my manager insists on assigning seats at a holiday lunch that we pay for ourselves

First, thanks to everyone who sent me the news that the rule on gifts in an office flowing downward, not upward (i.e., you’re not expected to give gifts to your boss) goes at least as far back as Letitia Baldrige, who wrote many books on etiquette and was Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary in the White House. (Emily Yoffe, who writes the Dear Prudence advice column at Slate, yesterday mentioned it coming from Baldrige, and noted herself, “It’s absurd and unseemly for employees to return their hard-earned money to the people who control their salaries as if paying liege to a feudal lord. This pernicious practice should be stamped out, and if a company has an HR department, that office should put a stop to it.”) And when we were trying to nail down the origins of this rule a couple of weeks ago, other people pointed out that the very correct Miss Manners has talked about it as well. So we now have official sources from established etiquette mavens.

This is relevant because …

A reader writes:

In the grand scheme of all the things that could possibly be (or straight out are) wrong with my office environment, this is probably pretty low on the list. But it’s a scenario I’d like to not only get your opinion on, but that of your readers as well.

With the holidays upon us it’s time for my department’s annual holiday luncheon. Two things happen every year with this that I’m finding more and more annoying with each passing Christmas:

1. A couple weeks before the luncheon, one of the team leads starts collecting for a gift to our manager. There’s little to no discussion. An email simply goes out saying this is what’s happening, and several emails follow gently reminding you to get your share in. This year it’s $10 a person. Our team has grown significantly in the last year, and the gift will be a $250 gift card. Now, while I’ve never been too big a fan of this, it wasn’t until I saw your stance on gifts only flowing one direction that it really started bugging me. But then you realized that it was something that wasn’t necessarily a hard and fast rule. (NOTE FROM ME: See above!) So now I’m just not sure if I’m being curmudgeonly or justified because this is a violation of etiquette! Nevertheless, there’s been some grumblings from a number of other people on the team (particularly the newer folks) that this gift seems a bit excessive. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone would ever dream of rocking the boat on this, although I’m seriously considering it (only it’ll be after the holidays this time around since the money has already been collected).

2. The luncheon itself is held at a different restaurant each year. It’s generally a nicer, but not too nice, place. We each pay our own way and it’s during work hours. Attendance isn’t necessarily mandatory, but that’s never been explicitly stated and the assumption is you will attend.

Now, we’re fortunate in that we have a pretty good team. Everyone gets along. But once we walk into the restaurant, we find our seating is assigned, be it at either one large table or multiple tables all near one another. The problem is that even if we may all get along, the reality is that there are just some folks who feel more “comfortable” around others because of friendships formed over the years or because you simply spend more time working closely with specific team members than others. For instance, last year I was sat between two women who are quite nice, but we have very little in common, and as a result the extent of our conversations for two hours were largely pleasantries.

I learned several years ago that our manager intentionally tries to mix things up to avoid any cliques (which we really don’t have a problem with) or to have too many people of the same sex or race sitting next to one another! When you’re looking around a table seeing everyone in this boat as opposed to simply letting two folks sit next to one another that may actually be able to have nice, natural conversations at an event that’s supposed to be fun, it’s a bit frustrating.

I made the off-hand comment/joke to another team member that I was just going to move my place card where I wanted and if anyone had a problem with it I would say, “You can tell me where to sit when you pay for my lunch.” Apparently he felt the same way and approached our manager to say that people would rather not be assigned seats and would just like to sit where they want. Well, she threw a fit and demanded to know who these people were. He refused to say anything more, just that it was something worth considering. At the end of the conversation, she said that she’ll be assigning seats regardless of what people think.

Well, on the gift collection, see my introductory note — we’ve nailed this down, so you have some back-up if you want to cite actual etiquette authorities. When talking to the instigator of this extravagant $250 gift (?!!), I’d use the language I suggested last month: “This is a kind idea, but I’ve always been taught that etiquette prohibits gifts to managers from the people under them, particularly big gifts like this. I wouldn’t want to put (boss) or others in the office in an uncomfortable position.”

As for the lunch, it’s silly that your boss wants to micromanage where you sit. It’s true that hosts of dinner parties and other social function often assign seating, but those are social functions where the host is throwing the party. This may be a party, but you’re all paying your own way, and it must grate to be told where to sit, let alone to be organized by race or sex! (This isn’t the same manager who wanted to “mix up hotel rooms by race,” is it?)

If others feel as you do, you might simply all sit wherever you choose to sit. It’s going to be pretty hard for her to intervene if it’s a mass movement — or at least she’s going to look pretty silly if she tries.

But aside from that, unless someone is willing to push the issue with her — an issue that she apparently feels Quite Strongly about — it might make the most sense to just roll your eyes and deal with it.

{ 159 comments… read them below }

  1. AJ-in-Memphis

    So lemme get this right: $10 + ~$15 (for a meal) and this duh-nun-ta-nuh wants tell you where to sit or even that you have to show up to begin with. What if you don’t have the money? Will you be in trouble? (It’s not a lot of money but every dollar counts these days)

      1. Lisa

        How do you deal with people that tell you ‘oh its not a lot of money’ and its coming from HR or the office manager? I hate it when the AAM reply is met with a dismissive answer like that.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I think one good way to do it is to say “I’m on a tight budget” or “My budget has every dollar accounted for right now.” And if they still keep pushing you after that and tell you it’s still not that much, I’d be inclined to smile and say, “I’m glad that’s true for you.”

        2. Anonymous

          Usually I’ll be like “well it takes me x hours to earn that and I need to spend it on food”, if they continue to harass me about it. But then again I enjoy making rude people feel guilty, its a hobby of mine.

        3. Anonymous #2 Here

          I agree. It was very dismissive in the comments of the OP who wrote in about giving money towards flowers a funeral. Where are the comments “Just cough up the money” here?

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            As I and others noted in that post, flowers for a funeral is a very different situation — in fact, I think a lot of us specifically called it out as being one of the rare exceptions. (Also, the OP there wasn’t raising concerns about the money, just the principle of it.)

    1. Emily K

      At a “nicer” place in my city you’d be lucky to get out for $15 just ordering a salad and water after the 10% dining tax and a 20% tip is added in. I’d be planning on dropping more like $20 or $25 – which is about what I budget for a night with friends and would mean I wouldn’t be going out with friends that week. How awful.

    2. AJ-in-Memphis

      For me, it’s more about being made to do it. If I volunteered then I would see all of this differently. But to be made feel like you’re not a “team player” when you don’t want to give up your $25 (to someone who doesn’t need it and at a restaurant that I didn’t choose) versus donating $25 to charity is the thing that irritates me.

          1. Erin

            The best I can come up with is this scene from Blue Crush, where the football player is about to get a surfing lesson and asks if the little sister character if she wants to see his duh-nun-tah-nuh (ew), then whips off his towel with a fanfare (duh-NUN-tah-NUH!) and reveals his Speedo. (He is not a small man.)

            Still doesn’t make sense in this context, though, but then I’m way overthinking at this point.

        1. Amy

          Yeah, saying it fast doesn’t make me “lol,” it just makes me more confused about what it’s supposed to mean. Google has also never heard of this term before; the only result is this page.

      1. Another Anon

        Only thing I’m getting from it is “done a ton of”…which doesn’t make any more sense than the original.

  2. Lindrine

    Yeah yesterday a relatively new co-worker commented that no one seemed to eat lunch at a place that was a 2 minute walk from the office. I told her the food was only okay and it was twice the cost of the sub shop in the same plaza.

    1. Elizabeth West

      Yeah, that does make a difference. Convenience doesn’t always trump budget/deliciousness. Exjob was in an industrial area, and the only thing close was a sports complex that had semi-okay food (sandwiches and pizza). I brought my lunch most of the time, but when I didn’t, it would have been nice to have more than just gas station chicken strips besides the sport place.

      Near Newjob, we have an awesome sandwich place, and I have to tie myself to the chair to avoid going there every day because it is FABULOUS. They also give us a discount. I like them so much I followed them on Twitter. :)

  3. Kate

    At the holiday party we attend they assign seats but it is usually server related because we have to chose our meals beforehand. Last year we sat with the same people we did the year before and HR was horrified she did that as she likes to mix it up year to year.

    It is a small company ~20 employees so it’s not a huge deal. The company pays for it all (open bar then cabs home!). And it is a great time for everyone.

    1. LizNYC

      That’s great! Our company’s holiday party is held at a banquet hall (think wedding reception) and though it’s a buffet dinner with no formal assigned seating, there IS an open bar — and people always scramble to find DDs. I’d love it if we all got cabs home (not everyone’s hubster is a teetotaler like mine).

  4. ggg

    At our department holiday lunch (we are quasi-government, so we all paid our own way), the admin in charge assigned seating. Her rationale was that each group goes to lunch together amongst themselves all the time, so we might as well get to know some of the other people in the department.

    It was actually fun. I met some nice people and found I shared an interest in antique sewing machines with the lady next to me.

    Your manager’s rationale is kind of stupid, but really, it is one lunch. At worst you will have something to gossip about with your regular lunch group.

    The gift, I would protest to high heaven.

  5. Andrea

    It seems like most of these questions leave me shaking my head because so many unreasonable morons end up in positions of power. It really is baffling. Who the hell cares where people sit? They shouldn’t be paying for their own meal and they shouldn’t be buying the boss a gift, full stop. Sheesh. OP, if it’s not mandatory, then just don’t go. Spread the word; maybe lots of people will skip it or, as suggested, just throw the place cards away and let everyone sit wherever they damn well please. Though I have a feeling that this person would throw a fit and try to make people move to their assigned seats.

    1. Anonymous

      I agree- this is the hill the manager would like to impale themselves on? I’m concerned that this is getting so much of their attention, instead of, you know, the rest of their job.

    2. AJ-in-Memphis

      I also agree. And who has the time to work on a seating chart? If you’re a manager and you have this kind of time, please reevaluate your priorities… Please, for all things good on Planet Earth.

    3. Jeanne

      +1 about the unreasonable morons in positions of power. How do they end up there? Don’t they have real work to spend their time on and not this kind of garbage?

  6. Anoners

    The reason the micromanager is giving about cliques forming is ridiculous. Yes cliques can be a problem in the workplace, but I really don’t think that assigned seating once a year is going to put a stop to that if it was a problem (and it doesn’t sound like it is, anyway).

    1. John

      I do understand the general gist…not of them forming cliques but that there are certain people who tend to isolate themselves from the group. I’ve seen that at company events. Sometimes entire tables are of close friends, which is not the most welcoming thing when there are newer people in the dept, and there are always a twosome or threesome who can’t seem to bear to be separated and keep to themselves.

      But this doesn’t seem like the type of event where you should be policing that. Just let people have fun.

      1. CEMgr

        As a manager, I would definitely try to make sure no one was left sitting alone or ignored at the holiday celebration. But there are easier and better ways to accomplish that goal.

      2. Emily K

        I agree. I had a manager once who called me into her office during the workday to chastise me because other employees had tattled to her that myself and another coworker were attending unofficial, employee-organized, after-hours, off-site happy hours and primarily socializing with each other and not the newer employees on staff. Give me a break! It’d be different if this was a compulsory, company-sponsored event, but we’re talking about a few employees getting together for drinks across the street and this coworker being my closest friend in the office. Of course we sit together and get engrossed in our chat! What’s the big deal?

  7. Michele

    The manager at my old job told me and our assistant she was taking us to lunch for Christmas. We assummed taking us to lunch meant that she was paying. Of course she picked a nicer resatuarant close to work. Imagine our surprise when she told us each what our share would be. Our poor assistant had her credit card declined. I felt so bad. It was $30 or $35 each without booze. When my manager made the comment to me that she couldn’t believe assistant didn’t have enough money I flat out told her that we both thought she was paying since the invite said I want to take you to lunch. Just one of many reasons she was awful to work for.

    1. Nico

      This has recently happened to me.
      I received an invite for a birthday lunch for a supervisor from my bosses-boss. When the check arrived, my bosses
      boss then had the bill split 10 ways and delivered to each attendee. Worst of all, the supervisors meal was calculated in our checks!
      With tip, it was $38 which I did not have budgeted!
      Horrified.

      1. Sara M

        Not quite on the same scale as this horror of a story… but I was the lowest on the totem pole (along with a friend). The office went out for dinner and drinks. My friend and I each had a salad and no alcohol. Imagine out shock when the bosses insisted we split the bill completely evenly among everyone, and when my friend and I objected, we were harshly scolded for our lack of team spirit and our cheapness getting in the way of building relationships. Split evenly, I paid $50 for a salad. There was a LOT of alcohol at that meal.

        If I’d had any idea, I would have at _least_ ordered a bunch of alcohol (only raising my bill by a small percent) and enjoyed myself. :(

        1. JoJo

          I’ve never understood the logic that if you don’t want to pay for someone else’s meal, YOU’RE the cheapskate – not the person who’s trying to stick you with the price of their meal.

        2. hotdogs

          Bad rules stay in place until somebody abuses the shit out of them. I’d be tempted to order a couple half-dozen drinks and get royally wasted. Next year, new rules!

        3. Anomnomnom(2?)

          I had almost the same thing happen!

          But I was alone, it was my first job out of college, and 3 levels of my management were present for the dinner.

          I think the bill was over $150/person. I did order a plate and had some alcohol, but, yeah, I did NOT expect the fancy wine and seafood-steak dinner orderer(s) to suggest splitting the bill. I had budgeted for my company’s allotted $30/dinner covering my food.

          The worst part was that some then kidded to me about it afterwards (“Don’tcha want to keep the check? I bet it’s the first you’ve ever seen this high!”). But at least on another business trip dinner one of my managers paid for my meal. Though I wish they had stuck up for me earlier, getting apology-treated to fancy food was nice. (No guilt at ordering an $18 scotch as an aperitif.)

          Actually, some of the discussion was the worst part. But that’s unrelated to the I-have-to-pay-for-YOUR-STUPID-WINE?? outrage.

        4. Kate

          Have also been there in my first full-time job. Thankfully it was payday so I had the balance in my account to cover my “share” (over $100 despite only eating a $20 salad with no drinks). Unfortunately it meant I had to spend the next week rationing the lone bag of rice in my cupboard.

          But that incident taught me an important lesson when I moved up the scale. Always be mindful that the people in your group are likely on a wide range of salaries and are probably in a wide range of personal financial circumstances. Unless the costs of fine dining are corporately met, it’s pretty much certain that it will cause big problems for at least one person the group. Most of the office social events I organise are morning teas or afternoon teas so that people can contribute within their budgets, and there’s no pressure to take a chunk of time out of work (or to force people to miss out if they can’t make something outside of work hours).

    2. Meg

      I’m glad you told her the truth – that you all thought she was paying. I hope it made her think at least a LITTLE.

      1. Michele

        I think it at least taught her to choose her words a little more carefully and to pick more reasonably priced restaurants. I was so glad when she left. As a manager she was very selfish!

        1. MaggietheCat

          It’s also awful that the Manager came to her to gossip about the Assistant not having the money. Mean :(

    3. Beth

      That’s terrible!

      This isn’t work related but I’m gonna share anyway: I was dating a mooch of a guy, and on my 21st birthday my mom and grandmother invited me out to lunch. He threw a hissy fit that he wasn’t going to be able to hang out with me all day and insisted that I skip lunch and go out to breakfast with him. Well when the check came when we finished breakfast he looked at me like “You’re paying right?” I had to pay for breakfast ON MY BIRTHDAY!!

      1. Ruffingit

        That sucks SO bad!! I’m sorry. This isn’t quite the same, but I had a friend who was an emotional mooch and on my birthday, we went out to dinner and she spent a ton of time saying things like “My life is so hard, why can’t I find a decent man, it’s so unfair…” And I just looked at her like “Really? You can’t let me have one night off of your emotional bitching on my birthday?” To her credit, she recognized and apologized for this shitty behavior, but yeah…some people just think the world revolves around them.

        1. FreeThinkerTX

          Not to play “I Can Top That”, but I had a similar experience. I was taken by ambulance to the ER one night and called my (then) best friend to ask her to take care of my cat while I was in the hospital. She barely registered what I said because she was “so grateful” I had called because her boyfriend just said something awful to her and she needed to analyze his three sentences in minute detail. She actually had a hissy fit when I told her I couldn’t listen to her right then *because the nurses needed to stick a bunch of needles in me*. She quickly became an ExFriend.

          1. Ruffingit

            Holy crap, wow!! I am so sorry. That is horrendous. I think you and I can trade stories about our shitty ex-friends all day then because my (now ex also) friend would have done the same kind of thing. I called her once to talk about my boyfriend who had broken up with me. She talked to me for a few minutes and then said “Well, I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I talked to Tim…” Tim was the guy she had been obsessed with for years and that our entire circle of friends had been telling her to leave alone already for four years at that point. She then went on and on and on about the letter she had sent him and what he replied and blah, blah, blah. And I’m thinking “Really? I just had my heart broken here and you’re going to make this about you….”

            She’s no longer a friend. But wow, frankly I don’t think anything tops someone wanting to talk about their mundane crap while you’re in the ER. What is wrong with people??

      2. TrainerGirl

        I was dating a guy a few years back, and the first time he met my father (my parents live in another state, and my father came to my hometown about 6 times a year for work), he didn’t offer to pay a dime for dinner. My father paid the whole bill. And we were not young, he was 44 at the time. I was mortified.

    4. holly

      when my boss and i take out my underlings (heh) for a going-away lunch (we have a lot of short-term interns), we’re always very careful to tell them that WE are paying for it. i mean, that’s how it should be, but since we state it there is no wondering or anxiety.

      1. Michele

        She was the first and only manager I have ever worked for that did not buy the team lunch for the holidays.

        1. IronMaiden

          The expression “taking you out for lunch” implies that the person inviting is the person paying.

      2. JessB

        I think this is really thoughtful to be clear about it from the get-go. When I first started working, I would get really worried about this, and try to make sure I had cash on me to cover the meal, just in case, and order modestly.

        I think it’s really nice to be clear about it up front, like I said.

    5. Ruffingit

      Wow. That is so wrong on so many levels. She invited you both out and picked a nicer restaurant and then made you pay. And to top it all off, she made an issue out of the assistant not being able to pay for the lunch. She sucks. What did the poor assistant do when her card was declined? Did you pay for her or did the manager or what? I’m guessing you did. I was in a situation where my card was declined once because I’d forgotten to deposit my paycheck that day. I thought I had before going to dinner, but I hadn’t so there wasn’t enough money for dinner. I was having dinner with a good friend so she paid and I later bought her dinner. But still, I was mortified so I can only imagine how the assistant felt.

  8. Lanya

    In my situation, I actually wish they would have assigned seating of some sort, because for the past two years I have gotten stuck sitting next to my manager’s really weird husband at the “boss’s table”, instead of at the “cool table” with the people I actually want to sit with.

    1. AB Normal

      But why do you think you wouldn’t be stuck sitting next to your manager’s weird husband anyway with assigned seating? Looks like the OP’s manager is not assigning seats in a way that pleases people, and if you don’t get to seat where you want when you can choose, I doubt you’d have better luck with assigned seating.

      1. Lanya

        I know, but at least it might be a little more “luck of the draw” with assigned seating. Depends who is doing the assigning. :)

  9. Jen

    I hate how some places just micro-manage their holiday party. I’ve ben places where there are assigned seats and then also assigned activities with assigned groups. Just let me sip a glass of wine and chat with people that I never get to chat with because we’re too busy. This ain’t the Chuck e’ Cheese, I don’t need games.

    1. Windchime

      I love my company. Last year, things were a little tight so we had a small portion of the lunch catered and the managers all brought salads and desserts to fill in. This year, the budget is a little better so the lunch will be catered in a conference room. Attendance is not required, but if you come you might win a small gift card or win the Ugly Sweater contest. No seating chart, no obligatory gifts for people who make a bunch of money.

  10. Lucy

    All of this gift talk makes me wish I could retroactively drop out of contributing to my boss’ gift (a Kindle!) a few years ago. Lesson learned!

      1. Sara M

        I have never been pressured to buy a gift for a boss, ever. What a horrible problem to have. I feel sorry for all the people dealing with this!

        One time, I did collect for a boss’s gift, but honestly it was different. 1) $3/person, completely optional, I told everyone face-to-face, “It is 100% okay if you don’t want to do this.” Everyone did, though. 2) We all adored this boss (or at least liked him a lot). 3) It was a Simpsons playset for $30 which we all knew he’d love.

        And he did! He was like a little kid on his birthday and he was SO excited! And he played with that set while stuck on boring conference calls with upper management. And blended it with his Muppet toys too which got hilarious. Definitely a gift meant to be meaningful rather than expensive.

        Best boss I ever had.

        1. Lillie Lane

          Awwww, that’s cute. What a nice, fun reason to give a gift. In my case, we each had to give $25 and the office manager bought the boss a hefty gift card. Boring and unoriginal. I don’t know why the OM didn’t just stuff all the cash in an envelope and give it to the boss.

          It would’ve been one thing if I had liked my boss, but I didn’t. Plus we were expected to participate in a whole bunch of other Christmas themed activities, so by the time you paid the $25 for the boss’s gift, bought a $5 gift for the building-wide Secret Santa, bought a $10 gift for the office white elephant exchange, bought and made food for the building’s party, and bought gifts/cards for all of your other coworkers, you were looking at expenses at least about $75.

        2. V

          All this talk reminds me of a non-Christmas boss gift giving story…

          A few years ago I started a new job at a nonprofit. Our office was moving from this large, sketchy office building to a renovated historic building. We were all really excited to get out of the creepy office building.

          The day of we moved, one of the VPs calls everyone into the CEO’s and presents an old painting of the building we just moved into as a “gift from the staff.” I had no clue about this painting and neither did most of my coworkers. I thought it was kind of weird for him to give us credit for something we didn’t even know about.

          A few minutes later, there’s an email from the VP to everyone that says the painting was $500 and it would be great it everyone could contribute $30 towards it.

          I had only been there 6 months, was at the bottom of the chain and didn’t really care about the “gift,” so I chose to ignore it at first. Then, the VP sent a follow up email and Bcc’d a bunch of people who I assume didn’t contribute. The email read something along the lines of “Really, it was expensive, so if you could help out, that’d be great.”

          Not knowing what to do, I just left an anonymous envelope with $20 that said “For CEO’s Gift”.

          No way I was giving the full $30 in my position, and I thought even that was excessive… He never said anything, so I’m guessing he doesn’t know who put it there, but it did make the emails stop.

  11. nicole

    I wouldn’t give any money and I wouldn’t go to the luncheon on my own dime either so I could be treated like I’m in school and assigned a seat. Ridiculous on both accounts!

  12. The New T

    Our lunch was grand, not only did we hav secret santa, our boss paid for it, and bought us all boxes of chocolates.
    Things like this boost staff morale and made us feel more like a team, but ofcourse, it helps when your in a small company of 10 people.
    The only seat assigned was hers alone

  13. K-Anon

    I think you guys are being too harsh.

    I don’t disagree with the sentiments you are all sharing, but I just don’t see it as a big deal. If the cost is truly a problem, I’ve absolutely no problem with not participating. If you disliked your boss and didn’t want to contribute to a gift, I could see that as well (Although I’d say to do it anyway.)

    But it sounds like the OP likes her boss generally, the boss isn’t asking for this gift, and the boss is up-front about the lunch outing not being paid for and it sounds like the OP is fine with the Idea of eating with her co-workers at her own expense… (if there are 25 people on the team, the company won’t give her a budget to work with, that’s just too many people to pay for herself… she’s doing the best she can with what she has as far as I can tell) The assigned seating thing is a bit much, but many of us can understand the sentiment the boss is going for with that… It’s just not worth fighting her over it… I’d be supportive of her in appreciation that she’s trying get a little team bonding time going.

    I’m really not arguing against the sentiment most of you are sharing, I agree with the concept that gifts flow down not up, but my boss is a person and I try my best to make sure she knows I appreciate her. If anything I’d challenge the OP to work with the person who’s collecting the cash to be more creative about what they do. A signed team picture or something else cheaper but with special meaning.

    I remember all the times my employees got me gifts, I never asked for them and generally discouraged them, but I remember them and treasure that they thought I was worth doing it for.

    1. Jaimie

      But the boss is sort of asking for the gift, because it happens every year, and she knows it’s coming. When these things happen every year, they come to be expected, and it’s hard to stop, without it being awkward. If it were me, I would have (politely) asked the organizer from last year not to do it again. It simply isn’t appropriate.

      I get what you are saying, but I also think it’s easier to take that stance when you have the money at hand. For a lot of people, extra cash during the holidays is rare.

      1. K-Anon

        I’m definitely saying that if you need to take a stance because of the money, I’m totally OK with that.

        But if you’re taking the stance because you keep reading on this site how it’s poor etiquette, then I think you (the figurative you) should get over it and just ask yourself if you like this person enough to contribute to a gift for her.

        It may well be the boss has asked the person organizing to stop without telling them to. When my team got a little extravagant one year I made it a particular point of saying quite sincerely and clearly that they shouldn’t be spending their money on me. I think they skipped the next year but got me something again the following year. It may be they all wanted to do it, or one person wanted to do it and egged everyone else on. I don’t know, but I felt there was a limit to how much i should push back without seeming ungrateful.

        But, lets go with worst case scenario, the boss expects it and wants it. I got back to my stance that, unless you don’t like this person or it’s a financial hardship, just do it. It’s not worth fussing over and don’t get offended by the concept just because others are saying you should be. (which is what the OP seemed to be indicating)

        1. Anonymous

          I strongly disagree. I think the BEST time to object because it is poor etiquette (and really kind of reprehensible human behavior) is when you have money.

          When you are too poor to be able to afford to throw in $10 you might be too poor to be able to say no because saying no might mean you loose your job and you cannot afford that.

          You boss isn’t your friend. Your boss is the person who controls how much you get paid, if you get a promotion, etc. And it is great if you live a life where you don’t completely rely on that job to survive. And when you are able to live in that position of privileged it is a good time to take a stand on something like this, not for yourself but for others who can’t afford it and who can’t afford to not do it.

          1. K-Anon

            Reprehensible human behavior? Good grief, I truly hope you’ve never have a truly bad boss.

            Who’s behavior is reprehensible here anyway? The fellow employee who passes around the collection, or the boss who doesn’t expressily forbid this and enforce a policy of no gifts?

            (We don’t actually know how the boss feels about this by the way, we’re assuming some things that are not in evidence…)

            This boss isn’t exercising best practices, we can all agree on that, but it’s hardly reprehensible.

            1. Anonymous

              I had a boss who killed the company and I had to go thru and clean out his used condom collection while dealing with collectors from the business calling me at home.

              I still think it is pretty reprehensible for a boss to expect or even accept a $250 cash gift from staff.

    2. Andrea

      I don’t think anyone is arguing against token gifts for bosses. Something small or handmade is nice and probably very much appreciated by reasonable bosses. A lovely card with a personal message from an employee about how she appreciates her manager’s efforts would probably be treasured, as well. Collecting money for a gift like this—a big gift, too—is excessive. And making people pay for their own lunch (while having the nerve to call it a company holiday party) is tacky at best.

      1. K-Anon

        Focusing on the lunch thing…

        Tacky? does a boss have to pay for absolutely every meal he\she has with employees?

        Lets give the manager the benefit of the doubt that she has no budget to buy them lunch. Out of pocket for 25 people is pretty hefty especially when that $10 becomes 15-20 because people aren’t spending their own money. So, should the manager abandon the whole idea of trying to get the team together? Maybe… but I’ll not fault her for trying.

        My team has had a couple traditions (there were 5 of us on site.) One was a Thanksgiving lunch the day before, one was a Cinco De Mayo lunch… these are generally not sponsored by me (as I spend a ton of my own money on this stuff already). I guess I could see a new team member complaining they had to go as they weren’t there as the tradition started… In fact, one team member isn’t a great team player and may hate this kind of thing, but if I stopped facilitating these I’m pretty sure the majority would feel put out. If this manager just didn’t do anything for a holiday lunch after doing it a few years, I’d bet big she’d get complaints.

        I’m just trying to say that the OP’s boss’s team has grown significantly, and she’s just trying to do some team building stuff with what I assume is no budget. As far as we can tell she’s not asking people to buy her gifts, she’s not forcing people to attend lunch (although I totally concede that not attending would look bad.) If the OP feels very strongly about this stuff, go ahead and speak up, but my opinion is just that she goes with the flow. Don’t make problems for your boss unless you really need to.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If you’re the host, you pay. In this case, the manager/company is the host, as evidenced by the manager insisting that she decides where people will sit. Thus, the company should be paying.

          1. K-Anon

            Andrea was specicially taking exception to the fact that the person had to pay for themselves, seeming to say that’s unacceptable. I’m just arguing that it’s not necssairly that big a deal, although I agree it’s not ideal.

            I’d agree, that if I was mandating any part of the meal then I would pay.

            But the major point I want to make for the OP is that it’s not worth getting fired up about. Making a fuss on this is likely to do the OP more harm than good. Arguing over this on the internet is fine, but telling your boss you won’t go because you don’t want to sit where she wants, to your boss’s face… totally not worth doing.

          2. Jake

            I agree. If you’re the host, you pay. If you’re not the host, you don’t get to dictate where people sit.

            Another option is if people who want to have a holiday lunch together (and sit together) RSVP no, and then just go have lunch together somewhere else if they want. Not necessarily on the same day or anything, and you don’t have to make a big deal out of skipping or boycotting the company lunch in favour of the other one, but if you’re paying for it yourself anyway then it may as well be at a place you choose, with the people you want to sit with.

          3. Editor

            For those defending the lunch out by discussing the budget, I would raise another point. If you’re the host and are refusing to pay, it is up to you to find the best deal (best quality food) for the best price.

            If the OP’s boss could collect $10 per person for this lunch and have a catered meal brought to a comfortable conference room at the office, that would allow for assigned seating even though there’s less elegance and less alcohol. So, the food might be as good, but it would be buffet style on plastic plates with good plastic wear. Part of the problem is charging for the event, but part of the problem is also the organizer’s idea of what a nice holiday lunch is.

            And, as Alison has often pointed out, this stuff could be done at some other time of year when there isn’t as much pressure on restaurants and caterers, not to mention employee budgets and schedules. The boss could have a fall team-building lunch and assign seating and pay for Panera or something similar.

            I heard about a business that couldn’t afford the annual Christmas party so it gave each employee a modest fruit basket with a box of chocolates in it. That would have done more for my morale than a luncheon. One place I worked stopped giving an in-house party (inexpensive catered food such as baked ziti and swedish meatballs) and gave us grocery store gift cards instead. Since we hadn’t gotten raises that year, people were glad to have the cards. We would rather have had raises, but it was a more thoughtful choice, and, I suspect, more expensive.

        2. Jen in RO

          This year’s company lunch was paid by the employees. We didn’t get a budget approved for this, the local manager sent an email explaining the situation and telling us that we are welcome to come on day X, time Y, but we have to pay our own stuff. I went, had a great time, and didn’t feel it was tacky.

          (Of course, our local manager did not treat us like kindergartners.)

    3. hotdogs

      You spent a lot of words being contrary in a non-meaningful way.

      I’m not clear on the purpose of trying to minimize this problem. The practice of giving bosses gifts creates a lot of anxiety for employees and, in some cases, financial stress. That’s reason enough to simply end the whole thing, even if it’s “not that bad”.

  14. Sydney

    I would organize a coup with some of my coworkers and rearrange the placecards this year. Or realistically, I would have a cold that day.

    1. JessB

      Definitely up for the coup! In fact, I’d probably try to get a few people on board, and make it more casual- like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and change seats every course! My Dad’s family is really big and we do this so we all get a chance to mingle and talk to more people.

      I’d also consider getting there early and just ‘disappearing’ all the place cards. Mwah ha ha!

  15. Amy

    I had a similar situation to the OP’s gift contributing dilemma, but mine happened when I was in grad school. Some of the other students decided to organize holiday gifts for the 4 professors in our program. They requested everyone give $20. Now I don’t have a problem with spending $20 on gifts, but there were over a hundred people in the program, so each prof was supposed to get a $500 gift! I went along with it the first year but kicked myself later and the next year I politely declined.

    1. Bean

      UMMM wow. As a student, I pay enough for tuition, books, parking etc…I really do not see the need for any of my professors who make over 100K/year to be given a $500 gift from the class, no matter how great they are

    2. YoTeach

      And here I am, just happy when my students give me some candy or something. Clearly, I need to raise my expectations. :)

  16. dahanaha

    So funny that you mentioned the Dear Prudence letter. I read her advice and yours quite faithfully and as I was reading it yesterday I thought “I wonder if Allison reads Dear Prudence” .
    Thought maybe I was the only one addicted to advice columns.

    1. Pseudo Annie Nym

      TOTAL advice column addict here…AAM, Prudence, Carolyn Hax, and Dan Savage. I tell myself it’s because I can’t afford real therapy, so I get advice for free (and take comfort in the fact that a lot of people have it much harder than me!)

      1. Editor

        Yes, I have a bunch bookmarked and do the rounds every morning over breakfast. I also like Miss Conduct at the Boston Globe. Robin Abrahams is the writer — she’s sharp and funny; she’s married to the guy who does the Ig Nobel Prizes. Her column is paywalled but the blog is free.

    2. tcookson

      I started my addiction to advice columns when I was 8 years old reading Dear Abby in the local paper; now I use NetVibes for the reader only and have a whole slew of them that I read every day. AAM is my favorite, though, because of Alison’s advice and because it is a real community.

      1. Jen in RO

        I used to like reading the comments on Dear Prudence too… until they redesigned the site and the comments are gone from the mobile version. On their supposedly mobile-friendly site. Mind boggles.

        1. tcookson

          Some of the other advice columns I read are dominated by a group of maybe 4 – 5 commenters who seem really judgmental and opinionated — not very inviting for other commenters to chime in. Like their comments are the final word on what is correct and they’ll smack down anyone who dares to post otherwise. AAM’s group of commenters tends not to engage in conversation-stopping behavior like that and makes it easy for anyone to join in.

          1. Ruffingit

            Agreed, that is something I enjoy about this site. The commenters are wise and friendly. They will tell you like it is, but they’re not jerks about it.

    3. teclatwig

      I love Tomato Nation, but her output has slowed over the last couple of years. Carolyn Hax and AAM I read daily.

  17. Lia

    Boss of Doom at my last employer did assigned seating for last year’s holiday lunch. We were all holding our breath to see who had to sit with her and her dreaded lackey. I lucked out and sat with decent folks, but felt bad for 2 of my coworkers who got stuck sitting with them for the 2.5 hours lunch took, but at least the boss *did* pay for the meal.

    Afterwards, 3 of my co-workers and I rescued the 2 who were stuck at the boss’s table and went to a bar to finish off the afternoon, rather than heading back to the office. We figured they needed it.

  18. Bean

    In highschool I worked for a video store where I literally worked 5 hours per week at around $7/hour. At Christmas time, the Assistant Manager expected everyone to give $20 to go towards our boss’s present which was always a Santa figurine. Seriously, it was hard enough justifying giving a third of my paycheck to a woman I never worked with, but for it to go towards a $220 Santa figurine?! It still bothers me to this day.

    There was also a mandatory Secret Santa with a gift cost of $15 (how we were expected to spend more on our boss than each other is still beyond me)

    Luckily, my parents ended up putting in the money for both the Secret Santa and my boss’s present.

  19. some1

    If you want to promote mingling above all else, why would you have a sit-down meal? You’re limited to talking to the people in your immediate vicinity.

  20. Suz

    You could suggest doing it speed-dating style. Every 5 minutes everyone would have to get up and move to a different table. \sarcasm

  21. Anonymous

    Yeah we had a situation like that at a place I worked — the big boss’ admin would pass a card and envelope – and “suggested contribution $5” — she had around 50, 60 underlings.

    I declined. I wasn’t in her “kitten club” anyway. No advantage to either of us. So did others.

    The only times I ever bought a holiday gift for my managers were

    a) for a guy – who was one of the two greatest people I ever worked for in my life – who “rescued” me from Hellhole 101 , and restored my dignity and self-respect – and taught me a lot — and

    b) a manager I had in later years. Great guy, good friend. He was just beginning in management – he was doing well, and I wanted him to know that. Oh yeah he was one of the OTHER two greatest guys…

    It’s not a bad thing to buy a small gift for your manager if you appreciate all that is done — and if it’s strictly voluntary and not a brown-nose gesture.

  22. Sarah A.

    I had to handle a nasty issue with the horrible insurance our employers forced employees to buy. First my employer threatened to fire me if I didn’t buy their awful insurance (I always had to argue about coverage) but since ACA came through we were able to decline it. My manager was an a$$ about it then I had to quip.

    “Sorry (name), but I’m not paid enough by my employer to purchase substandard insurance. You see I don’t get a raise and the cost of living here isn’t cheap.”

    That shut her up real quick! Since she was being so nasty about it I just couldn’t let that kind of behavior go. Boy I can’t wait to get a better job and move out of this dump! I find when people try to get you to buy something for someone who makes more than you, bringing up your limited budget is enough to make them stop or suggesting they buy a more extravagant gift for the supervisor if they like them so much. I have never wasted money on a gift for a supervisor. I generally become dismissive of that person if they try to guilt me into it. I come first and if a manager can’t budget their high pay I’m not going to reward them for it with a “gift” of part of my income. That’s just insane in my opinion.

    1. anon-2

      I once worked for an insurance company. Back when I was 16-17-18 this company (before I worked there) refused to sell me auto insurance. In those days, they could do that.

      So a family friend ran an insurance agency. HE was more than happy to have me, he found a company that would insure a 17-year old driver.

      And when I was called in five years later – and asked WHY I didn’t switch companies — I told them – “he is depending on my business. I *do* work here, yes, and bought my apartment insurance here, but I’m not going to be disloyal to someone who has been to me…”

      DUH they couldn’t figure that one out…

  23. Jan Arzooman

    I don’t buy $250 Christmas gifts for anyone I know; I’ve never made enough money for that, and most people among my family and acquaintances simply don’t have that kind of budget either. So it’s pretty hard not to have a resentment over a boss who makes more money getting something like this EVERY YEAR. Does the boss getting this extravagant gift hand out bonuses, or give ANY gifts at all, back toward the employees?

    Thankfully it’s never happened any place I worked. I would flat out refuse to contribute, consequences be damned.

    1. mollie

      $250 is my ENTIRE Christmas budget. That’s for my kids, partner, parents, family, friends, everyone I buy for. I’m lucky my brothers and their families love cookies.

      1. Elaine

        I was on a baby board, and some parents (who aren’t well off, even!) spend $600 to $1000 on EACH kid!

        We don’t do that all year, or over multiple years (excepting plane tickets and food, I suppose). Yikes!

        1. Editor

          Some people think that gifts have to increase each year, too. One of my daughter’s friends got a computer for her bedroom one year, and the parents justified it by saying that they had to spend more on her that year than they had the year before when they bought a television for her room. When she was 16, the girl got a car. When my daughter was 16, we probably gave her books or something, or maybe a nice calculator.

        2. Jamie

          This is one of those couples things, like so many holiday issues, where the way each were brought up is hard to reconcile if radically different.

          If I had the money I don’t think 1k per kid would be out of line. Unfortunately for my kids, but fortunately for my husbands blood pressure we can’t do that. But every year I have a lot of stress about wanting to be able to do so much more materially for them, and every year my husband totally doesn’t understand that.

          I think holiday traditions get hard wired early as “the right way to do things” and it’s a better person than I who can adapt as an adult. I do compromise on stuff, but the compromise never feels correct to me.

          At least were both colored light people, if he wanted white lights on the tree I think I’d have to leave him.

  24. Bonnie

    I don’t like assigned seating any more than anyone else but as I was reading the comments I remembered two situations from where I worked. At one company event there was a woman who no one wanted to sit with but there was no assigned seating. The woman was very needy for attention and no one wanted to deal with her for the entire meal. As a result there was this weird roaming around the room that went on as no one wanted to be the first to sit and attract the needy woman.

    The second was an company event for which I showed up late. When I got there I saw four tables of employees and significant others. The first had only senior management, the second had only middle managers, the third had only senior staff members and the last only junior staff members. Because I was alone I had my choice of tables and sat with the junior staff members, who told me they were grateful that I chose to sit at the kids table with them. Not the message management should have been sending.

  25. Bea W

    it might make the most sense to just roll your eyes and deal with it.

    In the grand scheme of available holiday battles, assigned seats for a dinner that will last a couple hours at best isn’t worth the more effort than an eye roll. Save up your energy for the really epic aggravations, like insufferable relatives overstaying their welcome or critiquing your clothing/music/SO/cooking/gifts/life choices.

  26. OP

    OP here! Thanks for all the feedback. If nothing else, when it comes to the assigned seating gripe, I now don’t feel so all alone in my thinking. And the lunch was yesterday and I found out afterward that apparently a majority of the team DREADS the assigned seating thing. From what I gather, it largely has to do with people not wanting to be treated like children on a field trip. It never occured to me that she’s also assuming the role of host when she isn’t actually the host, so now I’ve got that to think about as well!

    As for the gift, my main question had to do with whether or not this was a social faux pas or something AAM just felt strongly about. Glad to get that cleared up! But after further thought and reading some of the comments, I’ve come to realize that the gift truly is out of line and I think we need to put a stop to it. I know I won’t be getting any sort of $250 gift under the tree this Christmas (and wouldn’t expect one), so put in that context it really motivates me to have a little chat with the person coordinating this each year and saying that something much more reasonable and personal (it was a gift card to a mall) would be appropriate.

    Again, thanks everyone!

    1. QualityControlFreak

      A ($250) gift card to a mall? Yeah, that seems inappropriate to me. If they are bent on spending that amount on a gift to the boss, a contribution in the boss’s name to a charity chosen by the group would appear much more professional, and likely be more palatable to those who are expected to contribute to this gift.

  27. tangoecho5

    How about next year someone get to the restaurant early and switch up all the seating cards? Move them around, throw the whole system out of whack. And be sure to put the manager who thinks assigned seating is the way to go, between the two most obnoxious, boring or whatever employees you work with. Have the names picked out before hand and maybe get a cohort to help you find the names and switch the cards quickly. If necessary, if the “host” is already there, have her have to take a work related call or something. Or save a vacation day and conveniently take it that day!

  28. Anon

    What if you are the manager on the receiving end of an unexpected gift? What is a gracious way to appreciate the sentiment while still expressing that it is completely unnecessary? As a manger, I would never expect or encourage gifting up, but I have some very sweet and generous people on my team and wouldn’t be shocked to receive something. Also, would you actually decline a gift? I am actually having anxiety about how to handle this if the situation arises. :/

    1. AB Normal

      I would go beyond saying it’s unnecessary: it’s actually wrong in my opinion. If I got a gift from subordinates, I’d make it very clear that while I appreciated the thought (if I thought people were doing it on their own rather than pressured by a overzealous assistant), I do not approve this sort of gesture.

      I’d then let the team decide whether to draw names among themselves to find a winner for the gift, or donate it to a charity, because I would not keep the gift. And I don’t care if some people thought I was being rude; that’s not something I would allow among the people reporting to me.

      1. AB Normal

        I’m talking, of course, about expensive gifts, such as a $250 gift card, as being discussed. If someone gave me homemade cookies or something very inexpensive, then I’d just thank them (and make a point later on to bring up the etiquette around workplace gift giving, just in case).

        1. Anon

          I agree with you that it’s completely inappropriate, but I would be careful not to make someone feel bad. I was talking about inexpensive gifts. I would be completely shocked to receive a bigger gift. I think I would say I am unable to accept that type of gift and suggest to the group that they decide how to handle it – draw names for it, donate it, etc. Thanks for your input!

    2. JessB

      I’ve been wondering about that too, Anon- our office is being re-shuffled, and when we get back in the Mew Year, we’ll all be working in different departments. I’ve got some little foodie gifts for the people who work in my office and plan on making a cookie tree for various other co-workers and my two managers, as a special goodbye.

      But now I’m starting to worry that even that might be too much for some people! I know both of these managers will like it, and it’s no trouble for me to make- so surely that’s okay?

      1. Ruffingit

        Food gifts or a cookie tree that you personally make and give to them? I see nothing wrong with that. I think the etiquette is more around people being forced to participate and/or feeling obligated to give a gift. If you don’t feel obligated and you’re doing it of your own free will and it’s a small gift like food, I see no problem with that.

        1. JessB

          Great, thanks for the input. I think you’re right, I was missing the part where I wasn’t forcing anyone else to take part!

  29. nooee

    We were taken out…to a $5 all you can eat Chinese buffet that also served cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, and tacos. 24 people. Who then returned to an office with a grand total of 4 toilets. It was hell.

    1. VintageLydia

      We had a holiday party at a sketchy seafood buffet once. Half the staffed called out the next day. This was retail during the holidays so you can imagine the scramble to figure out who didn’t come to the party so they could cover everyone’s shifts (thankfully I was already off that day.)

  30. Chocolate Teapot

    Just had our office Christmas Bunfight and it was quite good fun. (Open bar and no need to pay for anything). However, Big Boss decided that we needed to swop seats between courses, which is something I hate.

  31. Lamington

    And I thought our office parties sucked, I’m so sorry to hear this :/ perhaps if everyone just ignores the arranged seating?

  32. April

    The idea that gifts should flow downward goes much, much further back than Baldridge. Aristotle wrote about a this in the Nichomachean Ethics when he touched on friendship between unequals. He states that in friendship between the financially unequal, the wealthy(ier) person should benefit from the friendship by receiving honor and the poor(er) should benefit by receiving material gain.

  33. Amber

    The store I work at had a Christmas party at a wings place in the “retail” part of town. We all just sort of sat wherever we wanted, and everyone from supervisors to managers to grocery clerks got completely hammered. The only people who didn’t drink or get drunk were those under 19, or those who drove, but we all paid our own ways regardless. I didn’t have to pay, though, because I couldn’t eat anything there so I just had two Sprites and the server said that it was on the house, basically (he felt bad). xD;

    We all moved around tables a lot… So how would assigning seats work??? I don’t think a lot of people sat at the same table all night. The guy I spent half the night bothering spent the other half at the various other tables. xD; (We ended up taking a LOT more of the restaurant than originally planned – two tables and three or four booths instead of just two tables!)

    I guess the ones that you’re talking about are more formal. No Christmas party that I’ve ever been to has assigned seats. :o

  34. Working Girl

    Totally agree with no gifting up – my office does this and the manager has even participated in her own gift receiving by picking out the gift at the store. I will participate only because not doing so will cause me more grief. It is $10 x 15 for a $150 worth of several gifts for the manager plus $10-20 for a co worker gift. I could use that money for gifts for my family instead. Doing christmas baking this year for gifts.

  35. Val

    My significant other (SO) just received a gift from a “coworker.” I call her a coworker because they both work for the same manager, but in extremely different positions. He earns about 5x what she does and her job is to help him do his job, though he doesn’t dictate her pay or leave or performance evaluations nor can he fire her. She gave gifts to everyone in the office, not just him.

    We’re not very holiday-gift-exchangy people (none between us for Christmas, much less anybody else. We are convinced that the true meaning of Christmas is not found inside any box). He, of course, had nothing to give her, but is back in the cycle he hates where he feels obligated to get a gift.

    He asked me what to do, and I’ve changed my mind about 5 times and then remembered that I’m the least tactful person on the planet. So any thoughts? I don’t like the idea of him receiving-without-giving from someone who playfully calls him “boss-man” and earns far less. I see three options:
    1. Return the gift, and risk hurting her feelings, because it was a very well-chosen gift, and it appears that the gifts were given to everyone in a good-spirited nature.
    2. Get her a gift. I thought “nice lunch” then thought, “no, the last thing I want from my boss is having to spend my lunch hour with him.” So now I’m thinking something personal (but not too personal) that will be meaningful away from work. Like tickets to take her kids someplace where the family could have a lot of fun. Should the value of the gift given equal or exceed the value of the gift received?
    3. Say something along what is recommended above, but modified: “[Employee name] – the best gift you can give me is doing your job well, which you do every day and I appreciate deeply. I am not a very gift-y person, and I don’t want our excellent professional relationship marred by the practice of gift giving, which always makes me feel uncomfortable. “

  36. SynapticFibrillation

    There’s a collection being taken up for our boss that will be donated to a local charity in his name. (at his insistence)
    This is tradition despite his dysfunctional management style.
    I’m refusing this year.
    I already donate to this charity, and my donating to his gift might be seen as odd when he’s informed of the bullying and professional conduct complaint I filed against him and the VP of HR

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