I have an administrative assistant. Also, this is in the US, our office has around 20 people, and I'm one of the "higher" people (i.e. I have an admin), but I'm not really the boss of anyone.

I generally do not give anyone holiday gifts in the office but, last year, succumbing to some peer pressure from the actual boss (we were told that it's strongly encouraged to give Christmas tips/gift to our assigned administrative assistant), I did throw in my $50 and signed the card. However, due to several issues with this admin (not exactly personal issues), I am very inclined to return to my previous policy of not giving any gift. Most importantly, her performance has been very bad this year: she has made innumerable mistakes (scheduling, failing to order things we needed, many errors in clerical duties like copy editing), and there have been multiple incidents where she has incited significant conflict in the office (e.g. yelling at someone out of exasperation, starting unsolicited political debates, and blaming others/accusing others of things without any evidence). This person's manager has failed to remediate the situation (there's always a promise that it will "be handled soon") but that is an entirely different issue.

My issue is: I do not want to give this admin a Christmas tip because a) I'm not a gift guy (receiving or giving) and couldn't care less about the holidays; and more importantly b) I do not believe this person deserves a bonus or should have their poor performance and behavior reinforced.

Question: How exactly should I navigate this situation?? Just stiff this admin without ever addressing it face-to-face? Explain my reasoning? Get this admin some nominal gift (e.g. some $5 trinket) as a significant step down from the cash gift last year? Other suggestions?

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    I have edited in the US tag because 'obligatory' holiday gifts are very much US thing and people in other countries may not realize that. In Europe people find it very strange that these things are expected of you.
    – user8036
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 15:57
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    Is all this effort/energy worth 50$?
    – Tom Sawyer
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:37
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    As @JanDoggen says, outside the US, Christmas gifts to coworkers is generally not done. Work is work and personal is personal.
    – smci
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:35
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13 Answers 13


Christmas gifts are not performance bonuses. They are "hey, you are a human being, and so am I. Happy Holidays!" Allowing other, professional issues to bleed into that "other side" gesture implies something about the valued humanity of one side or the other, possibly.

If you have issues with performance, they should be handled through normal performance review channels, normal disciplinary channels, normal compensation increase/bonus channels.

If this person's professionalism bothers you enough that you dislike them and don't want to contribute to a gift from the people who avail themselves of her work throughout the year, according to company etiquette, then don't give. But I have to feel that being conspicuously absent from a gesture of holiday appreciation is not going to improve issues, at all. You're going to add very specific personal drama and resentment to the mix.

Whether you give gifts at work, in general, is only relevant if someone else works in a direct support position for you as an administrative assistant does. This is a common gesture, from those who make a lot more money and benefits, to those who they ask to do scut-work they'd much rather not do themselves. Not only do they make less, but their work tends to be much more of a drudge, specifically because they're doing your drudge-tasks so you don't have to. That's what the gesture acknowledges.

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    Right. how_to_navigate, you are seeing this as a bonus, but other people won't. If there's a custom at your work where admin assistants get a Christmas gift from the people they assist and you ignore it, your assistant won't view it as a statement on the quality of her work because it's not tied to work, it's tied to Christmas customs. She'll likely take it as a personal insult. If you have issues with her performance, deal with them normally, not through what will be seen as a spiteful action. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:33

Not giving a gift this year won't make the situation any better - she'll simply resent working with you that much more and the problem will only get worse.

Try to separate Christmas from work and do the gracious thing in offering a gift in comparison to last year. This might alleviate some of the strain that's going on and reboot things for next year.

A bad working situation doesn't mean that you can't still be a good and gracious boss.

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    "Try to separate Christmas from work and do the gracious thing" - well, OP already stated he's not into holidays at all.
    – Alex C
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 14:03
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    @AlexC, that is irrelevant. The cultural expectation is that he give a gift and he will be perceived by all as cheap, rude and unprofessional if he does not.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 14:17
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    I agree with @HLGEM that the most important thing on the line is OP's ability to fit into the company culture. No matter whether you like it or not, blending into the company culture is extremely important for your own job satisfaction, performance reviews, eligibility for promotions, getting good letters of recommendation, and having fewer personal problems with other people later. Your individual distaste for the secretary is a minuscule problem relative to the potential impact on your career if you come across as mismatched to the company culture. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 15:48
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    Company culture "compliance" is such a highly valued trait that for some hiring managers, cultural fit is more important than the skills you bring to the table. This is very prevalent in the US where we both live and work. Whether that should be the case or not is another matter entirely, but it's a fact for a great many companies in the present day. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 15:49
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    I would add that the OP, out of spite, will basically be disobeying a strong suggestion from his OWN superior, who may perceive this slight to the subordinate in a negative light.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 13:01

Get this admin some nominal gift (e.g. some $5 trinket) as a significant step down from the cash gift last year?

I think your best best is to "step down" the level of gift you give to something that won't provide too much heart burn for you, but at the same time won't promote more of a lapse in performance. If the standard has been set for gift giving, its hard to undo it without risking a hit to your reputation, but you definitely could scale it back some.

For example if you gave a 50 dollar gift last year, going forward make it 25.

  • Yes, OP should be careful not to have that people used to receive expensive gifts from him.
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 20:21
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    Yeah, this combined with @PoloHoleSet's answer above. Give a gift to keep peace and be a nice human, but it definitely doesn't have to be worth the same amount as last year.
    – senschen
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 13:00
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    +1 For an answer that considers the practical and isn't just a lecture for OP and OP only. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 18:49
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    +1 I think this is the answer that focuses on the most sutiable compromise. (Though personally I'd go for even less than $20.)
    – Pharap
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 17:37
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    @Pharap While I agree that a Christmas gift for your assistant doesn't need to be expensive, if you scale down due to performance this will push buttons and you will come of as petty, unprofessional and a heartless boss. Choose your general gift size upfront and stick with it - maybe go up if you feel like it, but be very careful if you ever think you should reduce the value. If you do, try to make it a soft change (small steps and buy stuff where the value is hard to measure). Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 5:36

When it comes to giving gifts, it's often the thought that counts. It's a symbolic gesture of good faith. Your best route is to contribute something within the $5 to $20 value range: small enough that it doesn't cost you much, but large enough to show your consideration.

Here are some reasons why:

  • Generally speaking, winter holiday gifts are given for cultural reasons, rather than as performance-based rewards. Bonuses and salaries are entirely separate! They come from the company funds, and are distributed via the company's payment process.

  • Your boss "strongly encouraged" you to give a Christmas present, which is customary. Despite your personal philosophy against giving handouts, it would be bad form to withhold a gift. Doing so would make you look bad to your administrative assistant (who expects a gift from you) and to your boss (who expects you to give a gift).

  • You mentioned that you are not this person's boss. Although the administrative assistant reports to you, if you are not their boss, then you don't decide their official pay, and you are not in the position to punish them.

  • By giving a gift, you won't need to explain your opinion. Otherwise, if you express your opinion that they don't deserve a holiday gift, then you risk being seen as judgmental and insulting. Don't hurt your existing working relationship with this person.

  • If you refuse to give a gift, you risk being viewed as uncaring and cheap, which could reflect poorly among your peers, and hurt your professional reputation.

  • Gifts should be affordable, yet tasteful. $50 from your personal cash is somewhat high, and you can buy a reasonable gift for less. Aim for something that the person would like, such as a large mug if they like coffee, or a box of chocolates if they like sweets. Purchasing a "$5 trinket" could work, as long as it seems somewhat thoughtful.


While people work for you, you want to create a great working environment for them.

Treating people poorly doesn't make them better workers, and it doesn't magically replace them.

If you have issues with someone who works for you, going passive aggressive is one of the very worst ways to address them.

Going forward I recommend you give her the present, and figure out how to improve her performance, how to fix your impression of her performance, or how to replace her.

On a related note, I strongly advise against cash gifts in situations like these. They aren't thoughtful and they are way too easy to compare to gifts received at different times by different people.

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    +1 for pointing out that the cash gift last year is an important factor in why this year is complicated. Giving an item (with the price tag removed!) means you can scale back, buy something on clearance, etc. without it being obvious to the recipient that you halved the budget.
    – user812786
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 14:39

Understand that since your boss told you last year to do this, this is part of the organizational cultural expectation. If you don't do it, you will look petty and cheap.

Since this was a cash gift, you also need to understand that administrative people are not well paid and to withhold this is likely to cause her to have a financial issue during the holidays which frankly makes you much worse to her than the nominal amount (to you) of $50 might indicate.

So not only are you going to be more badly perceived than you might expect, you are likely to see even worse performance from her next year as she may well be angry with you that she had to choose between paying the electric bill and Christmas dinner.

Honestly, I would lose all respect for anyone in management who refused to buy a present for the admin assistant no matter what the performance. It is simply expected everywhere I have ever worked.

You need to look at your attitude on gifts as they are a cultural expectation in many ways. An attitude that you don't want to give anything carries over to your attitudes about work performance in general. It is more effective to give more. It is less effective to behave as if you think the needs of other people are unimportant and beneath you to notice. Based on what you wrote, I am entirely unsurprised that you don't get good performance from your admin assistant.

  • He's not this person's boss or manager, and he's not himself a manager, so I think you've worded this answer a bit too harshly on OP. However, being attentive to cultural expectations in a company is super important for your long-term viability in the role, and for maintaining interpersonal relationships with your coworkers. We're all humans and we can't totally eliminate our biases that might form against someone, even if their work output is great, if they act in a way that is culturally insensitive. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:03
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    He is senior enough to have an admin assistant and while he is not her official supervisor, he states he is one of the senior people in his workplace. He needs to learn that this is a cultural expectation and that it doesn't matter that he doesn't want to give a present.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:10

How exactly should I navigate this situation?

Something that has worked for me, when I am dubious on if I should or not give Christmas gifts, is to just buy some Candies and hand them at the office. That or any small item or gift you consider appropriate, in case people there don't like candies.

I usually accompany that with a "Merry Christmas" and maybe some kind words to compliment that person or thank them for everything this year.

No need to give an expensive present or performance bonus, what counts is the detail and time you took to make that gesture. Of course you can do that if you want, but be careful not to get them used and start expecting from you expensive gifts every time... that surely can turn into something problematic.


If you travelled to a foreign country, started working there, and were told that giving a $50 gift to your assistant was a cultural expectation and company obligation by your superior (even if it's not "official" or written down anywhere) - would you follow their guidance, the prevailing culture, and the spoken obligation?

I suspect you would.

This is a business affair. Your superior has made it clear to you what the expectation is, the company is funding it (I assume so - if they're asking you to pay out of your own salary then you have every right to submit an expense report), and your own feelings on the matter are largely irrelevant.

If you choose not to follow your boss's advice, explain your feelings and your refusal, don't let it slip by, just dropping the matter altogether. They will then have to decide if they have to discipline you, assign this task to someone else, or perhaps reassign your assistant so you no longer receive those services, so you don't feel obligated to participate in this cultural expectation.

Either way, it should be very clear to you that this is a task your superior has given you, so whether you do it or not, report back to your superior with sufficient notice so they can assign it to someone else and meet company obligations.

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    Nowhere in the OP did he state that he'd be eligible to expense the gift. In fact, in the United States, it is quite uncommon to be able to expense a personal gift for someone else, even if giving it is expected per company culture. Again, he stated this is nothing official, so the company has zero financial obligation to him if he gives something. But the cultural expectation can, in fact, virtually compel (not literally compel, but close) him to shell out some cash from his own wallet for someone he doesn't particularly like. The consequences are being seen as a misfit, which is never good. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 15:53
  • This really shouldn't be viewed as a business obligation, because the boss made it clear that it wasn't. It's a cultural obligation. There are no immediate consequences to shirking these, like there would be if he were given a business directive by his boss to chip in. But there can be long-term consequences like not getting a favorable performance review, being passed over for promotions, or not getting the best letter of recommendation when changing jobs. Still, if he ignores his boss and gives nothing to the admin assistant, that isn't a fireable offense, and he'll keep his job for now. Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 15:57
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    Business obligation or not, the simple truth is that bosses (perhaps this is a USA thing) expect to be listened to for such "suggestions". They know they cannot give an absolute order without risking legal trouble, but it would be naive in the extreme to think this blatant disobedience will not influence their thinking when it comes to professional decisions. Good luck trying to prove this is why your own bonus was shrunk or you were passed over for promotion or otherwise punished or dinged. That's life, corrupt as it is. It is a real risk to make your boss actively dislike you.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 13:15
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    @Amadeus Particularly if your choices result in whining or other problems from their other employees.
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 14:20
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    @AdamDavis Exactly, and the OP may never know. I've been a supervisor in the USA for 25 years, I learned quickly it is best to not explain my decisions, even if innocent. Blame the budget if you must. It is like learning quickly to never touch an employee except in a medical emergency, no matter how innocent the touch it can produce a lawsuit. Explanations are ammunition for frivolous lawsuits; an ugly fact of business in the USA, and contrary to TV portrayals, an express ticket to unemployment for a supervisor. It is impersonal, but that is what current law and litigious workers require.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 14:47

You could pull a Google and tell her that you'll donate XX$ to a charity of her choice.

Doing this allows you to follow the cultural traditions of gift giving without seeming like a Grinch. It also allows you to transition into giving no gifts at all in subsequent years (since it helps prepare a mindset that you're not going to give employees a (real) gift).

Since you aren't giving an actual gift to her, you might find this to be more acceptable to you (regardless of whether she is performing well or not) since it won't really be seen as a type of reward or bonus.


Explain to your boss your concerns about your admin's performance.

Mention that the separate matter of Christmas gift/bonus was raised by them and that last year you bought a card and gave your admin $50 out of your pocket.

Explain that this year you would like to give them a card and $100.

Tell your boss that you will put in a requisition for the funds and request an hour of OT to purchase the card (or ask for a bonus if you are salaried).

You can go a bit further and cover yourself by writing up a draft and having your admin type it up and forward it to your boss.

Your boss and admin will each be aware of the situation to the extent that it is their concern and you should be slightly better off.

In North America the company usually handles the bonuses (even at Christmas) and to impose upon you that you must give a gift seems unfair; though the company may be within it's rights to reassign your admin and offer no replacement.

A $50 gift from an executive for a year's service isn't generous.

Some people don't celebrate Christmas, saying essentially to someone that they accept Christmas and $50 is another matter.

Gifts should be given with a genuine heart to people whom you wish to give a gift, let the boss accept all responsibility for mandatory gifting.

On another note, along the same lines.

Should you also send gifts to the best customers. Sending cards is often done systematically to the entire customer list (even if they haven't done business with you in the past year).

If you're sending gifts to some customers also (like an 'office gift', if your company makes photocopiers you'd send them one; if they'd bought 10K), it's fair that the company should pay for promotional or feel-good gifting.

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    Why are you pulling the boss into this? Both the gift and managing the admin are squarely the OP's problem. Also, due to conflict of interest concerns, company expense policies usually don't allow expensing personal gifts. Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 10:39
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    @jpatokal - Why? - The question says: "Im not really the boss of anyone", "... succumbing to some peer pressure from the actual boss (we were told ..." and "This person's manager has failed to remediate the situation (there's always a promise that it will "be handled soon")". The OP has raised the issue with the immediate superior and no action has been taken. It is the boss, according to the OP, whom though he would "expense personal gifts" and you don't see it as some type of conflict, the OP says: "... she has incited significant conflict ..." amongst a long list of complaints.
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 16:49

I have been in a similar situation, and when I stiffed the lazy admin (who didn't report to me but I depended on her work) I was the bad guy, not her. Think about your work relationships; if you genuinely don't value this person, but the boss "strongly suggests" you give a gift, just do it. Your relationship with the boss is worth > $50. If you give less, that fact will zoom around the office like a flu bug. So give, you'll still be a good guy, and you'll have the added bonus of giving the admin one less thing to complain about. But in the new year, get to work on getting him/her to shape up or ship out.


I'm one of the "higher" people (i.e. I have an admin), but I'm not really the boss of anyone

The term "boss" immediately jumps out here. It's a loaded term that often carries a negative connotation. This entire statement gives the impression that there is a lament that you are higher up but lack underlings to which you can "boss."

However, due to several issues with this admin (not exactly personal issues), I am very inclined to return to my previous policy of not giving any gift.

You are conflating (confusing, perhaps?) performance and gift gifing. Performance is performance and needs to be evaluated as such. Gift giving is gift giving and is done out of the generosity of the gift giver. The distiction is important and obvious:

Gifts should never be conditional. The moment they are, they become compensation. Either you are generous enough (financially or empathetically) to give a gift or you're not. Remember, a worker earns a bonus, not a gift.

yelling at someone out of exasperation,

You list a myriad of performance issues, but interestingly enough, you list this one first. You obviously recognize she is acting out because she is exasperated. Why is she exasperated? Is she saddled with responsibility but no authority? Does she have a "boss" that shows no empathy or feels she is not appreciated? Is she laking in skills to effectively do her job? There are a number of reasons and to be an effective, empathetic leader, you need to determine why.

The next two statements:

I'm not a gift guy (receiving or giving) and couldn't care less about the holidays;


but, last year, succumbing to some peer pressure from the actual boss (we were told that it's strongly encouraged to give Christmas tips/gift to our assigned administrative assistant)

clearly indicate that the "actual" boss is communicating to you that gift giving is the culture at this organization especially to those who support you. Regardless of how you feel about gift giving, this is what they do there; either adapt or leave. Administrative assistants can either make you a hero or allow you to fail. Consider that when navigating through the culture.

Bottom line, you are free to (not) give a gift to this employee, but the ramifications of that decision will continue to manifst through the coming year; both with the Admin assistant and your bosses. That said, her performance issues should be addressed at the time of the infraction not at the end of the year in the form of a gift.


Announce that you will neither be giving or receiving any gifts this year.

Do not give anyone a gift, do not accept any gifts - cut yourself off from the holiday.

Giving a gift may be culturally expected of you, but it's not mandatory and it's not part of your job.

If you announce far enough in advance that you do not wish to give or receive gifts then nobody can complain that they have bought you something already, and if they already have they will have chance to return it.

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