An Easy Guide to Employee Gift Giving in the US and Canada

December 1, 2015 Jordan Nottrodt

Employee Gift Giving and Taxes

'Tis The Season 

It's that time of the year — the season of giving — when employee appreciation can go a long way in terms of employee happiness and engagement. 

A recent online poll of U.S. employers found that a majority, more than 90% planned to offer some gift or reward to employees during the holidays. 

But, before you start passing out the awesome gifts we list or other cool treats, you’ll need to know the rules around employee gift giving. While you may be celebrating the spirit, the tax authorities may be somewhat of a grinch. 

Scroll below for details on:

Tax Implications of Gift Giving in the United States

Almost any gift you give an employee in the U.S. (unless it qualifies as de minimis) is subject to income tax. 

For example, a $500 iPad given as a gift could cost an employee up to $200 in taxes if claimed legally, which does little for increasing employee happiness.

Most gifts are seen as taxable benefits (fringe benefits) for your employees, which means they will be taxed on them and the values will need to be included in your employee’s year-end forms.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says when it comes to taxable fringe benefits, “The benefit is subject to employment taxes and must be reported on Form W-2.”

Related: Learn everything you need to know about year-end W2 and 1099 tax forms

De Minimis Fringe Benefits

De minimis, by definition, means it’s too trivial or minor to merit consideration.  

Certain de minimis fringe benefits can allow an employer to give “traditional birthday and holiday gifts of property (not cash) with a low fair market value” without  the employee paying additional taxes.

According to the IRS , "If an employer distributes turkeys, hams, or other merchandise of nominal value to its employees at holidays, the value of these items would not constitute salary or wages." 

The frequency of gifts and fringe benefits given to an employee can also have an effect on whether they're considered de minimis.

As a rule, as long as all employees are receiving the same fringe benefits, the frequency does not matter.

For example, a company can provide lunch for all of its employees every day of the year, as long as this benefit is available to all employees. If only one or select employees receive this benefit, it will no longer qualify as de minimis and will be subject to income tax.

The following items qualify as de minimis fringe benefits and are excludable from income tax:

  • Traditional birthday or holiday gifts (not cash) with a low fair market value.
  • Occasional personal use of a copying machine or other office equipment.
  • Occasional cocktail parties or group meals.
  • Occasional theater or sporting event tickets.
  • Occasional coffee, donuts and soft drinks. 
  • Special circumstances, such as flowers, fruit, books, or similar items during an illness or for individual recognition.  
    • The value of a merit or service award presented as cash cannot be greater than $400. 
    • The value of non-monetary awards is a gray area. 

The following items do not qualify as de minimis fringe benefits and are considered taxable income tax:

In the U.S., a cash gift, gift card or gift certificate (no matter how large or small the amount) will always be taxable.

  • A $50 cash bonus doesn’t qualify and is a taxable gift.
  • A $15 Starbucks card doesn’t qualify and is a taxable gift.
  • A $30 grocery gift card is a taxable gift.

You see the trend here?

But, don't be discouraged, where there's a will there's a way.  If gift giving is a tradition you value,  the best practice would be to work with a qualified tax and/or accounting professional in order to determine the implications of the gifts ahead of time. 

Related: Learn How You Can Offer Food Perks and How Food Tech Makes It Easier 

Tax Implications of Gift Giving in Canada

In Canada, the rules around gift giving are a little more straightforward. 

An employer can give an employee up to $500 in non-cash gifts each year before the gift becomes taxable.

In fact, the number of non-cash gifts and awards an employer can give an employee is unlimited as long as the combined total value is $500 or less annually.

However, anything over the $500 employee gift limit, or any form of cash, is considered a tax benefit that employees will need to pay additional taxes on at the end of the year.

For example, if the gifts you give an employee have a total value of $650, there is a taxable benefit of $150 at year-end.

It is also the employer’s responsibility to include these benefits in an employee’s T4.

For the purpose of the exemption, small items are not calculated within the $500 gift-giving limit. Any items of small or trivial value do not have to be included when calculating the total value of gifts and awards given within one year.

Related: Learn everything you need to know about year-end T4 and T4A tax forms

Gifts versus rewards:

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), has specific definitions for gifts and rewards. 

  • A gift is something offered on a holiday or special occasion. 
  • A reward is employment-based and merit-related. 

Non-taxable items of small or trivial value include:

  • Coffee, tea or similar beverages.
  • Company branded merchandise including T-shirts, mugs, etc.
  • Awards such as plaques or trophies.

Regardless of the cost, the following gifts and awards are always considered taxable benefits:

  • Cash or near-cash gifts and awards, including holiday bonuses or gift certificates.
  • Reward points and similar systems redeemable for airfare or other rewards — if these points are controlled by the company.
  • A reimbursement  for a gift or award that the employee selected and paid for.
  • Any gift or reward given by closely held corporations to shareholders or other related persons.
  • Gifts or awards given directly by the manufacturer to the employee of a dealer.
  • Gifts or prizes awarded by social committees are taxable if the committee is funded by the employer. 

Just like in the United States, gift giving in Canada can be subject to nuance. Again, it is best to consult with a qualified tax and/or accounting professional to ensure that everyone experiences the intended joy. 

The People Factor — What Your Employees Want

When asked how they would like their employers to show appreciation, employees said:

  • 27% cash 
  • 16% Fridays off
  • 14% employee training and advancement opportunities
  • 12% movie or event tickets
  • 8% flexible parental leave or telecommuting days
  • 6% massages
  • It's worth noting that a significant number of workers indicated they simply long for a thank-you from their boss. 

“The holidays provide the perfect time for businesses to set themselves apart and attract great talent by recognizing their employees’ hard work.”

— Express Employment Professionals CEO Bob Funk 

Related: [Infographic] 15 of the Most Popular Employee Perks [Spoiler: Some are Free!] 


About the Author

Jordan Nottrodt

Jordan comes from a background of agency communications and strategic problem solving. She is passionate about inbound marketing and believes that the best content comes from knowing your audience and giving them exactly what they want. Working remotely for Wagepoint, she has been able to pursue her other passion of travelling the world one city at a time. Spark an immediate and detailed conversation with Jordan by mentioning Mad Men or Game of Thrones.

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