opposite sex? What about someone who is a valued client or a cube mate that you can’t stand? Actually, that latter one is easy. 1000 piece monochrome puzzle for that guy coming right up!

How to successfully and appropriately give a holiday business gift at work whether to employees, a client, or even the boss.

How to give a holiday business gift at work this year, whether to employees, a client, or even the boss.

While it’s true that giving gifts at work during holidays or for birthdays can be stress-inducing, work is where we spend 1/3 of our lives. That’s an average of 90,000 hours over a lifetime! It behooves us to get this right. Not only for our own sanity, but also to make our workplaces more friendly and cheerful places to be. Not to mention, less awkward.

What You Need to Know Now About Giving Gifts at Work

The good news is that the most important guiding wisdom agreed upon by etiquette experts and business magazines across the board is this: Less is More.

With this mantra in mind, here is our roundup of the 10 must-know rules and tips for giving gifts in your professional life, completing the final installment of our Luxury Lessons gifting series which includes busting the common gift-giving myths and general gifting etiquette.

1. Understand the corporate culture

If you’re the brand new or relatively new kid on the block, it’s best to do your research and safe to assume that the gift-giving protocol at this new place is different from your previous offices. Your best bet, according to Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions is to ask someone you trust who’s been there for a couple of years and follow their lead.

2. How to give a gift to the boss

This is the biggest question mark. Business etiquette experts agree that gifts should flow downwards, not upwards.

But let’s say you can’t resist. Let’s start with the obvious Don’ts. Your own common sense will tell you not to buy anything extravagant or too personal. We think too personal is anything that touches the body- necktie, jewelry, socks, scarves, perfume. And you obviously don’t want to spend a lot, in case it’s misconstrued as a ploy to curry favor and win brownie points. Another Don’t which may not be as obvious is to forego a gag gift no matter how perfectly inside-baseball it may be. Save it as an anecdote to tell at the office party instead.

Many departments will organize a collective gift to give to their bosses, which is a practical way to avoid awkwardness and save money. An important and kind thing to recognize if you’re the one tasked with spearheading the effort, is to make sure all colleagues names are included on the joint card and to make it known that any amount is appreciated. You never know what kind of difficulties someone may be facing, especially during the holidays.

What is the best business gift for the holidays this year for the people on your list at work?

3. Giving gifts to assistants, support staff and junior team members

This is always a DO. Here is where we might discard our first tip of adhering to the company culture. If your workplace doesn’t acknowledge support staff during holidays, maybe it’s time to start. In addition to your direct reports, we like the idea of including other workers, like the mailroom person, receptionists, a frequent messenger, or cleaner…anyone who makes your everyday work environment easier and more pleasant.

We know what you’re thinking- that’s a lot of gifts! Consider a group cash gift in the form of a gift card with a heartfelt note for those who are most likely making a minimum wage. Another idea? Bring down a breakfast spread or afternoon coffee service and sweets to the mail room or security office.

4. Giving gifts to peers and co-workers

We all have a work husband, wife or bestie. And thank goodness! But then there’s also Tim, who sits by the window and drives us nuts- “No for the 50th time, I don’t watch that TV show you keep referencing!”

For the close friend, according to Entrepreneur magazine and Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol of Texas, it’s best to swap gifts outside of the office to avoid excluding others. But if you’re part of a small team, a good way to spread the cheer is through food. Sure, everyone complains about the excesses of holiday fare, but they love it just the same. If you’re not a particularly good baker, bring in some gourmet treats from a famous patisserie or local bakery and you can’t go wrong.

Another idea for team gifts is to find a similar object for everyone but personalize it with different color variations or graphics. For example, a simple hardcover notebook that can be customized with a monogram or their favorite color. A coffee mug with their initial. You get the idea. Pay attention to detail- even if it’s the same gift, you can have it exquisitely wrapped with different trimmings to make it seem more individualized and special.

What is the best way to give a business gift to employees or a client during the holiday season?

What is the best way to give a business gift to employees or a client during the holiday season?

5. Giving gifts to clients

A survey by Knack, a specialty gift company, found 57% of professionals say gifts impact their opinion of a business partner, positively or negatively. When giving gifts to a valuable client, it’s advisable to follow the same rules when gifting to a boss- not too extravagant and not too personal and for the love of good design, take it easy on the logos! We understand the purpose of the logo. But make it discreet and tasteful, on a high-quality item, lest it seem like more marketing junk.

For long term clients whose business is the cornerstone of your company, try to find a gift that reflects their interests instead of a mass produced item that’s also being delivered to everyone else.

6. Cultural and religious differences.

Consider that not everyone celebrates the same holidays. Generic messages like “Happy Holidays” or “Have a wonderful New Year” exist for a reason. And on the flip side, we think acknowledging diversity and celebrating less mainstream holidays can be a great opportunity to make people feel seen and welcome. And in the case of client gifting, it can help you to stand out from the crowd. For example, moon cakes for a Chinese company/client to celebrate Autumn Moon Festival or a bountiful food basket for the religious client breaking a fast.

7. Contributing to the group gift

Sometimes it seems like there’s a celebration every week. Sandy’s going on maternity leave; it’s Oliver’s 40th birthday AND Jackie’s 10 year work anniversary. There are so many cards going around to be surreptitiously signed and emails asking for money. Do you have to contribute to every one? If you are strapped for cash, then no. It is perfectly acceptable to say something along the lines “It doesn’t fit into my budget this year” and offer to contribute something- you guessed it- baked goods to the celebration instead.

But if you can afford it, a little goes a long way. Remember that one day it will be your turn to go on maternity leave, turn 40 or celebrate a work anniversary!

8. Stick to prescribed spending limits

One sure way to create an awkward gift exchange is to go over the limit. You may think you’re being generous and festive gifting something worth $100 when the limit is $25. But it will only make everyone else feel embarrassed and even resentful. Besides, it can be a fun way to show off your creativity by trying to find the most luxe gift $25 and under.

what you need to know about giving business gifts at work to clients employees and more

What you need to know about giving holiday business gifts at work to clients, employees and more.

9. Keep generic gifts handy

Just like some parents know to keep a backup stash of toys in case of children’s birthdays, one proactive way to reduce stress is to keep a few generic gifts handy. This helps when you’ve forgotten your co-worker’s birthday, as well as when someone includes you on their holiday gift list and you don’t have anything for them. A stash of nice chocolates, local coffee shop gift cards, or handsome Moleskin notebooks could go a long way.

10. No more turkeys

Finally, if you’re the head of a company, don’t take this the wrong way. But we’ve just gotta say it: no one wants a 16 pound frozen turkey the day before Thanksgiving! We know there are a lot of legal and HR considerations to take into account. But consider options like a group meal or special events tickets, which fall under de minimis fringe benefits and go a long way in fostering community and bonhomie in the workplace.

What You Need to Know Now About Giving Gifts at Work

Those are some of the big do’s and don’ts in the etiquette of gift giving in a business setting. We hope this steers you in the right direction as you determine how to give the best holiday business gift at work this year to clients, employees and even the boss. Good luck, dear reader! You got this.

join our community

For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier newsletter hereAnd see luxury in a new light.

Crediting her training as a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, Julie has immersed herself in various industries in the last 15 years including fashion design, event planning, fitness and even investigating police misconduct. Julie lives in NYC where she loves trying every ramen and dumpling restaurant with her husband and three children. She finds joy in bold prints, biographies of fierce women, kickboxing and spending way too long finding the perfect polish color to express her mood.