Must I buy my boss a pricey holiday gift?

Giving gifts at the office can be stressful. Here's what works well - and what not to do.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: As the holidays get closer, I'm wondering what to give my boss for Christmas. Last year, she gave me a beautiful watch that I'm sure was very expensive and, while I love the watch, I felt terrible because I had nothing for her. Should I try to drop a hint that I don't expect any fancy presents? If she gives me something anyway, should I give her something of equal value (even though I can't really afford to)? Please advise! -Tight Budget in Tacoma

Dear TBT: It's nice that your boss is so generous, but relax. "This whole gift-giving thing can put a lot of extra pressure on people, at a time of year when nobody needs that," notes Marjorie Brody, an executive coach who is head of Brody Professional Development, in Jenkintown, Pa., near Philadelphia. "Employees whose bosses give them presents are under no obligation to reciprocate. And, if you do decide to give your boss a gift, there's no need to match the dollar amount that he or she spends on you."

gift_card_holiday.03.gif

She suggests "something small and thoughtful, like home-baked cookies." Or, if you happen to know anything about your boss's hobbies or interests, so much the better. A bibliophile might appreciate a unique bookmark, an enthusiastic home cook might like a basket of spices and kitchen gadgets, and a golfer can always use more balls (you could have them monogrammed for just a few extra bucks). This is one area where it really is the thought that counts, not how deeply you're willing to go into debt.

Brody, who wrote a wonderfully useful book called Professional Impressions: Etiquette for Everyone, Every Day (Career Skills Press, $19.95), offers these tips for stress-free gift-giving at work, whether you're buying for - or receiving gifts from - bosses, co-workers or employees:

The personal touch is nice - but don't get too personal. A recent survey by American Express says that food - cheeses, coffees, chocolates, muffin baskets, and so on - will account for almost half of all corporate gifts this year, "replacing the flowers and gift cards that have dominated in past seasons."

Paperweights, bookends, pens, calendars, and other work-related gifts are also always a safe choice. Clothing, says Brody, is too personal, as are presents with religious connotations.

Three practically foolproof gift ideas: "Movie tickets are always fun," says Brody. "A donation to a charity in someone's name is a nice idea, especially if you happen to know what his or her favorite charity is. And magazine subscriptions are great, because the recipient will be reminded of you every week or every month when the latest issue arrives."

Avoid toiletries: "I know one manager who knew that one of his employees liked to wear a certain kind of body lotion, so he gave her some. She thought it was way too personal and totally inappropriate." Oops.

Unless it's during an office party, try not to give gifts during work hours. "It's distracting, reduces productivity, and can create jealousy if people receive gifts that cost varying amounts," Brody says.

For office-party gift-giving, "whenever possible, set up a 'secret Santa' system where everyone picks a name out of a hat and buys something for that person - but be sure and set a strict price limit." she adds. "This can be really fun, for instance if everyone tries to guess who each gift is for. You can make a game out of seeing how well you know each other."

Always remember to write a thank-you note, even if the gift you receive is awful. Okay, so your mom probably taught you this when you were five (remember that hideous orange sweater your Aunt Lavinia knitted for you?), but it bears repeating.

Be careful what you do with presents you don't like. If you really have no use for a gift - if, for instance, you're on a stringent Atkins diet and find yourself awash in fruitcakes and gingerbread - feel free to "re-gift." But do it away from the office. Far away.

What is Brody giving her own employees this year? "American Express gift cards," she says. "Everyone loves them because they're so flexible."

What dilemmas do you face when buying presents for bosses, co-workers or employees? And what are the best and worst gifts you've received at work? Tell us on our Ask Annie blog.

Ultimate holiday gift-giving guide

Extravagant toys for spoiled rich kids

'Who should I tip and how much should I give?' Top of page