As the end of the year and the holidays draw near, many of us will express our gratitude to friends and family by exchanging gifts. As we are making our holiday gift lists, we may also find ourselves considering gifts for our colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates. Whether your list of recipients is motivated by generosity or obligation, you should take the time to carefully consider which gifts are appropriate.

There are no specific legal guidelines for what is considered an appropriate gift for someone with whom you work. However, you may want to start by looking at your intentions and by remembering that anyone can be held responsible for the work environment he or she helps to create and maintain. Moreover, individuals can be held personally liable for workplace harassment. Therefore, you should give thought to every gift you give to a colleague. Otherwise, your generous gesture may end up “giving back” to you in unanticipated ways.

Before giving a gift to a coworker, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this gift something you would feel comfortable telling your family about?
  • If you make the gift yourself (e.g., baked goods and crafts) is the time you will spend consistent with time you put into other aspects of the relationship with this person?
  • Would you feel comfortable if a coworker gave you this type of gift?
  • If you purchase the gift, is the cost consistent with both your own and the recipient’s comfort level?
  • If you are purchasing the same item for multiple coworkers, do they know about each other’s gifts?
  • Would you be comfortable with their learning about the gifts to others?

If you discover that you are not comfortable with your response to any of these questions, reconsider what you were planning to give.

As a general rule, avoid gifts that are romantic, sexual, or religious in nature. “Humorous” gifts often create problems as well. Moreover, relatively expensive gifts may result in a situation in which an employee feels that acceptance of the gift implies some sort of obligation on his or her part. Therefore, your best bet may be giving gifts that are homemade or of nominal price. You should also not expect gifts in return. Keeping your gifts in a reasonable price range makes that an easier proposition.

Whether you are giving gifts to a peer or a subordinate the same considerations apply, although in the case of a manager’s giving a gift to a subordinate, the manager should be even more cautious in his or her approach. Remember that what feels like simple generosity now while you have a good working relationship with a subordinate, may later be used to support an allegation of discrimination or harassment when or if the relationship sours. For this reason, you should be careful not to be considerably more generous with one (or some) subordinates than you are with others. Be fair in your gift-giving to avoid the perception of preference.

Gifts and cards that are romantic, sexual, or religious should be avoided. The same is true for gifts and cards that poke fun at individuals in protected classifications or purport to be funny at the expense of another person. In contrast, homemade gifts, gift cards, and gifts that are of a nominal price are generally safer options. Items such as plants or food items, particularly if you have an idea of the individual’s tastes, are probably fine. Another suggestion is to make a donation on behalf of the recipient to a nonprofit entity that does not have religious or other political associations. If you know of a worthy entity that the recipient already supports, this would be an ideal choice for a gift.

What can you do to avoid problem gifts at the office? Your company may create policies or send guidance to its employees around the holidays about inter-office gift-giving. The policy or guidance should make clear that gift-giving to or from employees is not required by the company. It is also important to emphasize that gifts given in the office should not be romantic, sexual, or religious in nature, and to remind employees to reconsider giving gifts they deem to be “funny.” To the extent a complaint is received regarding gift-giving, the policy should make clear that the complaint will be investigated in line with existing discrimination and harassment policies.