For many workers, the holiday season means making a list, checking it twice—and trying to decide whether to put your boss on it.
Experts say it's a potential minefield because even though many workers may want—or feel the need—to give their boss a small token of appreciation, even the best intentions can quickly go wrong.
"It's a sensitive time of year," said Phyllis Davis, chief executive of the American Business Etiquette Trainers Association, based in southern Florida.
The correct protocol is that bosses should give their employees gifts but employees should not feel obligated to give a gift back, said Colleen Rickenbacher, a business etiquette consultant based in Dallas. Still, she said, it can be perfectly appropriate to give a gift to your boss, especially if you consider your boss a friend or you have worked together for a long time.
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But it pays to do a little research first, especially if you are new to the company. That's because if you give a gift and everyone else doesn't, you may look like you are trying to curry favor. And if you don't give a gift and everyone else does, you may be embarrassed.
Worse yet, if you do give a gift but it's inappropriate, that's the kind of faux pas that can follow you for years to come.
Worst-case in point: Rickenbacher recalled a time when a female employee sent flowers to the home of her male boss. It was meant as a kind gesture, but it left the wife of the boss wondering why flowers were being sent to their home by another woman.
"It was very innocent, but it turned into a huge fiasco," she said.
That's the kind of cautionary tale that makes human resources experts cringe—and advise their clients to stay on the conservative side when it comes to gifts.
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"Always err on the side of caution," said Sharlyn Lauby, a human resources consultant and author of the blog HR Bartender.