Although there are no formal business etiquette “rules” that require anyone to give a gift to a co-worker or boss, many people do exchange gifts at work. It's important to remember that giving the wrong gift can convey a message that is too personal, romantic, or even offensive. You also run the risk of making the recipient feel uncomfortable if they don't reciprocate, or alienating co-workers if your gift seems excessive.
Deciding on the appropriate gift to give a co-worker can be difficult. However, certain gifts should never be given, as they may be misinterpreted and regarded negatively.
Items that could be considered sexual in nature are inappropriate (and may even be illegal) in the workplace. You should never gift anything “adult” in nature in the workplace setting, even to the closest of co-workers. This not only includes the obvious, such as pornography and adult toys, but also includes artwork, books, and any image or rendering that depicts nudity or that may suggest a sexual act.
Gifts That Carry a Discriminating or Demeaning Message
Never give gifts that could be considered offensive to women, minorities, or any race, culture, group, or individual with disabilities—even if presented in the “spirit of fun.” These include cards, gifts, artwork, caricatures, publications, and any other item that could be interpreted as stereotyping or discriminatory.
Politically Oriented and Religious Gifts
Unless someone has specifically asked for a particular political or religious item, book, or gift, do not try to guess an appropriate one. If you do honor a specific request, keep in mind that the item could still offend someone else in the office, so give it to your co-worker wrapped and in private.
Personal Care Products
Grooming items and sundries are generally too personal to give, especially to a member of the opposite sex. If anything, it can send the wrong message about what you think of their hygiene. This includes body and skincare products, perfumes, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, and shaving sundries. That scented hand lotion you love might seem like a good idea, but your co-worker may have allergies or asthma that prevent them from using it.
All undergarments, and in most cases, any articles of clothing except for hats, scarves, or gloves are inappropriate gifts to give co-workers or your boss. A corporate T-shirt is acceptable but may come across as a little "cheap."
If you give jewelry, stick to small, casual items and give them only to members of the same sex—unless the gift comes from a group.
The key to remember when giving jewelry is that some items may be interpreted as a romantic gesture, especially if the jewelry is expensive. The best jewelry items to give are inexpensive or moderately priced watches or pocket watches, or simple, trendy bracelets or pins. Pearls, diamonds, and gemstones are generally not a good idea if the gift is intended as a casual gesture.
Do not give roses to co-workers. It's better to give poinsettias, lucky bamboo, or other plants instead of flowers. They last longer and cannot be interpreted as a romantic gesture. Casual flowers such as daisies, wildflowers, or bulbs that turn into blooms are also fine.
Never give your boss or a co-worker cash. Opt for gift cards instead. For that matter, an employer should only give money to an employee as a taxable bonus, not as a personal gift.
Giving no gift can be better than giving the wrong gift. If you can discover what your co-worker enjoys, you may be able to find the perfect gift, such as a coffee mug for a coffee or tea lover, or a set of earphones if they like listening to music. Just be sure it's appropriate.
A good rule is to ask yourself if the gift is something you would let a child see, even if they would not enjoy the gift itself. If not, then it may not be appropriate to give to someone at work.