Itâ€™s that time of year when entering most any department store or office waiting room means hearing the festive sounds of Mariah Carey pleading for her wish to come true.
Thatâ€™s right, the holiday season has descended upon us, and with it all of the peculiar rituals that follow: Hams glazed with honey, toy elves mysteriously placed on shelves, inflated snowmen adorning front lawns and, of course, the tale of George Baileyâ€™s class war against Mr. PotterÂ broadcastÂ across screens the nation over.
But while most of these customs range from vaguely problematic to politically benign to downright socialist, thereâ€™s one that clearly has to go: the practice of workers buying holiday gifts for theirÂ boss.
This bizarre tradition has become all too common in U.S. workplaces, with aÂ full third of American employees nowÂ sayingÂ they regularly purchase aÂ present for their manager. And even those who arenâ€™t already planning to take part are being inundated with messages encouraging them to buy aÂ special something for the person who signs their checks.
AsÂ ForbesÂ implores its readers, “Hereâ€™s Why You Absolutely, Positively Must Buy Your Boss aÂ Holiday Gift.â€ťÂ New York Magazine, meanwhile, just published its catalog of “36Â Gifts for Every Type of Boss.â€ť
This follows in aÂ trend of such laundry-list-style articles, includingÂ Business Insider‘s “46Â Work-Appropriate Gifts for Your Boss Thatâ€™ll Make You Stand Out from the Team,â€ť andÂ Stylecaster’s wallet-friendly “13Â Gifts for Your Boss That Donâ€™t Cost Your Entire Paycheck.” Some companies are even specificallyÂ marketingÂ products as good gifts for the boss.
The message from these enjoinders is clear: Itâ€™s your responsibility to recycle your hard-earned cash back to the very individual who granted it to you in the firstÂ place.
And even if youâ€™ve tuned out these messages, thereâ€™s aÂ high chance of feeling pressure from within your own workplace. Sites such as Reddit, Twitter and Ask aÂ Manager are brimming with stories from workers who have been either asked directly or otherwise pressed to chip in to lavish aÂ tribute on the boss.
Thereâ€™s the part-time, low-wage worker who wasÂ called uponÂ to send money to help pay for the CEOâ€™s family to go on aÂ ski trip. Or the hospital receptionist who wasÂ directedÂ to send cash for four doctors in her office, despite not receiving aÂ holiday bonus. And once the habit is formed, it can be difficult to stop — or even slow down.
One worker reported aÂ 10-year-long tradition that ballooned intoÂ pooling moneyÂ to send not just to their own boss, but also to their bossâ€™s manager, as well as to that personâ€™s assistant. Unless you have Bob Cratchit-levels of generosity, this type of servile expectation is enough to turn anyone into aÂ Scrooge.
The solution? Just stop buying holiday gifts for the boss. And if you arenâ€™t already doing so, donâ€™t start. Thereâ€™s no reason to feel guilt over not participating. All wealth is created by labor, and the fruits of that labor should flow back to workers, not the other way around.
As Karl Marx wrote back inÂ 1867, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.â€ť
The same principle holds true overÂ 150Â year later: Under capitalism, bosses are already sucking the living labor out of their workforces. Using the meager wages gained from that productive work to then heap more money onto owners in the form of gifts just increases employersâ€™ effective profits while further impoverishing those responsible for generating the wealth in the first place.
Ultimately, itâ€™s aÂ trap that enshrines an exploitative power relationship. Thatâ€™s no way to spread holiday joy andÂ cheer.
Whatâ€™s more, even those in the business of giving advice on such matters recommend workers avoid the practice.
Sherri Athay, author ofÂ Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion, routinelyÂ tellsÂ employees not to get their bosses presents. And Alison Green, who runs the Ask aÂ Manager site,Â says, “Etiquette is actually quite clear on this point: Gifts in aÂ workplace should flow downward, not upward. In other words, itâ€™s fine for your boss to give you aÂ gift but you shouldnâ€™t give gifts to your managers. “Certain workplaces, including some departments in the government and military, evenÂ banÂ outright such gift giving to superiors (good onÂ them).Â
After enduring aÂ nightmarish pandemic thatâ€™s stretched on for nearly two years, U.S. workers are reporting aÂ staggering level of burnout and emotional anguish.
NearlyÂ 80%Â sayÂ theyâ€™re worried about their mental health, withÂ 61% of women andÂ 52% of men feeling stressed on aÂ typical day, numbers that haveÂ increasedÂ since the Covid-19Â crisis engulfed the country. And while supply chain issues and resulting price increases are hitting workersâ€™ bank accounts, corporate profits areÂ through the roof, reaching record rates thisÂ year.
Against this backdrop, the practice of giving gifts to the boss stands as woefully absurd. Sure, if you feel personally moved to get a present for someone up the ladder at your workplace, you have the freedom to do so (just so long as itâ€™s not prohibited). But we should all remember that, on the whole, the act reinforces the very predatory dynamic at the heart of our economic system.
This year, take aÂ page out of the playbook of George Bailey and the working people of Bedford Falls by giving gifts and sharing your bounty with friends and family, but not those who alienate you from the products of your own labor. After all, it could help finally makeÂ Comrade Carey’s wish comeÂ true.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 17, 2021; It was republished in December of 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin is aÂ graduate of New York Universityâ€™s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is aÂ Web Editor at In These Times.