How to Survive the Holidays at the Office

Advice on how to navigate sticky workplace situations during the holidays.

The holiday season is rapidly approaching, which presents potentially sticky situations for many professionals around the office, from what not to wear to the company holiday party to how to politely tell your co-worker that you aren’t interested in buying peanut brittle from his kid’s school fundraiser.

Here are five of the most common workplace situations that can crop up around the holidays. And heed these tips for managers and employees on how to address one another without offending anyone.

Attending the Office Holiday Party

We all know that office holiday parties can be potential minefields for business and social interaction. Here are quick answers to common etiquette questions:

To go or not go? Go, unless you’re already planning to quit your job in early 2012.

What to wear? Unless it’s a swanky affair that calls for formal attire, stick with standard office dress. You could add a holiday flourish or two like a glittery scarf for women or a fun holiday-themed tie for men.

What to eat and drink? If you have a chance, eat before you get there. You don’t want to talk to your boss with spinach dip in your teeth. If you plan to consume alcohol, do so in moderation. During my time in corporate human resources leadership, I’ve seen at least a dozen or so holiday party-themed career-stoppers -- from the stereotypical drunken guy passed out on the coatroom floor to the person who dialed 911 because he couldn’t get into his car after the party (only to later find out that the car he’d been trying to McGyver himself into belonged to the director of marketing).

Who should you talk to? Don’t go to the company holiday party and chit-chat with the usual suspects all night long. You also don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and hit up the top brass to let them know about the talent they’re missing in the executive suite. Simply step up to an unfamiliar face and introduce yourself by saying something like, “Hi -- I’ve seen you before but we haven’t met. I’m Joe Smith in accounting.”

What to talk about? Talk about sports or that really good film review you just read. Whatever you do, don’t gossip about other employees, complain about your job or get into shop talk. This is a time to learn something new about your colleagues, not spread office rumors or continue a discussion from a meeting earlier in the day.

Make your pitch? If you happen to find yourself in conversation with a higher-up, you may be wondering if it is the time to propose that idea you’ve been conceptualizing for weeks. The answer? No. Use the conversational opportunity to find out more about the exec’s point of view on the business, instead. They’ll remember you more readily if you show an educated interest in the topics on their plates. Pushing your own agenda won’t impress as much as it will annoy them.

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Taking the Team Out to Lunch

Every year, I get a dozen e-mail messages from frantic HR managers wondering: “What sort of policies do other employers use to standardize holiday department lunches?” In my 20 years as a human resources executive, I’ve found that most companies don’t directly address this issue. Some things work better when they’re allowed to happen organically.

With that said, every manager has a budget, and if some want to use part of their budget to take their teams out to lunch during the holidays, that shouldn’t be a big deal. Here are a couple of tips for managers to consider before footing the bill on the company’s dime:

  • Remember, every employee has control over his or her own lunch hour. Some people use this time to run errands that can’t be completed after the workday has ended, such as going to the bank or post office. What you don’t want to do is make your subordinates feel as if an invitation to a holiday lunch is mandatory. Simply send out an e-mail that says, “Join me for lunch at the Good Food Grille at noon!” If everyone can make it, great. If not, there shouldn’t be any sideways glances at those who are unable to attend.


  • The more preparation you do, the better. Call ahead and let the restaurant know that you’re bringing a large group. Otherwise, your lunches may appear at the table sporadically over a half-hour period, which may frustrate those who need to be back at the office by a certain time for afternoon meetings. If you can cater the lunch and have it brought to the office, that works even better.

    Participating in Holiday Fundraisers

    It would be very Scrooge-y for a manager or HR to prevent employees from bringing holiday-themed fundraiser materials to work, but we’d understand if they sometimes felt the urge. While good in theory, fundraisers have the potential to be a huge pain for everyone around the office.

    It’s one thing to leave a box of chocolates in the break room with a small sign reading: “Buy a chocolate bar for $2.00 to support the Lakeside High School Wrestling Team.” It’s a whole different scenario to stop people in the hallway or to visit their desks to ask that they review the gift wrap/holiday knick-knack/assorted chocolates catalog from your son’s elementary school. If you have any hesitations about whether prodding your co-workers to participate in a holiday fundraiser could prove troublesome, err on the side of caution. Ask your direct manager or HR department head before bringing any materials into the office.

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    Addressing Religion at the Office

    The holiday season can be a fun time around the office -- decorating your cubicles and taste-testing the various treats brought in by co-workers. Religion, however, can be the sticky wicket that makes a joyous time seem a bit uncomfortable. That’s why it’s important for managers to discreetly remind their employees that people follow lots of faith traditions, and much like political affiliations, religion is a topic best kept out of the workplace.

    That means holiday decorations should veer toward the Santa Claus route, and that’s it. There is nothing wrong with using “Merry Christmas” as a greeting in an e-mail or letter, but don’t be surprised if your colleague or vendor responds with, “Well, I celebrate Kwanzaa, but thanks.” In general, it is best to stick with a nonreligious holiday frame of mind.

    Giving Gifts

    The #1 rule: Check your employee handbook. This goes for managers and employees alike. Gift-giving and receiving can get complicated, especially where customer and vendor relationships are involved. Your company may have a conflict of interest policy in place, which prevents you from giving gifts to clients, as well as receiving them. Take no chances with these matters, because this is the kind of thing that gets people fired when not adhered to. Remember, when in doubt, ask your boss.

    As for giving gifts to your fellow colleagues, manager or direct reports, you have a choice: Either you can steer clear of gift-giving altogether to avoid hurt feelings, misconstrued intentions and the blurring of lines between professional and social relationships; Or if you do decide to give gifts, opt for nonpersonal or one-size-fits-all types of items, such as a fruit basket or a tub of fancy popcorn for your entire team.

    If your company limits gift-giving and receiving (inside or outside the company) to a specific dollar value, stick to it. Keep your receipts just in case your manager or someone in accounting asks to see them.

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