To gift or not to gift at work? That is the question many employees ask during the holiday season.

In a recent survey from staffing firm Accountemps, the majority of HR managers said it's acceptable for employees and managers to exchange presents in the office.

gift-givingSixty-three percent of respondents noted it's appropriate for supervisors to give their staff a holiday gift, and 58% said it's appropriate for workers to give their boss a gift.

HR managers said employees should spend an average of $20 on their boss and $24 as a suitable amount for supervisors to spend on staff.

Holiday Gifts to Avoid

The survey also revealed what not to do. Managers reported the most inappropriate gifts they've seen, including:

  • "A department head who gave employees a picture in a frame of himself"
  • "An employee gave a re-gifted gift that the manager had given the year before"
  • "A big order of frozen pork"
  • "A lavish gift—something that was very valuable, because of favoritism"
  • "A mug with a satirical phrase on it, used to make fun of someone"
  • "A wig"
  • "A $700 gift card"
  • "A dozen roses"
  • "Cash was given discriminately in different amounts to different employees"

"As much as people enjoy giving presents, this can be a sensitive issue in the workplace and becomes a personal decision based on individual relationships," says Bill Driscoll, district president for Accountemps.

"More important than the dollar amount, the focus should be on giving something meaningful to the recipient. The best gifts are thoughtful and demonstrate care for others."

Accountemps offers five rules for exchanging holiday gifts in the office:

1. Give unconditionally. Don't gift out of obligation or because there's an expectation of something in return. Similarly, managers should make sure employees know that trading presents, even if there is a group exchange, is optional and not a requirement.

2. Make it personal. Show you are thinking of the recipient by finding something he or she will specifically enjoy, such as a gift card to their favorite coffee shop or a book related to a hobby they pursue.

3. Don't be overly extravagant—or a Scrooge. Spending too much can make the receiver uncomfortable, while spending too little can make the gift seem like an afterthought.

4. Present it nicely. No matter the present, cheerful packaging shows thoughtfulness. Include a personalized holiday card with it.

5. Be thankful. Always express your appreciation. Go the extra step and send a handwritten thank-you note that expresses your appreciation for their help throughout the year.

The Light-of-Day Test

CBIA HR Counsel Mark Soycher urged caution when it comes to gift-giving at work, no matter who's doing the giving—boss or employee.

"A wise rule of thumb to follow is what I call the light-of-day test," he says.

"Before deciding to give a gift—and especially when contemplating a suitable gift if you've decided to go ahead—imagine the item sitting on the recipient's desk with your signed greeting card, for all to see.

"Would it be more likely to prompt expressions of shock, derision, or admiration? Would you feel proud about your respectful and sincere gesture, or would you be embarrassed by your poor judgment or apparent suspicions about your questionable intent?  A few moments of forethought can help ensure happy holidays for you and your colleagues."