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The Dreaded Office Gift Exchange: What the #*&@ Should You Buy?

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holiday gifts

Forced social interactions with coworkers are always a little awkward. (Does anyone ever really feel special when they receive a birthday card signed by members of departments they’ve never even met?) But the holidays can take awkwardness to the next level.

Now you’re not just sharing a slice of stale cake for a few minutes; you’re schmoozing, dancing and sometimes drinking with these basic strangers you happen to share office space with. Things get even more uncomfortable if your office participates in a gift exchange.

You hardly know some of your coworkers. (And you don’t necessarily like some of the ones you do know.) What in the world are you supposed to buy these people?

Here are your best bets for gift ideas that range from “generic enough that anyone will like them” to “I’m pretty sure this will make several specific people moderately happy”:

Dos

1. Food-related gifts

Gourmet popcorn, cookies or candy are always a safe bet. (Just look at how quickly free goodies in the break room get scarfed up.)

2. Coffee, coffee, coffee

Give your coworkers a reprieve from the horrors of the rarely cleaned, usually burnt break room coffee by giving them a gift card to a coffee shop where they can enjoy several days’ worth of real, fresh-brewed java.

3. Entertainment-related gifts

Movie passes, gift certificates to local restaurants and gift cards to a bookstore are all broad enough that anyone would be happy to receive them.

4. Lotion, scented candles and other “girly” items

Obviously, if you have an assigned recipient who is decidedly not “girly” (like through a secret Santa program), this may not work. But if you just need something to throw into the pile for an anonymous white elephant exchange, chances are that most people will be happy enough with these items (or have a spouse who would be). Just make sure that the scents you choose are mild enough that most people would enjoy them—think vanilla or holiday-themed scents instead of strong floral or citrus ones.

5. Pampering and relaxation

A certificate for a half-hour massage is something male or female coworkers will both appreciate. You can also opt for something more ladylike like a manicure or pedicure—just stay away from image-specific services like hair coloring, which not everyone will want…and some might be offended by. (What’s the matter with their current hair color?)

5. Office-related gifts

What do you have in common with every single person you work with? Where you work. So you’re sure to score well with items that make a day at the office a little easier—creative and fun office supplies, fancy pens and coffee mugs are all safe bets.

Don’ts

1. Offbeat humor

Your friends and family might find a Scared of Santa book hilarious, but your middle-aged coworkers will probably just be confused. If you’re going to go for a funny gift, try to keep it harmlessly silly, PC and something that appeals to a wide range of ages and personalities. Cats doing silly things? Several people in your office will probably find that funny. A gag gift like a pair of silky Santa Claus boxers? Please don’t.

2. Booze

While this might be the item in the white elephant that everyone in the office secretly wants to fight for, you need to keep in mind your corporate culture. In some offices, it may be kosher, but for most, it’s best to steer clear of alcohol-related gifts. The bosses may frown on it, your coworkers may feel awkward accepting it, and some people may not be drinkers for a wide variety of personal reasons.

3.  Too pricey or too cheap

It seems like in every exchange, there’s the one person who winds up getting an iPod Nano while someone else gets a basket of odds and ends that clearly came from the Dollar Store. Whatever your office’s stated budget is, stick to it.

What are the best and worst gifts you’ve seen in an office gift exchange?

Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1007484887 Kathy Riley

    I purchase Christmas decorations for each person. I made little trees with candy on them one year, a Christmas stocking with candy another year, a Santa stocking with candy another year and a Santa decoration with a box of Whitman candy this year. All the women received a homemade bracelet also. It is cool to see them pull them out at Christmas time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706187992 Bruce Christensen

    You mentioned cats doing silly things… I think that the Dancing Cat Speaker is the perfect office gift exchange addition. Here is a link to a short video of this really fun office gift: http://albinophantblog.com/white-elephant-gifts/dancing-cat-speaker-a-moving-white-elephant-gift-idea/.

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