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The Vine

The Tomato Nation advice column addresses your questions on etiquette, grammar, romance, and pet misbehavior. Ask The Readers about books or fashion today!

Home » The Vine

The Vine: October 26, 2012

Submitted by on October 26, 2012 – 9:25 AM36 Comments

I need to know what the protocol is for holiday gift-giving in the workplace.

I love my current boss and love to give Christmas gifts but after last year I am not sure if I am doing something inappropriate or not.

The previous Christmas I had a different superior, who I liked and wanted to give a gift.  When I presented it to her she said in a semi-laughing way “you are supposed to gift down” and handed me a gift card.

I felt like a moron!  All this time I thought you gave gifts because you thought of a particular person when you saw the item or because you like that person as a human being!

I certainly do not want to make that social faux pas again!  



Hello Sars and The Nation,

Nothing terribly original here, just a book question: I got a book from the Seattle Public Library when I was a kid, so probably in the early ’90s. I recall there being a female archaeologist/Egyptologist who had discovered/was part of a team that discovered some kind of artifact that was Egyptian-like, but clearly too technologically advanced to have come from that culture; I think there was some possibly-related tension with her supervisor/project leader over the artifact.

Anyway, by some chain of events that I no longer remember the female archaeologist was transported to another dimension of some kind, where she found the source of the artifact to be what I think was a technologically-advanced civilization with strong Egyptian influences. I don’t remember any names or how it ended, which is why I’d like to find the book so that I can refresh my memory and not have the unresolved plot hanging off the end of my brain. Many thanks!





  • Jenny says:

    On the gift thing….I think a lot of companies have policies in place where an employee can’t give a supervisor a gift.

    I know that I always got small gifts from my boss, but I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to give her a gift.

    So I think it is probably less a social faux pas and more a company policy issue.

  • misspiggy says:

    Jody, I would say that if you’re giving ‘up’, just make it a small token and make sure your immediate colleagues at the same level as you and below get something similar. I used to give everybody a small packet of chocolates. If you give something special to your boss there’s a small risk it may be seen by others as sucking up.

    It was a bit insensitive of your boss to say that, however. Perhaps they just wanted to let you know that you didn’t have to get them a gift to impress them. But still, not gracious to reject a gift. Managers as supposed to get people below them something as a ‘thank you’ – but try telling that to the male bosses I’ve worked for!

  • attica says:

    Personally, I think gifting at work is an ooky idea generally; happily I work at a place where it’s not done.

    That said, gifting a superior is indeed an error according to the manuals (E. Post and Miss Manners) I have. Unless you socialize beyond work in a way you do with your friends — go to the movies together, hang out and watch tv, babysit for each other’s kids, etc, then Your Boss Is Not Your Friend.

    But if your supervisor is indeed charming, and if you are the generous soul you appear to be and can’t help yourself, I’d redirect your gift into something festive and perishable — a poinsettia for her desk, chocolates, fancy fruit, cookies.

  • Karen says:

    What’s funny about “gifting down” is that it feels like you only find out about it when you do it wrong. I’ve been at my job for 6 years, and almost always give out presents to everyone in my 8-person dept. Sometimes it’s just cookies (when money is tight) and everyone gets the same thing, but other times I have given everyone, my boss included, a small but thoughtful gift. It never even occurred to me to NOT do it until someone explained what “gifting down” was. That’s one of those pieces of office culture that no one tells you about in college. Or, at least, no one told me.

    I think, in the end, it depends on your workplace culture. We’re a small, close-knit group, and I keep my gifts under $10 or so for the folks above me, and under $20 for those below. However, in a more formal, structured organization it might be wise to just give those above you a holiday card with a nice note in it.

  • flora says:

    You’re definitely supposed to gift “down” the chain of command.

  • Jenn says:

    I gave my boss a gift last year – nothing big, just a Christmas ornament, but something I knew she would like. I don’t see a problem with giving something small just to let your boss know you appreciate him or her.

  • Jeanne says:

    The book sounds exactly like the plot of the orginal StarGate movie, except the lead archaeologist is a man (though James Spader was still awfully pretty back then.) The movie came out in 1994 and there was a novelization of it, perhaps that’s what you’re thinking of?

  • WendyD says:

    I always got a gift from my boss, but my co-workers and I often went in on a group gift (like coffee of the month) for him and there were never any complaints.

  • Beth C. says:

    For the gift thing, some companies do have a policy against “gifting up” to avoid employees feeling they need to “buy” their supervisor’s favor, so check into that. Also, depending on your company’s social culture giving bosses gifts just gets you labeled the office suck-up. If neither of those are the case in your office, the general rule of thumb is that empoyees are not obligated to give anything to their bosses, but if you do want to keep it small and inexpensive. I generally wouldn’t get my boss anything that cost more than $10 and even then I would probably down play it a bit.

    Basically, in a situation where someone holds authority over another person, the lower ranking person isn’t usually a gift giver, as it should be the higher-ranking, higher-earning person expressing gratitude for the help and service that lower-ranking, lower-earning person provides. If, however, you have a more personal realationship with your boss that rule can be bent a bit if you want to give them a small token, but don’t go overboard.

  • Grace says:

    Gift giving in the office depends on the policy where you work, so first place to check is your employee handbook to see if it’s specifically covered. If its not covered there, whether or not you give a gift to a superior really depends on the office culture. In my last firm, associates didn’t give gifts to the partners who owned the firm, but it wasn’t uncommon for legal assistants to give their supervising attorney a small gift for the holidays, like candy or a plant.

    I think that if Jody’s company doesn’t explicitly prohibit gifts, she should go ahead and give her current boss a gift – as long as it’s not too expensive (which gets awkward), a small, thoughtful gift from a coworker is usually welcome.

  • Randee says:

    Assuming the company allows it, if you want to do a gift sometimes what fits right in the middle of appropriate is something like homemade fudge or cookies. There’s just a different perception of something material you purchased and something you may have put together yourself for the consumption of others. Not sure why that is. I always loved making fudge for folks and then parceling it out, whether or not they returned the favor. So, up to you!

  • Empress says:

    Jeanne, I thought the same thing, and I totally read that novelization. LOVED it.

  • Amy says:

    I’ve never heard of work policies or etiquette in general that said you don’t “gift up.” I’ve always given my bosses a small gift for the holidays (Starbucks, Chipotle giftcards). In the last 12 years, only once did I have a boss return the gift, saying he couldn’t accept it. The man was a little quirky in general so I chalked it up at the time to his personality. Perhaps he knew of this “only gift down” rule, which I clearly didn’t know about until today. I still plan on gifting my bosses this year, despite this new information.

    Jody, if you’re uncomfortable gifting this year, I would suggest some homemade treats instead. That way you can still say, “Hey, I’m thinking of you this holiday” without breaking the “gift down, not up” rule. (Homemade though, not store-bought.)

  • Ellie says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the “gift down” rule! So glad to know now it’s done in some (most?) places so I’m not caught unawares. At my office, I’m on a team of five with a supervisor (who is awesome) above us; last year, we all threw in together to buy him a sweatshirt or something.

  • Jeanne says:

    @Empress, I actually haven’t read it. I did see the movie when it came out though and clearly it stuck in my head. James Spader and Kurt Russell weren’t old and puffy yet, and then there was Jaye Davidson. That’s not a presence you forget.

  • MizShrew says:

    Depending on the size of your office, if you want to gift, I’d say the way to go is to make some food (cookies, fudge, candied nuts) for everyone you work with. Then the fact that s/he is your boss is incidental. Or, you could bring in bagels for everyone one day with a “happy holidays” note near them.

    That said, your boss shouldn’t have made you feel bad about the mistake. A gift should always be accepted graciously.

  • Empress says:

    Jeanne, I read the book before seeing the movie, if that’s even possible (do novelizations come out concurrently with films? I don’t think I’ve ever read another novelization). But I can say that it was totally awesome. It might have been a holdover from being into Egypt as a child, but my high-school self loved it.

  • Empress says:

    Whoa, looking back on the dates, make that “my middle-school self”.

  • Profreader says:

    Jon – could the book have been “Wraiths of Time” by Andre Norton?

    “”Tallahassee Mitford is a young archaeologist working in a museum when her cousin Jason, an FBI agent, asks for her assistance. An ivory box covered with ancient symbols has been found in an airport locker, and he asks her to examine it. Tallahassee recognizes some of the symbols and thinks the box is related to a recent archaeological discovery near Lake Chad in Africa. However, it is also radioactive, albeit at a low level that poses no immediate danger to the people handling it. Tallahassee and Jason are African-Americans, and her most recent assignment has been cataloging the items taken from the Lake Chad site. She is looking forward to next week, when she is to leave for Egypt to join an expedition to the Sudan. At her recommendation, they lock the box in a safe in her boss’s office for further examination by experts at the museum. ”

    (more of that synopsis )

  • Profreader says:

    Okay, my HTML skills are rusty. That synopsis comes from Allreaders, and it’s here:

    There is also a list of Egypt in science fiction and fantasy here:

  • IS says:

    One year, the intern I was supervising gave me a bottle of wine for xmas. It caught me off guard so I wasn’t quick-thinking enough to immediately come up with a way to tactfully decline it, so then it ended up causing a bit of a hassle. I had to formally report it to my manager as a potential perceived conflict of interest (because I was responsible for deciding whether or not this intern would be recommended for hiring), it had to be escalated up a couple of levels and ultimately half a dozen people had this pass through their email before it was decided that I could keep the bottle of wine.

    As it happens, I was already planning to recommend her for hiring, so I ended up printing out email conversations and informal written evaluations supporting the fact that this was my plan before the present came along. And now, if I ever end up not recommending an intern who’s with us at xmas but doesn’t give me a present, I’ll have to document the fuck out of that too so no one can ever possibly make a remotely convincing case that my recommendation could be bought with a bottle of unremarkable riesling.

    Seriously, like many others have said, if you must give a gift make it cookies or chocolates – something that can be shared with the rest of the office.

  • Barb says:

    Another vote for the StarGate Novelization. Although James Spader was the archaeologist, he had the Stargate “dial” in a necklace size/form from an aunt (?) who was a female archeologist. the necklace was set at the coordinates for Earth ( home.)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Man, thank God I work in a call center. Our bosses hand out candy, $20 Starbucks cards, and mugs. The mugs are quite nice, but don’t cause any HR issues.

  • Gina says:

    I have never heard of the “gifting down” rule, but I have always worked in very small departments or very small companies. I usually give gifts to everyone in my department or on my staff (including my boss), but it’s frequently something on the order of baked items, or homemade canned preserves, or Starbucks gift cards one year when I got super lazy. Everyone, including my boss, gets the same thing. I’ve never heard any complaints or issues about this practice, but when I say “small companies” I’m talking ten people or fewer. So I suppose it depends upon the size and culture of the place as well!

  • Dana says:

    I’m in a large company with very very strict ethics policies… I’ve never heard of such a rule! So it must vary from place to place. I always give out homemade goodies, and my boss gets a slightly larger size version of what my coworkers get. Now, if a vendor gives us something, everyone freaks out, and it gets donated to charity, but internal gifts? Never heard a word about it.

  • Leigh says:

    I’ve never heard of gifting down, but every office I’ve worked in has done a secret santa exchange with a strict price limit, so sometimes you might get the boss by chance but it doesn’t cause any kind of perceived favoritism issues.

    That said, I agree with those who said if you must gift, bake cookies.

  • Christine says:

    I never gave actual gifts to my bosses. Instead, I’d bake something: biscotti, peppermint fudge. I’d wrap it up in pretty paper and give biscotti or fudge to everyone in my immediate vicinity.

  • Jon says:

    Profreader, I am he whose memory is faulty, and that sounds exactly like the missing bits of the plot that I remember. I am putting the book on order right now to find out for sure, but I think this mystery is solved. You are my hero, sir/madam.

  • Amy says:

    We have the Secret Santa exchange (with price limit) at our office too and last year I did get my boss. But, as I mentioned above, we also exchange gifts amongst ourselves, and I think all the attorneys and their respective assistants do that. It’s never caused a problem and I’ve never been told that I shouldn’t. It really just depends on if an office has rules or not. If they don’t, but Jody is still unsure of what to do, I’d go with the homemade treats.

  • Anon in Colorado says:

    Mostly unrelated, but the vendor story reminded me: Our boss at our very small company digs through the gifts from vendors, takes what he likes, and leaves the remainders for the rest of us underlings. Whoa! Feel the Christmas spirit now!

  • Kemmi says:

    My office ran secret santas with a price limit– I ended up being on two different ones, because I was attached to different workgroups. That worked out well and avoided any potential currying-favour type things.

    That said, people did give small gifts to workfriends, both up, down and along the ladder, and people would give group gifts (something for the table of bounty, where we kept tea and coffee– chocolates, booze, pannatone, etc.), homemade gifts (biscuits, sweets, etc.).

    Thinking about it, a lot of the gifts had potentially camouflaged value – books (publishing company, might have been staff discount or a freeby), food (no obvious price-tag on a lot of things), wine (“I got this at a tasting, my cousin’s a wineimporter, etc.”). Giving a starbucks card seems much more worrying to me, because that’s a flat cash value– it does put a pricetag on the gift which both parties know about.

  • megster1971 says:

    Gifts are considered a conflict of interest (perceived is the same as real according to Office of Counsel) in my workplace. Exceptions are when groups of people contribute to a retirement gift (and there are strict limits on amounts). If a contractor hosts a meeting and there’s a tray of sandwiches, I have to pay for it.

  • megster1971 says:

    ***I have to pay for what I eat, not the whole tray. Heh.***

  • RJ says:

    At my last job when we’d visit onsite with clients, we could expense doughnuts or other snacks we provided, but ONLY if we didn’t partake in them ourselves. So if we brought two dozen doughnuts and ate one, the 15 bucks or whatever became a personal expense instead of a business one.

  • MT says:

    Many years ago, I was a secretary in a medium sized firm. One of the other secretaries in my department organised a gift for her boss for his birthday. He wasn’t even one of the partners that I worked for. She asked for… wait for it…. a $20 donation from each of the team to contribute to his gift. I can’t remember what she got him but I thought that was just ridiculous. No way was I, as an admin on a very modest salary, giving that amount of money for a partner I didn’t even report to! So I said no. Another member of the team gave me the card to sign and I signed it. I said to that person, ‘well I wasn’t in on the gift’ but that person said, ‘that shouldn’t matter, just sign the card.’ So I signed it – I did wish the guy a happy birthday or whatever even if I didn’t think it appropriate to give a large sum of money that someone else had demanded. This is where it gets ULTRA tacky: The girl cracked it that I had signed the card but not paid, and came around and tod me to cross my own message and signature off the card!!! I am not kidding. So the gift was given to the guy with the card with a name and message crossed out. I can’t remember if I actually did the crossing or said no, if she wanted my name crossed out she could do it. But man, what an utterly crass piece of work this girl was.

  • Jon says:

    Profreader, that is IT. Thanks so much to you and everyone else for your kind assistance!

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