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It’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. That’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 Bailey’s class war against Mr. Potter broadcast across screens the nation over. But while most of these customs range from vaguely problematic to politically benign to downright socialist, there’s one that clearly has to go: the practice of workers buying holiday gifts for their boss.
This bizarre tradition has become all too common in U.S. workplaces, with a full third of American employees now saying they regularly purchase a present for their manager. And even those who aren’t already planning to take part are being inundated with messages encouraging them to buy a special something for the person who signs their checks. As Forbes implores its readers, “Here’s Why You Absolutely, Positively Must Buy Your Boss a Holiday Gift.” New York Magazine, meanwhile, just published its catalog of “36 Gifts for Every Type of Boss.” This follows in a trend of such laundry-list-style articles, including Business Insider’s “46 Work-Appropriate Gifts for Your Boss That’ll Make You Stand Out from the Team,” and Stylecaster’s wallet-friendly “13 Gifts for Your Boss That Don’t Cost Your Entire Paycheck.” Some companies are even specifically marketing products as good gifts for the boss. The message from these enjoinders is clear: It’s your responsibility to recycle your hard-earned cash back to the very individual who granted it to you in the first place.
And even if you’ve tuned out these messages, there’s a high chance of feeling pressure from within your own workplace. Sites such as Reddit, Twitter and Ask a Manager are brimming with stories from workers who have been either asked directly or otherwise pressed to chip in to lavish a tribute on the boss. There’s the part-time, low-wage worker who was called upon to send money to help pay for the CEO’s family to go on a ski trip. Or the hospital receptionist who was directed to send cash for four doctors in her office, despite not receiving a holiday bonus. And once the habit is formed, it can be difficult to stop — or even slow down. One worker reported a 10-year-long tradition that ballooned into pooling money to send not just to their own boss, but also to their boss’s manager, as well as to that person’s assistant. Unless you have Bob Cratchit-levels of generosity, this type of servile expectation is enough to turn anyone into a Scrooge.
The solution? Just stop buying holiday gifts for the boss. And if you aren’t already doing so, don’t start. There’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 in 1867, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” The same principle holds true over 150 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 employers’ effective profits while further impoverishing those responsible for generating the wealth in the first place. Ultimately, it’s a trap that enshrines an exploitative power relationship. That’s no way to spread holiday joy and cheer.
What’s more, even those in the business of giving advice on such matters recommend workers avoid the practice. Sherri Athay, author of Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion, routinely tells employees not to get their bosses presents. And Alison Green, who runs the Ask a Manager site, says, “Etiquette is actually quite clear on this point: Gifts in a workplace should flow downward, not upward. In other words, it’s fine for your boss to give you a gift but you shouldn’t give gifts to your managers.” Certain workplaces, including some departments in the government and military, even ban outright such gift giving to superiors (good on them).
After enduring a nightmarish pandemic that’s stretched on for nearly two years, U.S. workers are reporting a staggering level of burnout and emotional anguish. Nearly 80% say they’re worried about their mental health, with 61% of women and 52% of men feeling stressed on a typical day, numbers that have increased since the Covid-19 crisis engulfed the country. And while supply chain issues and resulting price increases are hitting workers’ bank accounts, corporate profits are through the roof, reaching record rates this 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 it’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 a 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 make Comrade Carey’s wish come true.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin