The risks far outweigh the rewards if you are planning to buy the boss a Christmas present.
Not only could the boss think you are currying favor, but more importantly your co-workers could, cautions Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work." She suggests writing a nice holiday card telling your boss how much you've enjoyed working together. "It's more meaningful than another coffee mug."
Unfortunately, there are gray areas when it comes to gift giving at work.
"Most of the time I discourage giving your boss a gift. But times have changed, and our relationships have changed. And we often spend more time with co-workers than some members of our family," Ms. Whitmore said, noting that especially in small companies, rules and expectations can be different.
So if the boss expects a present, what then?
Ms. Whitmore, who is based in Palm Beach, Fla., suggests the best route is coordinating a group gift with co-workers.
But be careful. There are boundaries that should not be crossed. Don't give anything too personal, such as perfume, clothing or jewelry and even ties and socks. Flowers also can be too intimate and showy.
And never give gag gifts. "What may be funny to you may not be funny to someone else," she said.
When buying a gift for the boss, Ms. Whitmore said, "Put some thought into it. Make sure it's something [the boss] will enjoy .... If you know the person loves gardening, you might want to get [him] something for the yard."
Homemade gifts or baked goods can make good presents -- but not if your craft projects and cookies look as if they were made in a seventh-grade home-ec class.
What about a nice bottle of wine?
"I wouldn't bring it to the office, but it's OK to bring if the boss is hosting a party at his or her home," Ms. Whitmore said.
For offices that have gift exchanges, it's fine for the boss to participate because the spending limits level the playing field.
Peter Handal, chairman, CEO and president of Dale Carnegie Training, said gift giving should be an enjoyable experience during the holidays, even at work, and offers these tips for office gifts:
• Keep it simple
• Keep it private
• Know your boundaries
• Add a personal touch
• For the boss: coordinate a group gift
• One for all: gifts of equal value
What if your boss gives you a gift? Do you need to reciprocate?
"No, I wouldn't say you have to," Ms. Whitmore said. "You definitely have to write a thank-you note."
She encourages bosses who want to prove they are not Scrooges to give a group gift, such as a chance to socialize out of the office.
"I've always been in favor of gift giving, but you should use discretion," Ms. Whitmore said.
Brian Hyslop: email@example.com or 412-263-1936.