As we get closer and closer to Christmas and the end of the year, workplaces across the country will be holding office parties, Secret Santas, and giving out gifts and bonuses. There are definitely right ways and wrong ways to handle these situations, which no one told me when I first became a real adult and entered the full-time workforce. With that in mind, let’s talk about it.
Let’s start with bonuses. Bonus amounts will almost always depend on whatever industry you work in, but I firmly believe everyone should get a holiday bonus. It doesn’t matter if it’s a full-time employee or a part-time employee; if they are an employee, they should get a bonus.
That does not include independent contractors. Independent contractors shouldn’t get bonuses because they don’t work for any given company, really. When I first got out of law school the job I had required us to use private investigators on occasion. We knew them really well, talked to them all the time, and sometimes spent hours upon hours with them over any given timeframe. But when Christmas came, it was nothing but pleasantries; there were no gifts exchanged or bonuses given.
Bonuses should also always be money. Real money. Cash, check, direct deposit, whatever. A gift card isn’t a bonus, it’s a gift. Wine, flowers, chocolates, lunch, dinner, and other gifts are just that—gifts. A bonus should be money.
If you have a job where you have support staff such as a secretary, you should personally give that person a small bonus in addition to whatever bonus they’re already getting from corporate. When I still had a secretary (I own my own firm now and it’s just me at my office), I gave her a nice bottle of wine and $200 cash. She had already received a bonus from the firm itself, but then she also got a little extra pocket money from me, as well as the other attorneys who used her.
Finally, you should know roughly what your industry does for bonuses. In the law firm world, support staff bonuses are generally equal to a two-week paycheck. For hourly employees that is a 40-hour week check. For salaried employees it’s a check equal to what their two-week paycheck is or would be. For attorneys bonuses are generally determined by how many hours they billed, how much business they brought in, or some other objective factor. Whatever industry you’re in, find out what is standard and be sure to give bonuses in accordance with those standards at the very least.
Gifts are similar to bonuses but apply to a lot more people. For example, it’s perfectly appropriate to give independent contractors gifts if you have been satisfied with their work. Normally a gift for someone like that will be a tin of candy or one of those mail-order pies, but could also be a gift card, or a bottle of wine or spirits.
For coworkers, you need to determine whether your workplace has what I like to call an elementary school policy. In elementary school, if a student brings gifts to class, they have to bring something for everyone. That means if your company has an elementary school policy, you have to get something for everyone. It could be everyone at the entire company, or everyone in your department, or everyone in your group within a department, or whatever. But you need to know because it could affect what and when you give your gifts to people. If your company has this policy, go with something small for everyone (maybe a Starbucks gift card in an amount ranging from $5 to $20 or so), then get a little something extra for your work friends.
If your office doesn’t have an elementary school policy, then the rules change a bit. You absolutely should get something for each one of your immediate subordinates. Secretaries, paralegals, researchers, assistants, etc. And whatever you get them should be nice. If it’s a bottle of wine, spend at least $25 or so on it. If it’s a gift card, make sure it’s to a place you know they like and in an amount that allows them to have a complete experience by themselves without having to pay anything out of their own pocket. If it’s any other sort of gift, be sure it’s something they’re interested in.
You should also get gifts for your immediate boss, but something a bit smaller than you’d get a subordinate. I normally went with a reasonably priced bottle of wine. And finally, you should get something for your work buddies. It should be something sincere but also tie into some inside joke or tradition that you have. I’ll give an example: I once worked with a guy who mixed up ‘Nsync and the Backstreet Boys. He said ‘Nsync sang “I Want it That Way,” and we gave him a good-natured hard time about it. When Christmas came around, I got him a copy of the Backstreet Boys album that song was on (Millennium), and a gift card (to Cabela’s because he was super into hunting). It was hilarious, and from then on when we’d pass each other in the hall it was always “How’s that Backstreet Boys album treating you,” with a retort of, “It’s great, and it has this great cover of an ‘Nsync song on it.” It was fun.
Secret Santa. It’s really the best way to handle an office Christmas party. For those of you who don’t know what Secret Santa is, here are the rules: Each person draws a coworker’s name and they have to get that person (and only that person) a gift. Everyone’s name is only in the drawing once, and you can’t draw yourself. That’s it. Those are all the rules.
There are a few keys to succeeding at Secret Santa. The first thing is to always stay within the price limit. If the price limit is $20, don’t spend anymore than that. If it’s $5, then have fun picking out five things at Dollar General. But you have to stay within the limit. If you pull a Michael Scott and buy a $300 gift for a $20 Secret Santa, you are, in that moment, an asshole. Just stay within the limit, within reason, and everything is cool. If you go over by a couple of dollars because of taxes or some awkward other reason (see below), that’s okay, but try to stay within the limit to the best of your ability. Otherwise you end up looking like a dick and alienating some of your coworkers.
The next rule is to try and get something that you know the recipient will like. If it’s a big enough office, that can be difficult because you might not know everyone well enough to make that kind of judgment. But a good way around this is what I call “The Ol’ Crap & Card.” The Ol’ Crap & Card is simple: You get one small thing that you think pertains exactly to that person, and a gift card for the remaining balance between the cost of the small thing and the price limit. I’ll give you an example: I once drew a name for an office Christmas party and it was someone who I literally had never heard of. I had seen their face around but didn’t know their job or what their name was. However, after I drew their name I noticed they had a Duck Dynasty calendar. I managed to put aside the fact that I cannot figure out how anyone could possibly enjoy that show and got them a small Duck Dynasty coffee mug ($12.50) and a $15 Amazon gift card. The price limit was $25, but this was one of those occasions where going over just a bit was okay because had I stuck exactly to the limit it would have been a $12.50 coffee mug and a $12.50 gift card, and that’s just weird. Maybe she assumed the coffee mug was only $10. Fine by me.
The point is I took a small leap by getting her something that I believed she would like (the Duck Dynasty snow globe) and a gift card to a place that almost literally sells anything under the sun so she could get herself something nice, too.
The final rule of succeeding at Secret Santa is to always be grateful. I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating because it has a lesson: In college I was in a Secret Santa at the on-campus restaurant where I worked and a coworker who I had never said more than five words to drew my name and got me a disgusting brown flannel jacket that was two sizes too big (I wore an XL at the time and she got me an XXXL, which made me feel really great about myself). Was that a terrible gift? You betcha. But did I act like I loved it and that I was grateful for it? Absolutely. There’s no point in making other people feel bad. They didn’t have to get you anything, and you have no entitlement to something nice in a Secret Santa. Just say thank you, act like you love it, and move on. At the very worst you get a bad gift that turns into a fun story.
There are a few other scattered rules to office holiday gifts. For one, don’t get anyone anything they can’t easily carry to their car after work. This means no oversized stuffed animals, no super heavy trinkets, nothing awkwardly sized or weighted. Bottles of alcohol, gift cards, small trinkets, pictures, etc. Those are great gifts because they’re not cumbersome.
Next, don’t be a dick about anything. Put forth a little effort. I have a friend who told me about an office Christmas party where an overweight man was given a one-month membership to a gym as a Secret Santa gift. That means whoever drew that guy’s name knew exactly one thing about him: he was fat. That’s a bad Secret Santa gift. The friend told me it completely ruined the party. Put a little bit of effort, and definitely don’t get those kinds of gifts. No gym membership for the big-boned, no alcohol for the guy with the DUI, no candy for the diabetic, and definitely nothing religious, political, or sexual for anyone.
If you’re not getting gifts for everyone, be discreet. Don’t go around holding lavish gifts and handing out expensive things to some people but not others. It’s just a dickish thing to do. Be respectful and don’t needlessly create any animosity or workplace drama around the holidays (or ever).
Don’t insult anyone else’s gifts. This should be a no-brainer, but I’ve seen it happen. One time at a holiday office party a woman got a small painting for her desk as a Secret Santa gift. Right when she opened it and showed it around to everyone, one deep-voiced guy in the back goes, “that’s the ugliest painting I’ve ever seen.” Yikes, right? That guy was always kind of like that, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a rude thing to day.
And finally, if/when you use a gift that someone got you, say thank you. People get a lot of gift cards this time of year to Amazon, Starbucks, Target, and other generally universally patronized places. If you run down for a latte and use your gift card, next time you see the person who got it for you, say thank you. “Hey, I had a great latte yesterday afternoon and I was able to use that gift card you got me. Thank you so much! It really hit the spot!” It’s that simple. That will make people really appreciate and respect you. People like feeling appreciated, so appreciate them.
If you have any other guidelines about office holiday party gifts, leave them in the comments! Happy Friday, everyone!