Dos and Don’ts of Office Gift Exchanges


Whether you love or loathe holiday gift exchanges, they are popular in many companies. As an HR professional, here’s a couple ways you can make sure everyone has a great seasonal experience while minimizing disappointments, hurt feelings and HR complaints. 

DO advise during the organization of the exchange…

  • Make clear the rules for the exchange, including limits on the cost of gifts, and offer guidelines on what gifts are appropriate and inappropriate based on the nature of your company. Generally, very personal or intimate gifts, gag or joke items, and risqué gifts are inappropriate in the workplace.
  • Make sure everyone understands how the exchange will work – if it will be secret or public, if it will be over the course of a period of time (e.g., gifts can be given anytime during a certain week) or at an office gathering (like a holiday potluck).

…but DON’T pressure anyone to participate. 

It’s vital to ensure that employees don’t feel pressured or obligated to participate, or uncomfortable if they’re not participating. Some employees may not celebrate Christmas for personal or religious reasons, may not be financially able to participate, or may just dislike gift exchanges. HR has the responsibility to ensure that it is clear to everyone that participation is entirely voluntary, and emphasize that actions that pressure or otherwise make those who aren’t participating feel uncomfortable will not be tolerated by the company. If the exchange will happen at a company holiday party or luncheon, make sure that everyone is invited to the event regardless of whether they are participating. It may make sense to have the exchange at the end, so those not participating can leave early.

DO ensure there are rules and limits…

  • Setting a dollar limit helps ensure that everyone is able to participate who wants to do so, and helps make sure that gifts aren’t embarrassingly extravagant.
  • When in doubt, food is usually a safe choice. Even if people have dietary restrictions, employees can easily share treats with coworkers, friends, or family. Make clear to participants whether homemade food is or isn’t allowed; if it is, ask each person to label their contribution with potential allergens (e.g., “contains nuts”).

…and DON’T forget your role as HR.

Make clear that, as usual, HR is available to help anyone with concerns about the exchange. You might also suggest that if anyone has concerns about whether potential gifts are workplace-appropriate, they consult with HR before they purchase and exchange them.

DO be creative…

A fun idea can be to agree on a theme, where everyone exchanges something specific. This can be silly (like funny headgear or socks); topical to your industry (like specialty beers at a bar or brewing company); useful (like calendars, mugs, or books); or holiday themed (like ornaments). A theme exchange helps reduce the stress of trying to find a perfect, clever, creative gift and helps ensure that gifts stay appropriate. 

…but DON’T go overboard.

White elephant exchanges, where people open random presents and are allowed to “steal” earlier-opened gifts, can be a lot of fun – but take a lot of time for the exchange formalities and can have a lot of (hotly contested) rules. Similarly, elaborate secret Santa exchanges (like those that direct small themed gifts every day) can also take a lot of time and effort. For some offices, this can be an exciting part of getting into the holiday spirit; for others, it can be an annoying distraction at best and an irritating stressor at worst. Make sure that your holiday exchange plans harmonize with both the overall attitude of your work environment and with how busy your company is during the holiday period.


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