5 awkward holiday situations at work — and how to handle them

With gift-giving, holiday parties, and alcohol in the mix, December probably has more opportunity for awkward moments in the workplace than any other month.

Here are five awkward situations you might encounter at work this month and what you can do to smooth them over.

1. A coworker gives you a gift and you don’t have one to give in return. Some people give gifts to their coworkers and some don’t, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to give gifts just because others do. It’s fine to simply give a sincere and gracious “thank you.” However, if you’re going to feel awkward about not reciprocating, you can follow up with something small: a card, a gift card for the local coffee shop, cookies, or whatever small token you feel would be appreciated.

One exception: You should never feel obligated to give a gift to your boss, even if she gives one to you. Many managers give holiday presents to their subordinates but don’t – or may even feel uncomfortable with – gifts in return.

2. At the holiday dinner, you’re asked to lead your table in prayer and you’re not religious. It’s fine to bow out altogether, politely saying something like, “I’m not religious, but perhaps someone else would like to?” This way you’re welcoming others to pray if they wish to, but excusing yourself from it, which is perfectly appropriate at a business gathering. Alternately, if you’re comfortable with it, you might simply suggest a moment of silence for the table.

3. You find out your coworker is allergic to your gift or otherwise can’t use it. If you accidentally gave a chocolate nut ball to the coworker with the nut allergy or a bottle of wine to a non-drinker, simply apologize and offer to find the item another home. You might follow up with a substitute gift later if you’d like.

4. Your date gets drunk at the company holiday party. If your date is noticeably drunk, leave as quickly and discreetly as possible. If leaving early will be remarked on, explain that your date isn’t feeling well and needs to get home. In some offices, a drunken date might simply be amusement for your coworkers, but in others it will reflect poorly on you – so remove yourself from the situation as quickly as you can.

5. You get drunk at the company holiday party. Ideally you’d avoid this happening in the first place; after all, company parties are business events, not purely social ones, and so your drinking should be minimal and controlled. However, if the worst happens and you get noticeably drunk, don’t ignore it afterwards and hope everyone just forgets about it. Your coworkers might not say anything to you about it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed. If you embarrassed yourself at the party, address it head-on with an apology. Say, “I apologize for my behavior on Friday night; I didn’t realize how much I’d drunk until it was too late. It won’t happen again.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    Not an awkward situation per se, just irritating, can we stop pushing the food at people?

    This is the week for everyone and their uncle to bring in baked goods from home – which is nice (I almost did it, but got too aggravated at the outcome of the Survivor finale last night to pack them up) – but just leave them and let people indulge or not as they will.

    I have a co-worker for whom my respect grew my leaps and bounds this morning when she sent out an email that there were x in the kitchen and to help yourself and that was all. She didn’t come around to everyone’s desk insisting that they partake and looking hurt when they don’t.

    1. Anonymous*


      LOL. Just this morning I’ve already had two people come in my office with treats— it is a nice gesture, I just agree I’d prefer that people simply leave them in the caf or by the water cooler.

    2. Sasha*

      I have a coworker that will not partake in food like this, but pushes it on others. I think he finds it amusing. He’s on a really strict diet of his choosing, so he won’t eat cookies or anything, but is trying to get everyone else to eat them. It’s weird.

    3. Sasha*

      P.S. And it’s not food that he brought. Felt like I needed to clarify that. He never brings communal food.

      1. Jamie*

        That is really weird. Either living vicariously through those who do eat it, or wanting to see them eat so he feels superior? I just can’t imagine why he’d care.

        I am so glad the co-worker to whom I referred did it this way because it actually looks very interesting…but it’s a flan and I would have to have to explain how it looks yummy but I don’t eat slippery foods. Because I absolutely do have the palate of a five year old.

        A really unadventurous five year old.

        1. Sasha*

          I think it’s control. Like he gets a power rush from getting them to do what he wants. He tries it with other little things as well. An odd fellow.

          Pretty much all my coworkers will send out the email notice about food, I’m lucky that there is a precedent for that. We have had many people work in my dept in years past who abstain from certain foods for a variety of reasons, so it’s commonly understood you don’t go around offering it. Except for Weird Dude up there.

    4. Chassity*

      I recently had a colleague come into my office with a box of doughnuts and wave them in my face even though he’s 100% aware that I have several food allergies that prevent me from eating something like this. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

      1. Sasha*

        Oh that’s sad! I accidentally did the same to a coworker, but I forgot that she had the allergies…she is new and had told me a couple times, but it just didn’t stick. I felt bad and apologized but she was very gracious about it. But to wave them in your face…

    5. LK*

      Ugh, my office does this ALL THE TIME. Just this morning we had cake for someone’s birthday (they’re super into celebrating birthdays here, it’s so weird) and I didn’t partake in the cake and it was a huge deal with multiple people questioning me/insisting I take a piece/acting pissed off when I didn’t cave in. Who cares what other people eat??

        1. Kelly O*

          Not LK, but I imagine something like “oh come on, just take a LITTLE piece” or “oh one piece won’t hurt, here let me get you one” – the polite insistence is a little frustrating sometimes. Because a simple “no, thank you” is never enough for them.

    6. Ellie H.*

      I have been dreading this this year but it’s not so bad. We had a cookie exchange today and I’m eating a brownie from it right now. (I made the brownies, from a mix and I added Christmas M&Ms. Everyone else’s cookies are terrible!) But the worst is all of the comments on how much weight people gain over the holidays, and people who make a big deal out of turning down food because they “can’t” eat it, or out of how “good” someone is being for turning down treats.

      The gift reciprocation (#1) is awkward too. I have this scarf that I think a coworker would like (it was actually re-gifted to me – it is really nice, beautiful and hand-knit, but I have enough scarves that I don’t wear) and I’d like to give it to her but I don’t want her to feel weird about it. I meant to bring it in to see if she wanted it last month but now I have to wait until after the holidays to avoid this issue!

    7. KellyK*

      Totally freaking agree. What other people are eating or not eating is nobody’s business but their own. I think it rises to the level of an awkward holiday situation—or at least it can, depending on how pushy people are or how often it’s repeated.

      “Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent,” should be posted on a giant banner in every workplace kitchen and cafeteria. (I’d say we should do that at Chocolate Teapots, Inc., but I think we’ll actually just screen out food police during the interviews.)

      I mean, I understand the desire to make people happy with food and to have people like the stuff you make, but if your day is going to be ruined because someone doesn’t try one of your cupcakes, you may be better off not bringing them.

      1. Jamie*

        (I’d say we should do that at Chocolate Teapots, Inc., but I think we’ll actually just screen out food police during the interviews.)

        I’m having a very crappy day and this made me laugh out loud. I needed that, thanks. :)

        I really need to work in that world.

    8. Chinook*

      Aggravated at Survivor? I PVRed and now I am dreading watching it. Then again, Abi is out, so it can’t be that bad.

      1. Jamie*

        Don’t dread it on account of me – I’m almost always of the minority opinion of who should win that show …so me being aggravated means most of the audience won’t be.

        On topic – another holiday aggravation …don’t tell me to smile because it’s almost Christmas.

        I’m not 10 – Christmas costs me money…it’s not a windfall for me. Also, problems with the power caused me to come into an absolute clusterf**k of problems today (it’s almost 2:00 and I’m still digging out) and I don’t see Santa showing up with new personnel, a gift certificate to a massage therapist, or a cot so I can take a nap…I’ll smile when two out of three of those things happen.

        And calling me a Grinch when I don’t smile on command will only cause me to start looting Whoville. They’ve been warned.

        1. KellyK*

          If you need a fake reindeer to pull your sleigh full of loot, you can borrow one of my dogs—they’re much bigger and stronger than Max, and maybe it’ll tire them out a little.

  2. Anonadog*

    One of my coworkers got too drunk at our holiday luncheon. When he realized how intoxicated he was, he left early. I thought that was very graceful and professional!

  3. Hari*

    Just had our holiday party where it was the GOAL to get everyone drunk . We didn’t have an open bar and karaoke for nothing! Good thing for the taxi vouchers they gave out lol. Work hard, play hard in advertising ;)

  4. Chocolate Teapot*

    We have “The Table” at work for anything that people bring in to eat (chocolates, biscuits, cakes, croissants etc.) which is close to the little kitchen and office fruit basket. Often there isn’t an announcement, just the appearance of any or all of the above.

  5. RJ*

    Out of all the times I’ve been inappropriately drunk, I’ve managed to avoid it at office affairs. However, if you were in the position of having to apologize, to whom would you direct the apology? Your boss? Anyone you accidentally hit on? Everyone who’s laughing at you?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Definitely to anyone you hit on! But more generally, to anyone who you think noticed you behaving inappropriately or sloppily. Just a quick in-person comment, doesn’t need to be anything elaborate and definitely not a staff-wide email (which would be treasured forever, but probably not in a way you’d want).

      1. Sasha*

        I was curious about the method as well. An in-person comment sounds like the best idea. A mass email might seem too flippant, or overly dramatic, depending on how you worded it.

      2. Jamie*

        Treasured forever is right! I knew a guy once who sent his boss a “and let me tell you a couple of things…” email when he was completely wasted.

        Did not recall sending it the next morning, but that was okay, because we ALL had a copy for him to look at to refresh his memory.

        Drunken emails are funny, emails apologizing for drunkenness are probably also remembered for a long time.

  6. Drew*

    I just have to share… last week my company co-hosted a holiday party with a number of our partners and clients in an attempt to smooth over some difficult relationships. The partners (think gov. and utility high-ups) were noticeably conservative in their drinking, while the executive director of one of our subcontractors was getting touchy-feeling less than an hour in. Two hours in, the party came to a abrupt halt when she fell flat on her face from her chair and got stuck in her coat. It was the talk of the team all week. Needless to say, my director is having “the talk” at the next team meeting. I’m just thankful it wasn’t anyone from my company!

  7. Rana*

    Any suggestions for how to handle the prayer thing when you work with people for whom “I’m not religious” opens more of a can of worms?

    (I have to admit I think that prayers (other than personal ones) have no place at all at work unless work is a church or other religious institution.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed — they have zero place at work, but it still seems to sometimes happen. I think all you can do is say, “No thank you, perhaps someone else would like to?”

      1. Girasol*

        Not being religious in the midwest can be a Bad Thing. Some folks think that means you have no morals at all. I’m here, and I’m not, but I wouldn’t want to come right out and say it. If I couldn’t fake a few impromptu words about thankfulness and being kind to one another, I’d be tempted to fake a coughing fit before saying “I’m not religious.”

      2. Rana*

        That’s helpful; thanks.

        Girasol: the specific context I was thinking of was small town in conservative midwestern state, in fact. I spent the entire time there pretty much in the closet at work as to both my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and my politics. It was… not fun. Even though most of my co-workers were basically nice people.

    2. AgilePhalanges*

      Even some very devoutly religious people don’t like public speaking to such an extent that they don’t “do” public prayer. (My mom is one such person.) So you could beg off with something to the effect of not liking to pray in public or aloud in front of people, or whatever, which would still technically be true, but without outing yourself as not adhering to whatever the majority religion (or at least most vocal religion) is in your group.

      Or I like Alison’s idea of just asking for a moment of silence at your table (or for the entire group). It allows those who want to pray to do so (and to a god of their choosing, even if they’re not of the same religion as the prayer suggester), and those who simply want to reflect for a moment to do so, and those who simply want a moment of peace before they have to be “on” for the event to have that moment, too.

    3. Joe*

      My immediate response is to offer a prayer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that might not go over so well either…

Comments are closed.