A reader writes:
I have a question about gift-giving at work. I agree with the idea overall that gifts should flow downward.
That said, I’m the type of person that sometimes shows appreciation by giving someone something small. I suppose you could say my “love language” is gift-giving. I never feel pressured to give a gift, and when it comes to people at work, I generally never give “unsolicited” gifts. I have a crafty hobby, and I love making things for people. I frequently offer to buy people a drink at happy hour as a “thanks for all your help” kind of thing. Mostly it’s with my coworkers on the same level as me (I’m not a manager and have no direct reports). But because I have this hobby, let’s say macrame, I offer to make people things. I can’t fill my house with all the macrame I make, so if there are people who are interested in it, I love making things for them. I enjoy making it, I enjoy giving people a small piece of joy, and they get something fun made specifically for them.
I offer it the same way I offer a drink at happy hour — “Hey! I love to make macrame. If you ever want anything, I’d love to make it for you.” Some people turn me down, and some people take me up on it. I’ve had people ask me to make something that they intend to give as a gift to someone else. And I love it! I never take money because that makes me uncomfortable.
I offer it to pretty much everyone equally, and I guess that’s where my question comes in. I have made things for people at higher levels than me. Not my direct manager (I offered, they declined, that was it), but other managers. My hobby is not expensive, and I have a large stash of supplies that I easily dip into to make things without ever having to purchase anything.
I’m also guilty of small items I’ve purchased for people — a funny mug for my supervisor, a small item that was an inside joke for my director, nothing expensive, not at a holiday or anything, not even wrapped (if that makes a difference). But it is a “hey, I thought you might like this small and inexpensive thing that is attached to a joke between us” kind of thing. Never a “serious” kind of item.
Am I kind of violating the gift-giving rule in an unacceptable way? I feel like my hobby should be pretty safe, as I only ever make something for someone if they request it or I offer and they accept. But for little items, I am a bit more concerned. I just … love making people happy and if I see a $10 mug with a funny saying on it that I think someone would like, if they’re above me in the organizational hierarchy or not, I want to get it for them. Does it make a difference that it’s something small and random? In a way, I don’t think of these things as “gifts” at all. Just … random tokens.
You’re not doing anything outrageous or committing a massive professional sin … but I’d still rein it in somewhat.
If you want to share your macrame hobby, I think that’s fine. It brings you joy and gives you a creative outlet and sounds like it’s been pretty low-key so far.
Do be aware that can sometimes take a turn — people can start putting expectations on it in a way that turns it into a chore for you — but as long as you’d be comfortable saying no if that happened, I’m not terribly worried about it. It’s also true that if your macrame becomes a big thing office-wide, you don’t want to be known more for your macrame than for your awesome data-crunching or public speaking or other professional skills. (It’s the same with stuff like baking. And by the way, it’s no surprise that this mostly only comes up with hobbies that are coded as female. We don’t seem to need to worry about Dave becoming known for how well he can power-wash a deck. But here we are.)
Anyway, as for the other stuff … eh, maybe it’s fine. It depends on how often you’re doing it. If you worked for me and gave me a funny mug once, sure! That’s no problem. Thanks for the funny mug. But if other small gifts followed, I might start to feel a little uneasy. It’s not so much the “no gifting upwards” rule at play here — it’s that it can be uncomfortable when a colleague engages in one-sided gift behavior. Recipients will start worrying about whether they’re expected to be doing something similar, and that can make gifts feel like burdens. Again, not after a single jokey gift. It’s only if it gets repeated.
It also wouldn’t take much for me to feel like … save your money! This third mug is funny but not $10 worth of funny.
But there are exceptions to this. You might have a dynamic with a colleague or a boss where you’re really sure it’s fine, especially if these are jokey items. If you’re good at reading social cues and you’re confident everyone enjoys this as much as you do, it could be fine to carry on.
That said, it’s useful to realize that the joy you get from giving little gifts isn’t necessarily matched by everyone’s joy in receiving them. You said you do this because you like to make people happy, but a lot of people would be made happier by hearing “cool shoes!” or “you killed it in that presentation” than by receiving a mug. Most people will appreciate the spirit of the offering no matter what, but a lot of people also really don’t want to accumulate more stuff. So if the goal is to make people happy, there might be more varied and more effective ways of doing it.