Santa's little problem: gift giving etiquette

Don't know how much to tip the paper guy or when to buy gifts for co-workers? Help is here.

I used to have a great boss, who would buy thoughtful gifts for everyone on her staff every Christmas. I got in the habit of returning the favor. Eventually I moved to a different company, but we stayed in touch and I met her for lunch a few weeks before the holidays. Knowing her penchant for gift-giving, I came with a gift. Big mistake. She didn’t have anything for me, and rattled by my faux-pas, began digging around in her purse for something to give in return. I could almost hear her murmuring: “Lipstick… no. Kleenex… no. Money… maybe?”

Then she came across a promotional jazz CD, likely from an industry event. “Here!” she said, pressing it into my hands. We were both pretty embarrassed.

This year I’m determined not to make an oaf of myself again over holiday gift-giving. So I called up Lynne Waugh at The Etiquette Advantage, who gives workshops on manners in Toronto. She told me everything you need to know to navigate the gift-giving minefield.

Co-workers: It’s all or nothing

At most companies it’s not expected that you buy gifts for everyone with whom you work. You can if you want to, says Waugh, but don’t spend much, get everyone the same thing, and don’t expect a gift in return.

If your boss buys a gift for everyone who reports to him or her, as my former boss did, you’re not expected to reciprocate. But if the entire staff wants to pool their money to buy the boss a return gift, Waugh says that’s fine.

If there are one or two people at work you want to buy for, treat your gifts as personal gestures, and don’t hand them out at the office. If you’re unexpectedly on the receiving end of a personal gift from a co-worker, you do have to reciprocate. If you’re caught empty-handed, lie. “If someone did it to me,” Waugh says, “I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I left your gift at home, but I’ll bring it in tomorrow.’ And then I’d go out and get something.”

Service people: Tip or gift?

When it comes to gifts for teachers, hairdressers, babysitters and the like, the first thing you need to decide is whether to give a present or a holiday tip. Here’s the rule: If you pay them directly for their services, you should tip. If it’s someone you don’t pay directly, such as a teacher, you should buy a gift.

If a tip is appropriate, use the amounts in How much? as a guide, but keep in mind that holiday tips escalate quickly as you move into high society. Some of the doormen working at luxury high-rises in Manhattan make $8,000 a year, with single holiday tips in the hundreds of dollars.

If that’s got you worried, relax. The tips given to Monica Pace, a hairdresser at Petros Hair Design in Toronto, are more typical. “Clients usually just double the tip they normally give you and say ‘Merry Christmas,'” she says. And that’s just fine with her. Given the choice between yet another scented candle and a few extra bucks, Pace’s choice is clear. “The money,” she says. “I prefer the money.”