NEW YORK – Office "secret Santas" making their lists and checking them twice will want to leave off perfume, clothing and maybe even liquor in favor of more innocuous gifts like datebooks, coasters and gift certificates.
The authors of the corporate-success book Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move? have advice on office present-exchange etiquette, including suggestions on how to react to an inappropriate gift, what the protocol is for buying for your boss and which gifts to avoid.
As far as presents that get the go-ahead, it can be a matter of some delicacy, depending on the corporate culture and your relationship with the co-worker in question.
"You have to be really careful," said book co-author Pamela Holland. "Keep it at a thoughtfulness level, not at an impress-anyone level."
She and co-author Marjorie Brody say that employees participating in an office gift exchange would be wise to agree on a price limit (she suggests $25) and shy away from items that are too personal like clothing and jewelry. Even bottles of champagne, wine or liquor can be tricky since some people don't drink for religious, medical or addiction reasons.
"Don't assume that you can give alcohol unless you know the person really well," Holland said. She suggested getting gift ideas from a co-worker who's friendly with the person you're playing Santa for.
It's also a good idea to get to know your present well before turning it over. Holland recounted one anecdote about a manager who inadvertently gave his staff -- half of whom were Jewish -- a book with segments promoting Christianity.
"He had just not read the book thoroughly," she said. "Don't give anything you're not 100 percent certain about."
As for that pesky problem of whether to get your boss a gift, Holland and Brody advise against it, even if she or he gives you one (in which case, they say, a thank you note is in order). Since managers control raises, promotions and working conditions, many in the corporate world believe that gifts from individual employees have too much potential to create awkwardness.
"It's something I've avoided," said financial advisor Steve Buxbaum of Los Angeles. "I think the risk is greater than the reward."
Instead, this year when the boss invited his team to his house for a holiday party Buxbaum and his co-workers pitched in to get him a wreath.
The group-gift route is exactly the one New York store planner Cristina Barden and her co-workers have been taking. Barden said that in her company, it's considered appropriate to remember the boss.
"It's the one time of year when you can do something to say you appreciate the person," she said. "Not that it has to be expensive or big, just something to say thank you, great job."
It can also be nice for managers to recognize their staff -- as long as they don't play favorites or leave anyone out.
The way Barden sees it, giving gifts at the office is a way to deflect the "all business" philosophy that seems to pervade many corporate cultures.
"We've lost a lot of that personalization and thoughtfulness," she said. "This is a very, very small way to recognize that."
But in extreme cases, a gift exchange can be a career buster -- like the time an employee tried to get a message across by giving the boss a book on leadership.
"The manager no longer supported the person who gave it," Holland said. "It did thwart the person's career."
If you're the recipient of an inappropriate gift, Holland said it's best to consider the situation and your relationship with the co-worker when deciding whether to talk to the person or not. Employees who get lingerie from their managers, for instance, should speak up. But a recovering alcoholic who gets a bottle of wine from an unaware co-worker might not want to embarrass the gift-giver -- or himself -- by mentioning it.
Because one set of rules doesn't fit all situations, use thoughtful judgment.
"There's always that gray area," Holland said.
And it's important not to get too anxiety-ridden over a tradition that is supposed to be in the spirit of the season.
"It can be a minefield and you want to be careful, but in general people probably shouldn't worry about it so much," Buxbaum said.