holiday gifts

Holiday gift-giving at work: 5 ways to get it right

December 6, 2012: 10:20 AM ET

A business etiquette expert tells how to take the awkwardness out of playing Santa at the office.Santa Claus

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: This is my first holiday season with my current employer -- I'm in my first "real" job after college -- so I hope this isn't a dumb question, but what is generally expected in big companies regarding gifts to bosses and coworkers? I interned all last year at a small family-owned firm where everyone knew everyone else really well, and we all had fun giving each other little Christmas and Hanukkah presents. But everything at my new job is much more formal, and I don't want to get this wrong. Should I give my boss a gift, or will that look like I'm kissing up? What about peers? Are there rules for this? — Santa's Stand-In

Dear Stand-In: It's not a dumb question at all. "Proper etiquette around gift-giving at the office is a snake pit for most people, because there's always the potential for making some sort of faux pas that will come back and haunt you later -- or at least, you fear it might," says Vicky Oliver, a personal branding coach and author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. "For instance, let's say your officemate has a little box with a bow on it on her desk. What if it's for you and you didn't get her anything? What if it isn't for you? Should you still give her something? If so, how much should you spend?"

In hopes of dodging such dilemmas, it's customary at many companies for colleagues who aren't also personal friends to wish each other "Happy holidays" and leave it at that. With any luck, your employer is one of them. "Gift-giving is one of those things that varies a lot from one corporate culture to another," says Oliver. "So your best bet is to ask someone you trust who's been there for a couple of years what, if anything, people usually do. Then just follow their lead."

MORE: Why there are no new toys for Christmas

In general, Oliver adds, "you don't need to give gifts to all of your coworkers unless you work in an office of five or fewer people, where leaving one person out would hurt his or her feelings. However, if you have a colleague who has been particularly helpful to you this year, a card expressing thanks and a small gift is entirely appropriate, even if you don't do the same for others. Just be tactful and discreet about it." More

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