Unwritten rules of gift-giving at the office or school

Credit to Author: Margaret Jetelina| Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2018 07:31:55 +0000

It’s holiday season! Should you give your teacher or boss a gift?

The end of the calendar year is approaching — and the darkest days of the year as well. Fortunately parties and festivities, with lights and good cheer, help to brighten our moods in December and into January. While some celebrations are religious — for example, Diwali and Christmas — others are community or work centred. In December, children in elementary school usually have some kind of holiday party, including music, in class or as a school event. Many companies, too, put on a holiday party.

In some companies, employees give each other presents, sometimes with an inclusive “Secret Santa” party. Before the party, everybody pulls someone’s name out of a hat and buys a small gift for that person. At the party, all the presents, signed only “From Santa,” are collected and then handed out.

But how about gifts for the boss? Or for the teacher, in the case of children (and adults) in school? Do you know the “unwritten rules”?

Try this short quiz and then check your answers below!


Should you give your teacher, or your child’s teacher, a gift before the holiday break?

a) No, Canadians don’t do that.

b) Yes, it’s common.

c) You can choose to or not. There is no obligation.


Should you buy a present for the boss?

a) Yes, a very nice one. You want to impress the boss.

b) Yes, but only a small one. It’s a nice thing to do.

c) You should join your co-workers if they get a gift for the boss as a group but shouldn’t give a present just from you alone.

d) No, employees shouldn’t buy a gift for the boss.

Answers – and some gift-giving notes

If you answered (a) to both these questions, you’ll find that you are out of step with most Canadians.

All of the other answers might be right — or not — for your job or location. It’s acceptable to ask, “What is the custom around giving gifts here?” And by the way, Canadians who change employers or move from one part of the country to another also have to learn the unwritten rules in their new area.

Gifts at school?

Response ( b ): Adults in intensive programs, such as some ESL classes, sometimes show their thanks to a good teacher by giving a group gift, or even a small individual present. They might call it “a token of appreciation for your excellent teaching.”

In many places it’s common for parents of young children in the first years of school to hand the teacher a small gift on the last day of school in December. (On the other hand, youth in high school, college or university don’t give their teachers a present. It could be seen as bribery for a good grade.)

However, it’s always a choice; there is no obligation. So response ( c ) is also correct.

Gifts at work?

This question is trickier. The answers involve soft skills, the skills and attitudes that help you get along at work. Here are some guidelines.

Response ( a ), to give the boss an expensive gift, is not done in Canada. If you give a luxury item but no other staff member does, then that looks bad. It looks as if you want special notice. Your colleagues won’t like that behaviour because Canadians are, on the whole, rather egalitarian, preferring to treat everybody equally. It would also make most bosses feel uncomfortable.

( b ) Give a small present? The answer partly depends on the company, for example, whether there is an established company tradition to consider. However, if you have had a good year working with your boss, or you have a particular reason to want to thank him/her, then a small gift is acceptable. It shouldn’t be anything that is too personal to show around the office.

( c ) Yes, join your co-workers if they all contribute to a group gift. The organizer of the purchase should consult everyone about the item and the cost beforehand.

( d ) Actually, since employees earn less money than their bosses, there is no expectation that they buy a gift. In fact, many bosses ask staff not to give them anything at all, especially in hard economic times.

What to give as a Christmas gift?

You can’t go wrong with a common gift item such as candy or a specialty coffee or tea. But this can become routine. For example, every December a preschool teacher I know receives gifts from parents of her pupils: chocolates, soap, mugs, coffee shop gift certificates, etc. And every Christmas she “re-gifts” most of them to her friends because she has so many.

 So it’s better to think of something more personal, perhaps related to the receiver’s favourite food or hobby, such as home-baked cookies, golf balls or a gift certificate to a book store. Gag gifts to the boss that lighten the festivities and show your sense of fun can be OK — but only if you’re sure of the boss’ sense of humour!

Tip: Give a note of thanks

Instead of buying a gift, consider writing a note of thanks or appreciation. A hand-written note is rare these days and can be very meaningful, especially to the boss or teacher “who has everything.” You could thank teachers for patience, inspiration or great rapport with the class. A boss can be thanked for mentorship, the opportunities he/she allowed you, etc. A hand-written note can light up someone’s day. It’s an excellent way to send a personal message: “Happy Holidays and looking forward to the next year together!”

Quiz is adapted from the book Office Soft Skills: Working with North Americans, Wayzgoosepress.com.