Office Gifting: 5 Best and Worst Holiday Presents for Co-Workers

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The office holiday party can be awkward enough without an inappropriate or unwanted gift exchange. Here's a look at some of the best presents for co-workers and those that may end up earning you a lump of coal. 

To give:

1. Holiday-themed items

You can't go wrong with baked goods or food such as cookies, brownies or cake, says Maralee McKee, The Manners Mentor and author of Manners That Matter for Moms.

"It's the time of year when people are making and sharing treats with one another, so you know this is a gift that's going to be enjoyed," McKee says.

Even if you gift an edible item that's not exactly your colleague's cup of tea, they can share with others.

"That's not something that's easily done with other gifts," says Anne Swift, head of marketing at Nuts.com. "You co-worker can either enjoy the item immediately, pass it around the office or leave it out on their desk for people to come by and snack."

If edibles aren't your style, try a holiday ornament, poinsettia or wreath, McKee recommends.

"It can be kept at the office or taken home and placed on the mantel or door," she says. "The point is you've said, 'I'm thinking of you' and spread some holiday cheer."

2. An experience

What may be even more appreciated than a physical gift is an opportunity to make a memory and have an experience, McKee says. Consider gifting your co-worker with passes to the movies, a museum or festival.

"Most theaters sell passes that cover two tickets to the movie of your choice, plus popcorn and soda. There's no expiration date, so they can go whenever they like and choose whatever movie they want," McKee says. "This gift isn't extravagant, but it's an open invitation for your colleague to enjoy themselves, and they're going to be thinking of you when they do."

3. A board game or other family-oriented gift

For colleagues with kids, one of the best gifts may be a board game that encourages family time.

"We once received a brand-new version of Yahtzee that we had never seen before, and it was the best gift. It inspired us to have some family game nights that we might not have jhad otherwise," McKee says.

If you know the ages of your coworker's children, consider books as well. A collection of holiday stories or other popular bedtime stories are sure to be enjoyed.

4. A token that speaks to their hobby or personality

If you know your colleague is a regular traveler, consider a gadget or gift that can help remove some of the hassles of their next trip, says Morag Barrett, chief executive of SkyeTeam, an international HR and leadership development firm. Not only will they find the gift useful, you're also showing you know them well.

"One of the best items I was ever given was a set of juggling balls. They came with a wonderful message from my 'Secret Santa' about how they represented the many projects that I was working on," Barrett says.

If you know your colleague has a favorite author, for example, a book by that author might not work because they likely have all of the titles. But a little plunking around on eBay or other specialty sites may reveal an autographed photo or signed book your co-worker will truly treasure, McKee says.

"It depends on how much you want to spend, but paying tribute to a hobby or interest always shows that you care, that you know them well," she says.

5. A card

A card may seem like a pretty boring option, but with the right sentiment inside, it can be the most appreciated, most treasured gift of the holiday season, McKee says.

"Get a blank card so the words are all yours," she says. "Then list specifics. Say, 'I remember when you helped me so much by doing this,' or 'I appreciated it so much this year when you did that.' A card that genuinely shows appreciation really touches the heart."

If you want to give a more substantial gift, try writing your sentiment in the front page of a nice journal.

Not to give:

1. Something to decorate their office

If you give your colleague permanent office decor such as a picture frame, a mirror or desk set, they may feel obligated to display it even if they hate it, McKee cautions.

"They may feel like they have to keep it out and look at it for the next year even if it's really not their taste," she says. "Only if you know the person well and you've been to their home should you even think about buying them a decorative item."

2. Alcohol

A bottle of wine may seem innocuous to you, but your colleague may see it as dangerous or even immoral.

"When in doubt, always go with the most conservative viewpoint," McKee says. "We almost need to be Amish about it. You never know when your co-worker may be much more conservative than you imagined, and you don't want there to be any awkwardness when you hand them that gift."

3. A book, CD or DVD that's not completely "G" rated

While we all know that 50 Shades of Grey isn't an appropriate gift for a colleague, even something you think is innocuous may be offensive to others.

"Family Guy may be fine with you, but not with them," McKee says. "Unless you know the person really well and heard them say, 'Oh, I wish I had read that book,' or 'Oh, I wish I had seen that movie,' it's best to steer clear of anything that's not completely family friendly.

4. A Gift card

In general, gift cards are a safe choice, but it may be that they aren't always appropriate for the office. For example, unless you and your colleagues have set a spending limit, a gift card leaves no doubt as to how much you paid.

"If your co-worker bakes you cookies as a holiday present, but then you hand him a $50 gift card, it can leave him feeling uncomfortable," McKee says. "It's usually preferable, especially in a work setting, for the amount you spend to remain a mystery."

Also, some gift cards may miss the mark entirely or be completely inappropriate — even if your heart is in the right place. For example, a gift card to a steakhouse wouldn't be appropriate for a vegan or vegetarian, and even a female-to-female present of a Victoria's Secret gift card can cause awkwardness, McKee says.

5. Anything re-gifted

Re-gifts are obvious 99.9% of the time, McKee says. Don't be that person.

"It is painfully obvious when you're re-gifting," she cautions. "No, you cannot get rid of your uglies by giving them to your co-workers."

In many cases, re-gifts may look outdated, bear the scars of previously taped wrapping paper, or the packaging may show signs of wear.

"It's better to not give anything at all than to pass along something that looks imperfect or used. There's a difference between being frugal and being stingy."

— By Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet

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