Exchanging holiday gifts at the office can be a nightmare - socially and/or legally - if everyone's not on the same page.

Jennifer Barrow, Thinkstock

We spoke to a couple workplace experts in New Jersey to get their advice on the best approach to holiday gift-giving while on the job.

According to Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette expert in Cherry Hill, the general rules of thumb are different for smaller offices compared to larger corporations.

In an office of three or four people, she said, each worker can simply purchase a gift for the others and there will likely be no issues. But when the office or department handles a staff of 20, or even 10, the gift-giving lines get a bit blurry.

"You're not going to buy 20 gifts; that's a lot of money," Pachter said.

If you're close with a few of your coworkers, there's nothing wrong with giving them some extra holiday cheer. Pachter said it just may be best to do the giving or exchanging away from the office, perhaps at someone's home or while out at lunch. That way, no one feels left out.

"It's just too awkward," she said. "It's almost back to kindergarten. You can't invite nine out of 10 people to your birthday party."

Perhaps the easiest way to avoid tension is the group gesture. Bake a batch of cookies for the office and everyone gets a free snack for a day or two.

Chris Capone, an attorney with labor law firm Fisher Phillips in Murray Hill, said individual gift-giving tends to cause more problems than group exchanges such as grab bags.

With group exchanges, companies can give workers the option to participate in the gift-giving experience, preferably with a spending limit and a reminder of what types of gifts are appropriate in the workplace.

"Giving gits to employees should not contain profane, graphic or any kind of sexual content," Capone said.

The boss-to-subordinate gift may leave the door open for the most trouble. Getting a gift for one secretary or assistant is frowned upon, as well as purchasing gifts for only the females in the office.

"Everyone should receive the same gift," Capone said. "Employees who either don't receive a gift or receive a disparity in gift-giving...It tends to give a message that the employee's been slighted and they're disfavored in the workplace."

Gift cards, for the same place and same amount, are an ideal gift, Capone said. Workers also enjoy a day off in the future.

He's seen companies "outlaw" gift-giving altogether to eliminate the threat of headaches.

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