asking a staff member why he’s not going to our holiday dinner, I ghosted on a reference, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Should I ask a staff member why he’s not going to our holiday dinner?

I need your help on a tricky holiday party situation. I’m our office HR/admin, and therefore organizer of the holiday party for our small-ish office of 20. I recently sent out invitations to 20 of our staff to have a three-course dinner in the dark (“blind-dining” is another term for this). Understanding it might be a risky choice, I first verbally surveyed our staff to make sure I wasn’t going to exclude anyone. I received much excitement, no negativity on the idea.

Now that RSVP’s are due, I have one staff member saying he isn’t going to go. That’s totally fine, but I worry it is because of the restaurant choice itself. This staff member is our most quiet, shy developers, and I want him to feel included in our staff holiday celebrations.

However, when initially planning the event I’d also made a note that we are having an in-office bake sale and secret santa gift exchange– that way those who didn’t want to do the fun dining experience can still do something with the whole office.

What do I do here? Should I ask him if he is not coming due to the restaurant choice? Should I leave it be? Should I change where we are going? I think it might be because of the restaurant because he attends every other company team-building event, no problem, but he is just really shy, quiet, and doesn’t like interacting with others.

I worry that if he does not come (as he’s one of my bosses’s favourite staff members, and I have trouble connecting with my boss as is– whole other story), I’ll be seen as a bad employee for not being inclusive.

I’d leave it alone. If you ask him about it and he says it’s because of the restaurant choice, are you at that point going to find another venue, thus making him feel like reason for the cancellation? I think that will just cause awkwardness. Maybe he’s not going because of the restaurant, but maybe he has other plans that night or just doesn’t feel like going to an office dinner. Whatever the reason, it’s okay for people not to go to things.

2. I ghosted on a reference and mentor

I had a fantastic manager who I have always used as a reference and for mentoring. We were a two-person HR team and worked great together. When I was laid off last year, I reached out to her. She had just filled a couple of positions and offered me an HR assistant role. I didn’t want to turn her down and interviewed with her team.

I never talked salary with her and once the offer was made, there was no way I could work with what she was offering. It was about $60/week more than my unemployment and completely on the other side of town from where I’ve always lived and worked (and where I was searching for work and therefore interviewing). BUT, I didn’t officially decline, I ghosted. I’ve wanted to reach out so many times but can never find the words. It’s now been 18 months.

This is not a bridge I wanted to burn. She really was a great manager and mentor and I hate that I fractured the relationship. Is it too late to try? Do I just move on?

No, it’s not too late to try, and you absolutely should contact her. She was probably mystified and concerned when you never got back to her about the offer, and has probably wondered more than once since then what happened. Reach out, explain what happened, and apologize profusely.

The relationship may never be what it was previously, but it will be much better than it is now.

Read an update to this letter here.

3. Helping a coworker with Christmas for her kids

My friend works with a very young mother, a low-paid junior colleague in her first job. This colleague has had a terrible year, with legitimately awful things happening. My friend really feels for her colleague, and wants to do something for her for Christmas. She usually gives $50 to charity at Christmas, but this time wants to give it to the colleague, to help her give her kids a nice time (in whatever way is most helpful, even if it’s just paying the bills).

I think this is lovely, but my friend is getting caught up worrying that this would be seen as charity, and offend her coworker. I told her about the gift card idea you mentioned in a post earlier this month, but she wants to give the coworker flexibility on how she uses the money, and she doesn’t want to make her feel like she has to use it to buy extra presents, if she’s struggling to get things like a tree, a nice meal, etc.

Can you come up with any good words that mean “So sorry you had a shit year — here’s something to go towards your children’s Christmas, use it however you like — no need to thank me” but sound more gentle?

I might do something like a Visa gift card rather than cash or a check; she can still spend it anywhere she wants but it might feel more gifty. As for what to say, how about this: “I know your family has had a tough year, and I’d love to help give your kids a great Christmas but wasn’t sure what would be most helpful. I’m hoping you’ll accept this as my gift toward the day for them.”

4. Will politely canceling an interview burn a bridge?

I have a friend who feels as though he has been blacklisted from working for certain companies due to the fact that he’s canceled job interviews in the past because of accepting other offers or wanting to pursue other opportunities. He was nice about it and gave 24 hours or more notice, but he feels that he’s unlikely to ever be considered for positions at these companies again. Could he have a point? There were times when he learned a thing or two that was off-putting about certain companies only after applying and getting the interview.

Reasonable companies won’t blacklist him just because he canceled an interview in the past. They might ask him about it and be curious about what changed his mind this time around, but as long as he didn’t no-show and is comfortable talking about what happened last time, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

5. Pay when the office closes for weather or opens late

I read your previous article from 2014 that says organizations can make you use a vacation day if they close for the day for weather, and they don’t have to pay non-exempt employees. My organization has let us know that if we are closed for a full day, they will pay everyone, but that if we open late, non-exempt employees will not get paid for the missed hours. (Exempt employees obviously lose no pay either way.) HR provided no explanation for the difference. Do you have any thoughts on why they might want to differentiate between hours we couldn’t work because they opened late and hours we couldn’t work because they didn’t open at all?

I’m just guessing, but my guess would be that they don’t want to make people lose an entire day’s pay since that could have a significant impact on people, whereas they figure that a couple of hours pay isn’t as much of a hardship.

{ 261 comments… read them below }

  1. MK*

    OP1, I may be prejudiced because this blind dining thing sounds like a nightmare to me (and I generally think that when planning a do for a large group you don’t know well, it’s better to be more conventional), who exactly did you survey before choosing the restaurant? It sounds like you didn’t ask this person, so if what you did was ask a couple of your work friends in a tone that made it clear you were excited about this, you might not have gotten an accurate picture. Also, is your boss on board with this?

    1. Asian J*

      It also sounds like a nightmare to me too. It would be so awkward for me as I wouldn’t know what to say. But that’s just me as a person.

    2. Turtle Candle*

      Ooh, yeah, I wonder about that too. It’s totally possible that your survey was representative and people were/are honestly enthused, in which case, hooray! But even though I would be cool with “blind dining” as a personal fun thing I’d be super hesitant at a work event–if only because I’m sure I’d end up with tapenade in my hair and pasta sauce on my shirt or whatever.

      But as Alison says, for this employee it’s probably too late and you should let it go. They’d probably feel weird if they were the only apparent reason you changed the venue, after all.

    3. HannahS*

      I’m untidy at the best of times (I’ve said “Why didn’t you TELL me I had tomato sauce on my nose?!” more than twice in my life), and I’d be so worried about how I’d look once we stepped back outside. I’d probably be wearing the meal. I don’t want to experience new things while I’m also “on.” I would absolutely do it with friends though. I went to a “blind museum” called Dialogue in the Dark and it was incredible.

    4. Manderley*

      Yes, total nightmare for me, too! With colleagues or in my private life. Spilling, eating unidentifiable foods, and what if the colleagues get handsy with each other or you? {Shudder}

    5. Anonophone*

      Yes.. if I was asked face to face in front of the whole team, in an excited way, it would be hard to say no (sound like a spoilsport etc)

      OP1 please do online polls next time!! With a couple of choices that people can legitimately veto. I feel bad because I can imagine the position you’re now in (as Alison says you can’t really do anything about it now) but online polls would be a good way to avoid this next time!

      1. FiveWheels*

        I don’t think it’s necessary to poll everyone, but there should consideration to people who might not want or be able to eat unknown food.

        The way we do it at my place, a menu goes round and if anyone has any special requirements so the standard options don’t work for them, they get a special meal (which they approve).

    6. Nelly*

      How do you cope with food intolerance? You wouldn’t be able to see the food or examine a menu. I dunno, the idea has always just seemed miserable to me, so I’m biased, but I hate touching food with my fingers and I’m thinking that using cutlery would be difficult. I even use my phone as a torch in low lighting restaurants, so one of those blind ones would be just an awful experience.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        I’m vegetarian, and I was wondering the same thing – it’s useful to check there’s no obvious bits of bacon in my salad on the menu and on the plate.

        I dunno, Xmas meals can be agonising enough, without the gimmicks…

      2. The Other Dawn*

        I came here to say the same thing. Alhough I have no food allergies or anything like that, I immediately thought, “What if he’s allergenic to something they’re serving and has no idea he’s about to put that in his mouth?”

        Blind dining sounds interesting, but with friends or on a date. Not in the office and especially not as a shy, quiet person. Pick something more conventional, OP.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Then people who are worried about that can decline, assuming the event isn’t mandatory, which it doesn’t sound like. There are tons of optional work holiday events that won’t please everyone, and that’s okay.

        1. FiveWheels*

          Given that people might be forced to decline on religious or medical grounds, it feels a bit skeevy to me to have an official event that could exclude people.

          Even if everyone is enthusiastic, I don’t see that the holiday dinner would be less enjoyable by making sure that the menu suits everyone.

          1. LBK*

            Lots of people don’t drink alcohol for religious or medical reasons but that doesn’t stop typical holiday parties from serving it.

            1. INTP*

              But usually those people are able to be in the room with alcohol. It’s easy to not drink when others are drinking. It’s less easy to examine your food when you’re in a deliberately dark room, and you would be conspicuously ruining the experience for everyone if you took out a flashlight.

          2. MsChandandlerBong*

            I have balance problems, and eating in a dark restaurant would have me wandering around like a drunk person. When I was going through testing, the doctor had me close my eyes and try to walk a straight line; I couldn’t do it! I can’t walk through a dark room (or even close my eyes and stand still) without being VERY careful about it. Not a big deal medically, but still something that would make me hesitate to participate in something like this.

        2. Kate*

          I generally agree with this, but as a manager I have had my higher ups make it crystal clear that they expect managers to participate in all team building exercises if we expect to move forward in our carreers. This includes any company picnics or holiday outings.

          It doesn’t sound like this is the case for the OP, but as soon as I hit “officer” level within my industry, no-showing to any of these kinds of events would reflect badly on me unless there was a legitimate emergency that my boss was aware of.

        3. Vicki*

          That’s the thing though. We think he is declining. We also have a suspicion that not every one of the remaining 18 or 19 people is as enthusiastic as the OP might believe.

          1. neverjaunty*

            We know he is declining. We don’t know why. Maybe he loves the idea of blind dining, but he just doesn’t want to have a meal with his colleagues. Maybe he has a hot date. Maybe he’s got a long-lost relative visiting from out of town.

        4. Blurgle*

          But OP is writing to ask how s/he can convince him not to decline! That’s sending a strong “you are not allowed to say no” signal.

          1. Shazbot*

            And to make things worse, the OP is trying to convince him *because the OP* is afraid it will impact *the OP’s job*. Not the decliner’s, the OP’s.

      4. Anonhippopotamus*

        Typically at these types of venues you choose your meal from a menu in the (fully lit) reception area before being taken into the dark room.

        I’ve done this with my partner, it was amusing, but I agree that it would be a total nightmare for a work function. I would decline.

      5. LBK*

        I can’t imagine the restaurant doesn’t have some system in place to deal with this – it would be a liability nightmare to not ask people about allergies and offer accommodations for them.

      6. Sarah*

        I’ve eaten at one of these places before and I have a serious tree nut allergy. I was really nervous because I wasn’t sure how it worked, plus my friends and I went to one in Quebec and my French is only so-so. It turned out you order in the “lobby” area which is fully lit, then proceed into the darkened dining area.

        And it also turned out they didn’t use any nuts in the kitchen because of concerns like this (really wish they mentioned that on their website; would’ve saved me some worrying). Obviously not sure if that’s the case at all these places and how they deal with other intolerances, but it put me at ease.

      7. Original Poster*

        Hey, I originally asked this last week.

        I forgot to mention that with the online RSVP, people pre choose their chosen entree, and list any allergies, intolerances, or etc. So no concern of someone eating the wrong thing.

        The restaurant has a very good reputation and myself and the social committee definitely did our research into the restaurant to make sure there would be no hiccups.

    7. New Bee*

      I’ve done this before (overseas, and it wasn’t a work thing), and our entire conversation revolved around the experience (finding the silverware, not missing our mouths, etc.). I remember one person had an anxiety attack when we transitioned into the space, and we all kept talking constantly–we were afraid of the silence because we couldn’t see. My eyes kept trying to adjust, which was also a weird sensation. I don’t remember the food at all.

      It was a cool experience, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.

      1. Bunny*

        I suffer from reasonably well controlled anxiety and a condition that makes me very klutzy in best of circumstances. I would not potentially embarrass myself with this in front of colleagues.

        And frankly I’d expect HR to weigh that possibility. No, you can’t know everything. But maybe plan for disaster.

    8. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s possible that the OP’s office is genuinely enthusiastic about, and she’s better positioned to know that than we are. There are loads of offices that genuinely enjoy activities that plenty of other people wouldn’t enjoy, and if it’s optional, that’s not a problem.

      It’s not useful to the OP to get a bunch of comments saying “I wouldn’t like that,” so I’m going to ask that people stop that here . (There are already a ton of those at the time that I’m writing those, but no more please.)

      1. JessaB*

        I think the issue is how to poll a group you know while still letting them decide to say no. Maybe you need two choices and ask which one people like better? I dunno. But it’s hard in business situations sometimes to say no to things even if you want to.

        1. INTP*

          I agree here. If I were asked about an activity that sounded like utter hell to me, I’d still give at least a half-hearted “oh, that sounds cool,” because if they go forward with it anyways, I don’t want to be the non-team-player that was negative about our activity choice. And I also don’t think I’m exactly in a tiny minority on that. I think in the future it would be better to do an anonymous online poll, or throw out a couple of possibilities and ask people which idea they like better.

      2. TootsNYC*

        thanks, Alison!

        This happens a lot, the “I’d hate it, this is a terrible idea” comments. It’s very depressing, even if you’re not the person who wrote in. Id’ think it would turn people off from asking any question remotely likely to trigger that sort of response in the comments.

        1. neverjaunty*

          It happens a lot because a lot of letters are about mandatory or fake-optional events, like weekend “team building” excursions, or are situations where the organizers just can’t understand that anybody else might not looooove to do the thing. (Oddly, that latter gets a lot of people who are doing the flip side of “I’d hate it”, and saying that they’d totally LOVE if their office did the whatever so maybe the OP just needs to give it a chance.)

        2. dj*

          Agreed. The comment section gets really hostile every time morale events are mentioned. Sometimes morale events are legitimately a terrible idea, but sometimes they’re just not your personal cup of tea, and that doesn’t mean no office should hold them.

    9. Zip Silver*

      I tend to avoid work parties and such. While we work in English, once the food and booze is brought out, everything switches to Spanish and I’m just sitting there twiddling my thumbs.

    10. FiveWheels*

      Sounds like a nightmare to me too. It excludes anyone with special dietary requirements, be they medical, religious, or having strong preferences.

      It also excludes people with, for example, balance issues. If blindfolded or in the dark I have very reduced balance to the extent that I can fall off chairs – but that’s not something I share at work.

      I know planning office dinners is a minefield but every attempt should always be made to accommodate everyone.

      1. TootsNYC*

        ANY restaurant can exclude someone w/ special dietary requirements.

        And I wouldn’t be surprised if THIS restaurant is actually more careful about allergy/contamination issues precisely because of the darkness.

    11. Blueismyfavorite*

      I think blind dining sounds fun and I would LOVE it if my work offered us that kind of party. You’d get a cool experience out of a usually boring office party and you wouldn’t be forced to make awkward small talk with your coworkers because you could talk about the experience.

      Our office Thanksgiving party was food from Honey-Baked ham and our potluck sides so this sounds great to me.

      Regardless, our small sampling of opinions really means nothing to what the OPs coworkers would like.

    12. Phyllis B*

      Okay, what is “blind dining” ? Is it eating a meal in the dark/with a blindfold on? Never heard of this before.

      1. Annby*

        Yeah, it’s exactly eating in a completely dark environment, with the idea that losing not using your vision gives you a heightened appreciation for the taste of the food.

        I’ve never been, but I understand that a lot of places hire blind waitstaff and there’s a component of the experience that’s supposed to raise awareness (and/or money) for visual impairment.

  2. AcademiaNut*

    For OP1 – it’s also worth remembering that not everyone actually likes ‘fun’ work activities, either in general, or specific events. So while it’s definitely worth trying to be inclusive, and to avoid problematic events, there should also be the option for people to simply not go. And, of course, in December people are busy, and may have schedule conflicts, or just want a quiet night in. For someone very quiet and reserved, they may just be trying to keep their December schedule under control.

    I agree with Alison that in this case, making a big deal over him not going would be more awkward than leaving it as it is (and could end up unintentionally pressuring him to go). In the future, it might be worth doing a slightly less random survey of people for unusual activities like blind dining – maybe set up an online poll with a list of potential activities/restaurants and let all the employees select from fantastic/sounds okay/not my thing.

    1. Dan*

      I have no problem with blind dining, unless it’s at a restaurant I’ve been to and hate ;)

      But the real point I want to make here is that along with the AcademiaNut’s comment about people not liking “fun” work activities, the word “fun” needs to be stricken out of work related vocabulary. I’m there to earn a paycheck and hopefully not hate coming in on Mondays.

      Like for me, I like to cut loose when I drink, and I can be a bit offensive. So you know what? I have to watch it when I’m around co-workers, and I do NOT want to be pressured into attending work related events when alcohol will be present and I don’t want to go. (All I’m saying is that what I attend and how much I drink is my personal choice. Beyond an invitation, I want no further follow ups. I need to handle my own shit on my own terms. I’m certainly not going to explain that to you if you ask why I’m not going to whatever event, or not drinking when I do attend.)

      Inclusion is good, to a point. You can’t force 100% participation, no matter how much the boss might want it.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        I think there’s nothing wrong with work fun, but there is a problem with mandatory work fun.

        I quite enjoy some work related fun activities, even some that occur off the clock (although during work is better). But I want control over my own participation – the ability to say no to activities that I don’t find fun, or if I have a scheduling conflict, or just don’t feel like going this time. And if someone simply doesn’t want to ever participate, that should be totally up to them.

        I figure the basic guidelines for doing it well are – give employees a chance to provide feedback on ideas and execution, vary the events so that you include people with a variety of tastes and schedules, and accept “No” answers without hassle.

        Personally, I’d love to do a blind dinner, but I agree that it’s not a great idea for an office party.

        1. TootsNYC*

          The OP’s team DOES have control over their participation.
          That’s why she wrote in, because one person has declined. She’s not angry he’s not going; she’s worried.

          1. Blurgle*

            It doesn’t matter; she’s still considering intimidating/coercing/nagging/guilting him into attending.

            OP, leave him alone!!!

            1. Elsajeni*

              Wait, no she isn’t. She’s considering asking why he declined, and whether it’s possible to change the event to accommodate his preferences if it’s because he hates the blind dining idea. You’re assuming the worst of her with essentially no evidence.

              1. MsCHX*

                But WHY? One person doesn’t want to go -for *whatever* reason-why would you consider changing the entire event? Just let it be. The world will not end because an employee declined one company event.

                1. Elsajeni*

                  Sure. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ask; that’s also the advice Alison gave. But I’m replying to a comment declaring that she’s trying to intimidate or coerce the guy into attending, which there is just no evidence of in the letter. I think that’s exactly the kind of comment that discourages people from writing in, and anyway is against the commenting policy that asks us to give OPs the benefit of the doubt.

              2. Shazbot*

                You mean the evidence where she comes right out and says that she wants to convince him to attend because she doesn’t want to be seen as being less than inclusive? Let’s not pretend she’s doing anything with the decliner in mind, here.

            1. Original Poster*

              I’m not intimidating anyone or coercing anything.

              I was just worried, cause I like to make activities as inclusive as possible. But I just left it alone. At the end of the day, I’d consulted everyone about the activity, and a majority ruled they were keen. It’s not mandatory, nor would I plan an office event to be and it’s none of my business if 1/20 doesn’t want to attend.

              We have more than enough other stuff going on in December anyway (in a well-lit environment.)

    2. the gold digger*

      not everyone actually likes ‘fun’ work activities

      I like fun work activities that occur during the work day.

      After work, I want to do my own thing. As much as I really like my boss and the other people I work with, I do not want to hang out with them after work because then it is still – work.

      1. Sparky*

        Yes! I want to go home at quitting time, not go spend a few more hours with the people I work with. Treat us to lunch or something.

        I work in a law library and last years holiday meal kept getting postponed because people were sick or busy. Finally, in March we closed early, went to the training room and watched Legally Blond and ate pizza. We got to leave a bit earlier than usual. We just sat in the semi dark and ate pizza. I hadn’t seen Legally Blond before, so that was nice. I hope we watch Legally Blond 2 or Mean Girls this year.

      2. Larua*

        I have to agree with gold digger.

        Americans already spend enough time at work. We have to have time outside of work to have a life, and many of these workplace events intrude on that.

        Plus, not everyone like the holidays and not everyone celebrates the holidays. That’s reality.

        OP is overthinking this. Let it go.

    3. INTP*

      Agree, it’s important that people feel like it’s okay to not go sometimes. You aren’t going to find a single restaurant or activity that everyone is enthusiastic about, plus people have other obligations at the same time (that they may or may not feel comfortable sharing) or have other things going on in their lives and less emotional bandwidth for being “on” at a work party and/or having new experiences.

      When I’ve been asked in a detailed way about why I couldn’t or didn’t go to something, it felt like I was being told that I am expected to be at all events unless I have a damn good excuse and am willing to disclose that excuse to coworkers. I know that isn’t what the OP is actually trying to communicate, but it might be what people hear. All but one person is great turnout for a work event and I don’t think anyone is going to blame you for a single person not showing up during the busiest season. Best just to leave it alone.

      1. TootsNYC*

        “Agree, it’s important that people feel like it’s okay to not go sometimes.”

        And that’s one reason why I agree w/ Alison that the OP should just leave it alone. Asking him why he’s not going will send the message that it’s not OK for him to just decide he doesn’t want to go.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Exactly. If it’s just a fun thing for people who work together to do, making a Big Deal out of his declining is going to send the message that it’s a problem for him to have other plans.

        2. halpful*

          This. He’s shy, introverted, and doesn’t like interacting with humans, but this is the first event he’s declining? Maybe this is the first time he’s got up the courage to do so.

          There are lots of different plausible realities that would fit OP1’s story, but what sticks out to me is the end of the letter, where OP is worried about *their* reputation being harmed by this guy declining. That’s not Wrong or Bad, but it’s making my boundary-senses tingle. OP, keep an eye on that feeling; it has a way of twisting good intentions into counterproductive actions. Maybe separate the problems (whether he feels included/pressured/etc, whether your actions look inclusive, whether your actions *are* inclusive) and work through them separately, to ensure you’re not accidentally neglecting one.

  3. Stellaaaaa*

    OP1 – There are a lot of people who wouldn’t be interested in blind dining; office holiday parties aren’t the time for trying something wacky and different. Those dinners are not great for conversation or building morale (as you can’t just sit down and have a normal face-to-face conversation with someone) so I’m not sure it will be a big deal if some people don’t attend.

    This isn’t what you asked about, but I reallllllllly hope that you’re not expecting the employees to bring in food for the bake sale or to purchase these items with their own money. I also think you should change the “secret Santa” to “mystery gift exchange.” I know you feel like you’re being festive, but when you have so much stuff focused around Christmas, it makes people of other religions feel excluded. I wouldn’t dig too deep if employees don’t seem interested in these activities.

    1. katamia*

      I know you feel like you’re being festive, but when you have so much stuff focused around Christmas, it makes people of other religions feel excluded.


      1. Anonhippopotamus*

        I’m all for inclusion and being sensitive, and saying holidays vs Christmas but I find this overkill.

        Coming from a Christian family, I can say that Santa is more of a cultural than truly religious entity – yes it’s associated with Christianity but gift giving isn’t an important focus of Christmas from a religious standpoint. Plus, gift giving is part of many religions.

        I live in a country that is primarily non-Christian, but we celebrate Christmas for cultural reasons. Very few people in my workplace are religiously or even culturally Christian, they hardly even take time off at Christmas time, but they look forward to the annual celebrations around Christmas time. And nobody feels excluded.

        1. Mookie*

          For the record, though, there are plenty of Christians who don’t do the Santa thing at all, but treat it as a holy day and act accordingly, ditto non-observant or lapsed members of other religions who regard their own culturally-mandated holidays as communal celebrations or family affairs. I agree that, in general, staff are not looking to management to provide religious services, guidance, and succor, so keeping the vibe secular or seasonal is perfectly appropriate, too.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                But the question isn’t “do you personally find Santa secular?” It’s “are there large numbers of non-Christians who are offended and feel erased by treating symbols of Christmas as universal and secular things?” And the answer to that is certainly yes.

                1. HannahS*

                  Thank you Alison! It’s so hard to explain these things without tearing my hair out with frustration. I’m 100 % stealing some of your wording

                2. Violet Fox*

                  Thank you for saying this, I’m stealing some of the wording as well because this is something I have encountered just too many times.

            1. Shazbot*

              St. Nicholas is religious.
              Santa, as he is presented today, is 100% an invention of the Coca Cola company. It’s helpful to not purposefully or accidentally confuse the two.

        2. Stellaaaaa*

          Coming from a non-Christian family, I gotta say that Santa 100% IS religious. The notion of privilege in America is a sensitive subject right now so I’ll stop here, but I want to put it out there that there’s no way for a person with privilege to successfully convince a minority that, say, Christmas is broadly cultural and not an actual religious thing.

          1. EleanoraUK*

            Christmas is obviously a Christian festive day, but if the issue is with the phrase ‘Secret Santa’ then it’s a little trickier to see how that would be excluding people. Santa is a commercial figure, nothing to do with the ‘proper’ Christian tradition whatsoever. Of course, he pops up at Christmas, but I’d argue that the concept of Secret Santa and Santa himself are about as secular as it gets.

            1. FiveWheels*

              I’m from a Christian family (though not Christian myself) who considered all of Christmas to be secular, with Easter being more significant. That said they felt that every day was equally holy.

              It’s one of those investing “your mileage may vary” things.

            2. Stellaaaaa*

              Santa is a Christian commercial figure. You’re not going to convince a Muslim or a Jew that Santa is just as relevant to them as he is to a Christian.

              1. Axial Kilt*

                Speak for yourself Stellaaaaa. I’m Jewish and you don’t speak for me or Jews in general. My partner and I are atheists (he grew up Lutheran) but we very much enjoy the commercial holiday of Christmas with a tree and lights and decorations, even some Santa ornaments. To me, Santa is a commercial and secular character, the very symbol of commercial Christmas. It’s relevant to me as a commercial symbol only. Granted, there are probably many people who think that it’s very religious but no one I know thinks that. It’s not even remotely close to a manger scene, for example.

                The whole supposed “War on Christmas” thing is all about the over-commercialization of Christmas with Santa as a central thing. I say let people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday of giving with Santa as a symbol of that. If other people want to celebrate it as a religious holiday, rock on. What do I care? Just don’t make me do it.

                Also, I can acknowledge and participate in other people’s cultural traditions (like Secret Santa) and not feel like it’s an attempt to convert me to Christianity.

                1. CeeCee*

                  Agreed. As an atheist who also celebrates Christmas as a holiday of love and togetherness, without any religious connotations. We (SO and I) bask in twinkling lights and Christmas movies and listening to Christmas songs without religion ever being a part of it.

                  For us, Santa is a purely commercial symbol. We participate in a handful of other cultural traditions that we are invited to, and never feel like religions are being pushed on us.

                2. neverjaunty*

                  The whole supposed “War on Christmas” thing is all about the over-commercialization of Christmas with Santa as a central thing

                  No, it’s not. The whole supposed “War on Christmas” thing is thinly-veiled religious butthurt pushed by professional blowhards, based on the imaginary crisis of people who celebrate other holidays at the same time (hm, who might that be, I wonder?) forcing everyone else to be “politically correct” and refrain from acknowledging Christmas.

                  There is certainly a movement among devout Christians to elevate the religious meaning of the holiday over gift-grabbing. “War on Christmas” slogans are not part of that.

              2. Aurion*

                Atheist with Buddhist parents and none of us ascribe particular religious importance to Santa and Christmas. This is a really your-mileage-may-vary thing, and I don’t think the privilege argument should be the first assumption we jump to when there’s disagreement.

                That said, since there obviously are people who do ascribe religious importance to Santa it probably is prudent to change the title to a more generic “mystery gift exchange”. But given how closely gift-giving and Christmas are associated, I don’t think changing the name will divorce the two concepts very much.

              3. Salyan*

                Make that Catholic commercial figure. Not all Christian churches recognize the saint system. As a non-Catholic, I consider Santa to have nothing at all to do with my religion.

            3. Kate*

              So the story of Santa Claus is the story of Saint Nicholas right? Santa Claus is just a non-English pronunciation of the same name. Saint Nicholas was sainted by the Catholic Church and despite the use to sell toys the magical story is that of a Catholic Saint. Is the Pope not Christian anymore either??

              1. Anon for this*

                Christians see their practices as normal (like most people see their own religion as normal), and that means they’re practically secular, right?

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Exactly. Christmas celebrators don’t have to think about how religious their holiday and its symbols is – it can be considered kind of secular or universal simply because it has the privilege of dominance. But for many of those who don’t celebrate it, it’s not secular and it’s not universal — just like symbols associated with Purim or Ramadan aren’t secular either.

                  For many people of religions other than Christianity, it’s frustrating to be told that we should see Christmas and Christmas-related practices as secular, because it basically erases non-Christians from the picture.

                2. neverjaunty*

                  It’s also frustrating to hear the endless cries of “well Bob is Jewish/Atheist and he loves the heck out of Christmas so it’s a secular holiday! CHECKMATE!!!!!” Christmas is a beautiful holiday with a wonderful message. Lots of people choose to pick out the sentimental and less-overtly Christian parts of the holiday to enjoy, and that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean that people who refuse to decorate their offices with Holy Hanukkah Balls are big meanies trying to ruin everyone else’s fun.

                3. Axial Kilt*

                  Alison, you it looks to me like you’re conflating Santa Claus and Christmas as a religious holiday. The thread generally was about Santa but if we are going with whether Christmas itself is offensive then ok. I’m totally for making Christmas as open to other influences as possible and move it even further away from Christianity. As a queer atheist Jew I’m allowed to have my own celebration of “Christmas” as a cultural tradition about love and sharing and warmth during the cold dark winter and others can bring any practices they want, or not. Christmas is a dominant thing in the U.S.A. (partly because of Christian roots in a majority (but becoming less so) Christian country, and partly because of sell-sell-sell capitalism, among other reasons) just like Thanksgiving. But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way as the country and the world become more multi-cultural. It can be as religious or not religious as anyone wants it to be. Or you can completely ignore it. Let people make it their own thing or make it nothing at all. They are going to do it anyway.

                  Are people really offended by other people’s cultural traditions, whether religious or not? There are also many people who celebrate Christmas as a mostly or completely secular holiday, and it’s moving more and more in that direction. (BTW, Purim and Ramadan have zero tradition of secularness so that’s a bit of a false equivalency to me).

                  Just tell it like it is: Christmas has religious roots and many people celebrate it as a religious holiday but there are also many people for whom it has little or no religious relevance. It’s a holiday that has tones of sharing and family that anyone can appreciate without having to actively celebrate it.

                  Maybe we should be encouraging more respect and understanding of other people’s religious and/or cultural traditions across the board. Give people a little more credit.

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Again, no one is arguing that Christmas is offensive! That would be very odd, and I’m not sure why people keep framing it that way. By all means, celebrate Christmas if you’d like.

                  The issue is assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas or that its symbols are secular.

                  You are allowed to do anything you want regarding Christmas or other holidays, for yourself.

                  It’s only problematic when it becomes an assumption that people of any faith would be okay with engaging in activities related to Christmas, because many of us are not. Christmas is not just like Thanksgiving (!); many, many people in the U.S. don’t observe Christmas and consider it an important part of their identity that they don’t want coopted.

              2. EleanoraUK*

                I should probably add that I’m not a Christian, then (or of any other religion).

                Does it hark back to St Nicholas? Sure. Was there mention of a grotto and elves when St Nicholas was sainted back in the day? Probably not.

                Christmas has no religious meaning to me whatsoever. I don’t exchange presents most years, unless I celebrate with my boyfriend’s family who do Christmas the traditional way. I’m not offended by their celebration of it, and they’re not offended by it having no religious meaning to me whatsoever.

                What I was getting at – surely there’s a way of going “Secret Santa, ahh yes, that random present exchange thing we do in December”, without its Christian roots becoming offensive, or its name having to change, only because you don’t share those roots? I appreciate that that’s a bit hard if you’re being dragged to Mass or it’s called Secret Jesus Present Giving or something, but Secret Santa seems such a simple one to just file in the “this doesn’t have any special meaning to me, it’s the guy from the Cocoa Cola ads, but sure, exchanging presents at the darkest time of year is nice” category, and make it a positive thing?

                1. Mookie*

                  Could just as easily make a positive thing out of winter (if you’re up north) or summer (down south) solstice gift-giving. There’s really no reason not to, but that a combination of actual Christian, nominally Christian, and secular people who “celebrate” Christmas all feeling that Christmas is inclusive enough already. And it just isn’t. It’s never going to be, and there’s no real reason putting this off but that the majority, in a lot of countries, is being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn.

                2. neverjaunty*

                  Hanukkah has a lot of traditions that are not strictly religious, but were incorporated from the local culture or pagan faiths (like the dreidel game). Yet I don’t see a lot of secular people just so happening to fry up latkes or put menorahs on their windows.

                3. EleanoraUK*

                  @Mookie – Sure, frankly, the more feasts the merrier in my view.

                  But I don’t see why the Christian tradition has to change to accommodate others if they are not forced to partake. You wouldn’t change Purim to make it more inclusive, would you? People get to celebrate their own religion their own way, so long as it’s not discriminating against anyone. It not being your thing does not make it discriminating so long as you’re invited to join in regardless of your religion. You can then opt in or out as you please.

                  I’ve definitely celebrated the end of Ramadan with a Muslim friend before, despite being a-religious. I’m celebrating her, and joining in as a gesture to her. Ramadan means nothing to me, but she does, so I’m not about to demand she change her religious tradition to be more inclusive – it already is, cause I am welcome. Equally, she’s happy for me to join in the cheer knowing full well I’m not a Muslim.

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It’s because workplaces function better and retain good employees longer when they don’t make people feel excluded. And there’s no reason you need to bring religious holidays into the workplace; it’s not a huge compromise to be considerate of other people at work.

              3. JM60*

                Modern-day Santa (at least in the US) has about as much to do with Christianity as holiday/Christmas trees have to do with Paganism: They both originate from those religions (which is why the Bible seems to ban such trees in Jeremiah 10:1-5). However, very few people would consider holiday/Christmas trees to be Pagan because they’ve become very removed from those origins. Similarly, Santa mostly originated from Saint Nicholas (with influences from Paganism), but modern Santa Clause has very little to do with Saint Nicholas (at least in the US, in some other places, such as the Netherlands, their version of Santa has a lot to do with Saint Nicholas and in fact is still called Saint Nicholas).

                1. JM60*

                  I forgot to add that I’m an atheist who grew up in a Catholic family that took religion very seriously. We saw Santa as having very little relevance to the real person of Saint Nicholas.

                  This video gives a good overview of how Santa has originated and evolved in various countries:

                2. One of the Sarahs*

                  JM60, I think you’re making the common mistake that because you were brought up in a family that don’t see Santa (a figure indelibly associated with Christmas) as nothing to do with Christianity, that every one else shouldn’t either.

                  I’m a bit confused why you’d do this, when other people, who weren’t brought up Christian, have explained why it feels different to them, including Alison. Maybe you think that one link will change their mind?

            4. Tax Accountant*

              … just don’t do what my office does and call it a “Chinese Gift Exchange”. My jaw dropped when I saw the invite to that.

        3. jhhj*

          It’s easy to say that Santa is secular when he’s secular Christian and you’re Christian — but Santa is Christian, and Christmas is Christian, even if you personally celebrate them as cultural holidays.

          I don’t object to Christian-themed holiday things, at work or in general, but I do object to Christians trying to pretend they are not Christian.

          1. LBK*

            Yeah, I’d be surprised to learn that there are many people who weren’t raised in a Christian family that celebrate Christmas or involve Santa in their holiday iconography. I mean, my siblings and I are all pretty non-religious, but we still participate in Christmas because it’s how we were raised. At this point it’s more about family tradition than religious meaning, but I don’t think we would’ve started celebrating it in the first place if it hadn’t been for being raised by Christian parents.

            1. Siberian*

              My parents were non religious. Dad was Jewish but was at least the second generation in his family that had no religious practices. Mom was raised in a Methodist family that went to church but little else and she never, ever went to church as an adult. I believe both were atheists but they never said so because religion meant so little to them that they couldn’t bother to talk about it. We did Santa-based Christmas with a tree every year. I’m an atheist and I do too. Not saying it isn’t a Christian holiday but you really don’t have to be Christian to celebrate it.

              1. LBK*

                I suppose that in the US, Christmas is the default winter holiday to celebrate if you don’t have any particularly strong religious convictions, but I still think that’s out of the tradition of the US having historically been a heavily Christian country, such that Christmas has become embedded in our nation’s tradition. I don’t think it means that Christmas has become secular itself – I doubt that in countries with historically Jewish or Muslim traditions, non-religious people celebrate Christmas.

                1. EleanoraUK*

                  And if you want to take it back even further, it hails back to pre-Christian Pagan traditions of bringing evergreens and fire indoor at the darkest time of year to remember that Spring would come again. Which was a local tradition in Europe, given that it was strongly tied to the climate/seasons as experienced in Northern Europe, and therefore likely not widely celebrated in traditionally Muslim or Jewish parts of the world for purely practical/geographical reasons.

                  I think I might be genuinely be missing something, but I don’t understand why something becomes offensive to non-Christians, be they religious otherwise or not, because it’s got Christian roots. To my mind the point of being tolerant and inclusive is that everyone gets to celebrate (or not) as they see fit. Not your thing? Don’t celebrate, count is another Labor Day/bank holiday.

                  Again – I could genuinely be missing something as I’m not from a minority background and perhaps there is a larger issue at play here that I don’t have experience with or visibility of, but I’m struggling to understand, so find it really interesting/useful to discuss.

                2. jhhj*

                  Eleanora, you are definitely missing something — you are Christian(ish?) in a country with a state religion. Christmas isn’t offensive to me; arguing that Christmas is secular because you personally don’t go to church IS offensive. And of course, not everyone gets to celebrate as they see fit: I *have to* take Christmas off, but if I want to take my religious holidays off, those use up my regular holiday time.

                  Celebrate what you wish — we do a family Christmas because we like eggnog and crackers and each other and there is NOTHING ELSE to do on the 24th. (We do movies and Chinese food on the 25th.) But try to imagine living in a country where someone else’s religious holidays were all statutory holidays, and you had to use your limited vacation time to take yours off. Imagine that people kept claiming that all these holidays were cultural, and that one full month of every year was all about one of those holidays, and you were constantly asked about it, talked to about it, badgered if you do not celebrate it because it’s not religious, after all. It’s hard to imagine when you grow up knowing you are part of the majority, but it’s not just a minor issue.

                  Also: yes, a lot of Christian traditions used to be pagan. But then Christians killed off or converted everyone, and they’ve held those traditions for centuries: they are now Christian traditions. (Neo-pagans also use them and call them pagan, and that is fine; but they are not secular.)

                  (FYI, Judaism has a fairly minor festival of lights around the same time; the existence of this kind of holiday is not exclusive to Christianity. Islam has a lunar calendar so the holidays drift.)

                3. LBK*

                  Well, from a work perspective, consider that non-Christians generally have to use vacation time to get any non-Christian holiday off. Sure, they get Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, etc. as freebies, but they still end up spending more PTO that Christians don’t have to spend to participate in their faith or be with their families for those celebrations since our national holidays are all based around Christianity’s schedule. I can certainly see how that would be unfair.

                4. EleanoraUK*

                  I’m not Christian, actually, completely a-religious, and find large parts of the Bible actively offensive. Living in the UK, with a state religion, sure, but it’s a country that I moved to as an adult, that has many traditions, religious and otherwise, that baffle me, which I cherry pick from in terms of participation. I’m happy to let everyone get on as they please.

                  I’ve not argued Christmas is secular – it’s obviously not. I’ve argued that you can partake in the Secret Santa component without it having religious relevance to you, and that it having religious relevance to others does not inherently make it offensive. How can it be offensive for people to celebrate a tradition, just because they are the majority, especially if an effort is made for everyone to be included on a “your mileage may vary” basis? And if the traditional link to Christmas makes it offensive, changing the name is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

                  The over-arching Christian influence on holidays etc. is part of a much larger and complicated issue, one I wouldn’t know how to solve on a practical level, but that’s not what I was arguing. Going back to the Secret Santa thing only, it doesn’t require time off, and a coworker asking me to participate in Secret Santa is inherently trying to do a nice thing, on a personal level. They’re not assuming it’s a secular thing and surely you’ll love it too. They’re saying “here’s this thing we do, and we’d love for you to join, regardless of your religion, because we think the exchange of gifts is a nice thing and you don’t need to believe in my god to do it; we wouldn’t want to exclude you just cause Jesus isn’t your jam.”

                  He’s sure isn’t my jam, but that’s just a nice gesture to me.

                5. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  @EleanoraUK It’s your prerogative to find it a nice gesture, but surely you can respect that others do attribute meaning to those same symbols and traditions of what is in fact a Christian holiday. To many people, Christmas is not some sort of universal cultural celebration.

                6. jhhj*

                  Eleanora (btw I love your name), if indeed your family history is not Christian — you might not be Christian, but if your parents or grandparents were, you’re celebrating because of the religion — then I apologise for the assumption.

                  I find it annoying to call something Secret Santa — surely you can just call it a gift exchange or whatever — because it’s exclusionary language. Is it more than a small irritation for me? Not at this point. But don’t pretend that Secret Santa, the term, is secular: it is not. A lot of people claim it is secular and they are wrong.

              2. Eleanora*

                @Alison Of course, and people can choose not to participate on those grounds. But finding it offensive that other people do celebrate is the bit I don’t understand.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It’s not about finding it offensive that other people celebrate it — not at all! It’s about finding it offensive when people assume that everyone celebrates it.

                2. Mookie*

                  people can choose not to participate on those grounds.

                  You’ve got it the wrong way ’round. Injecting Santa into things is not a neutral or natural act. It takes actual effort, it is not a passive thing, to tailor winter / summer holiday celebrations along Christian lines. The default is a-religious. An interlocutor feeling some small amount, possibly, of “offense,” feeling slighted, overlooked, or just weary is not a get-out-of-jail trump card for people unintentionally but routinely imposing their culture on others. They the are the ones who can choose to stop doing this (people who are not Christian are not being not-Christian at anyone, and they’re not obligated to change or adopt or observe a completely alien religion). In a multi-cultural society, no one is asking that they be shielded from every sign or symbol, but there’s no reason to pretend that the dominant culture is not dominant and definitely not inclusive, and that’s the bit I don’t understand.

                3. Candi*

                  The default of winter solstice traditions has historically not been non-religious. They were always tied to some god, whether the local Mother Nature or the Sun God or the rebirth of that god or this one. Christianity continued in a long-established tradition when the Church stuck the celebration there instead of autumn or spring.

                  As for Santa, the tradition historically exists in two parts:

                  St. Nicholas, the generous bishop/churchman accompanied by his faithful black servant;

                  And Santa Claus, a jolly older man who began showing up in marketing around the beginning of the 1900s, and who has always had a bit of the secular about him. A character invented to entice people to spend money, displayed against the current religious background, but only tangentially related to it.

          2. the gold digger*

            Santa Claus is part of Christmas, which is a Christian holiday. (For crying out loud – he is based on a Christian saint! The one who leaves candy in your shoes on Dec 5. Or 6. Can’t remember.)

            My husband’s parents were adamant atheists who still got angry if Primo did not spend Christmas with them. I pointed out that as atheists, they did not get to claim Christmas, but my argument did not work.

            1. Myrin*

              His saint’s day is on the 6th. (Which I only know because we celebrate it in Germany. However, there’s been a low-key war going on forever between different parts of Germany as to when exactly Nikolaus comes to visit – the evening of the 5th or the morning of the 6th. But yeah. The actual day of St. Nicholas is the 6th.)

            2. JM60*

              Santa Claus is part of Christmas, which is a Christian holiday. (For crying out loud – he is based on a Christian saint! The one who leaves candy in your shoes on Dec 5. Or 6. Can’t remember.)

              Saying that Santa is Christian because he originated from a real Christian person is like saying that holiday trees and holiday lights are Pagan because they originated from Pagan traditions. However, very few people would view holiday trees and lights as Pagan because their modern use is greatly removed from the pagan origins of Paganism. Similarly, the modern day Santa Clause, at least in America, has little to do with the original Saint Nicholas except for etymology (although the Santa equivalent in other countries sometimes does still have a lot to do with Saint Nicholas).

              I’m an atheist who grew up in a Catholic family that took religion very seriously, and saw Santa as a secular character with little to do with Saint Nicholas.

              Note: The Bible even seems to ban holiday trees in Jeremiah 10:1-5 because it was a tradition from other religions.

          3. Anon for this*

            Thank you. I am tired of being expected to go through the motions of someone else’s religion, and pretending that isn’t what’s happening doesn’t help the situation. I’m not going to somehow forget that Christmas is a Christian holiday.

          4. blackcat*

            +1, adding that I object to culturally Christian people pretending that Christmas is a secular holiday because they are secular.

            You do have lots of folks like my family who celebrate Christmas despite being mostly atheists. BUT the origins of our family are solidly WASP.

            I also have atheist friends who celebrate Hanukah or Eid Al-Fitr because they are culturally Jewish or Muslim. The fact that not everyone who celebrates a specific holiday is religious does not make a holiday secular.

            1. Jaguar*

              Saying that non-religious westerners don’t count sounds a lot like moving the goalposts to me. There are Muslim / Jewish / Hindu / Buddhist and probably other religious denominations who were raised in the west and give gifts, put up trees, and so forth at Christmas – I’ve met them. Do they also not get a say on whether “Merry Christmas” is offensive? Because it’s the same WASP heritage at play.

              Furthermore, does this “it’s rooted in Christianity so it’s non-secular” apply to marraige? Education? Fashion? Sundays off work?

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I don’t think anyone is saying they don’t count (and I don’t think anyone here has said that “merry Christmas” is offensive). The issue is solely expecting everyone to consider Christmas secular, when to many, many people it is not.

                1. Jaguar*

                  Fair enough, but I fundamentally don’t believe society has an obligation to be inclusive or not offend people. I think the obligation is to act ethically. So, for example, there are people that are offended when they’re wished a “Merry Christmas” or are asked to participate in a “Secret Santa.” However, I don’t think it’s unethical that those things happen. Under that framework, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a Secret Santa thing at work from a religious perspective. Were I to move to India and during Dwali there was some religious-based custom of whatever and I was asked to participate, it would seem profoundly petty to me to object to it on the basis of religous differences.

                2. Mookie*

                  Well, when discussing the US, you’re discussing a very young country borne from genocide and occupation, the plundering of land previously held by other people, the transport and enslavement of people of several different ethnicities, and immigration from a multitude of disparate cultures. That assimilation in the past required people to learn and follow narrow, WASP standards does not mean that those WASP values are “inherently” American. US society, like it or lump it, is not uniformly white Christian, never has been, and never will be, and there’s nothing petty about pushing back against jingoistic mythologies and recognizing the material and cultural contributions of everyone. Non-Christian Americans are not “visitors” or immigrants to the US, are not interlopers, so your Indian comparison falls very flat.

                3. Jaguar*

                  Well, I was responding to blackcat’s assertation that American atheists still come from a WASP culture. It doesn’t help my argument, so I’m willing to throw it out if you want?

                4. Mookie*

                  The problem is, to put it another way, conflating 21st-century “westerners” with white Christians. Likewise, the risible notion that marriage or education or fashion (wot??? Or, ffs, labor laws?*) belongs, is an innovation credited only to, Christians.

                  *Sabbath is a Jewish custom bowdlerized by Christians, so I don’t even know what you’re grasping at here.

                5. blackcat*

                  Alison’s point is exactly what I was trying to say.

                  I don’t know ANYONE who is offended by being told “merry christmas” or even being asked to participate in Secret Santa. Some folks who are religious minorities are a bit frustrated by the ubiquity of Christmas stuff, but no one I know is offended. Emphasizing in a workplace “Christmas” can be exclusionary. No one might be offended, but it could be bit annoying (this is very true for a friend of mine who cannot get the Jewish high holy days off work, even unpaid, yet has to participate in a workplace Christmas party every year. The problem isn’t the Christmas party by itself, but rather the culture of assuming Christianity is the norm, of which the party is a part).

                  What I do know people to be offended by is treating Christmas as though everyone *should* celebrate it or, as you did here, insisting that it is not a Christian holiday.

                  I further argued that the existence of secular people who celebrate Christmas does not make it a secular holiday, devoid of its Christian background. I didn’t say these folks don’t count–I’m one of them!

                  Insisting on a Christmas party or Secret Santa or giving out free Santa hats for employees to wear isn’t offensive, but it’s not particularly welcoming to people when you could do more neutral things, such as having a holiday party and holiday gifts and giving out something like paper snowflakes for desks.

                  I don’t believe society has an obligation to be inclusive, but I think it’s NICE to be inclusive.

                  I also didn’t make claims that the US’s origins are WASP, but rather that that is the background of my own, secular but Christmas celebrating family. I think that this is common, but certainly not universal–I make no claims to universality.

              2. Jane*

                My mom’s Jewish & began celebrating Christmas as an adult because she felt so left out of everything fun in December growing up conservative Jewish in the USA as a child. That many people from non-Christian backgrounds have assimilated Christmas traditions only underlines the cultural force of Christianity in the US.

        4. INTP*

          Santa might be part of the secular rituals around Christmas, but Christmas itself is a Christian religious holiday. I celebrate Christmas as an atheist who was raised Christian, but I totally recognize that this holiday is particular to my culture, and only meaningful to me because of the religious practices of my ancestors, and it isn’t universally meaningful to people of all faiths just because I celebrate it secularly. Plus, it’s a totally different thing for a lapsed Christian with no religion to betray versus someone with active religious beliefs that contradict what the holiday is meant to celebrate.

          I do believe you in terms of how Christmas is treated in your culture, but in a culture where Christianity is dominant, it’s just not going to feel as secular and inclusive to religious minorities.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        On the other hand, people are presumably adults and understand that holiday celebrations are a pretty normal part of work life, and they’re probably equipped to deal with it. This is not a huge deal that the OP needs to avoid because someone might have negative Christmas memories.

    2. Trig*

      Yeah, ‘bake sale’ seems kinda odd, unless proceeds go to charity or something? A voluntary cookie exchange would probably be more appropriate, but maybe OP’s office has marketed it better than the two-word reference we got here.

      I’m not sure that changing the name away from Secret Santa is really going to help inclusion much. Even if you call it a gift exchange, it’s obviously still at Christmas time, when other Christmas-themed things are going on. There really aren’t that many gift-giving holidays in December that I’m aware of, though correct me if I’m wrong. Chanukah is about the only one, I think. (Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr vary by year, Diwali is usually in October, and Chinese New Year isn’t until the end of January.) The emphasis on gifts during these holidays is much than Christmas as well. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try and make it more inclusive, but it feels a bit like a wink-wink-nod-nod-Not-Christmas thing to me.

    3. Sniffles*

      And some of us don’t find commercial Christmas particularly fun or needed.
      Just turned down participating in office Secret Santa and Yankee Gift Swap (both with the max limit of a “low” $30 {that’s a week’s worth of lunch for me at least}) as I don’t do holiday gifting. The table reaction kinda made me feel bad; I did say they should all go ahead with their plans, I was just opting out.
      Christmas has completely exploded all over the large office buildings where I work; not a sign of any other Dec. celebrations.
      I’ve lost too many people around the holidays & find all this crass commercialization depressing.

  4. DragoCucina*

    OP1–You surveyed the staff which was appropriate. It could be that when first presented with the idea the employee was all for it. As it got closer there may have been aspects that upped his anxiety. I have an employee who would do this. She’s very adventurous in many aspects of her life and would say, “Yes, how fun!” Then as it approached her food issues would begin to cause her worry. She’ll eat sea urchin but does touch raw meat.

    Give him the space not to go. Perhaps the next event ask him to help you brainstorm ideas. That will help you know his comfort level.

    OP3–AAM has good wording. The ability to catch a financial breath is a great gift.

  5. katamia*

    OP1, are you sure he doesn’t just have another commitment? Maybe he thought he was free but it turns out he’s not.

    1. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

      December is such a ridiculously busy month. Our Admin sent out ‘save the date’ reminders for our team’s Christmas lunch back in early September, but there are still two or three people who can’t make it because they were already booked with school nativity plays / family things that were booked in even before that.

      1. Trillian*

        Not to mention work deadlines. Or “insane crazy work deadlines, so take your party planning away from me now so I can think, and by the way I hate open plan offices with the fire of a thousand burning Yule logs.”

        Bah humbug.

    2. BananaPants*

      Seriously, our family’s social calendar for the next 5 weeks has been booking up since early October. Between the kids and us, we don’t have a free Saturday or Sunday until January and a lot of our weeknights have started to get blocked off too.

      This can be a very busy time of year. Maybe he’s not free – or maybe he doesn’t want to go “blind dining”. Either way, it’s his decision; there shouldn’t be mandatory fun at the office.

    3. Raine*

      Oh God it would drive me bonkers to decline something through the RSVP and STILL be hounded about it. (I’ve declined participation in, for example, office surveys that supposedly are both anonymous and voluntary — only to receive multiple reminders I have not yet submitted my anonymous purely voluntary survey responses! It’s an RSVP, a way to get the correct head count and for people to comfortably convey they accept or decline.

    4. Trig*

      Yeah, this is why my office does our ‘holiday gathering’ during office hours. We usually do a pool tournament (blech), where people can socialize, have a drink or some of the provided snacks, and play pool, if they want. Then everyone hops on their bus back to the suburbs in time to pick up the kids.

      I like that it’s low-pressure, low-commitment.

    5. hayling*

      It’s great that OP#1 is concerned about the one employee, but s/he is lucky that 19 of 20 people are able to make it. We always have people who can’t come to our holiday party, which is understandable. However, some people bail at the last minute, which I think is super rude.

  6. HardwoodFloors*

    I probably would not go to an event like this. I have food allergies and quiz waitstaff about how the food is prepared.

        1. Anon Accountant*

          Yes. I’ve never understood the insistence of nagging people to attend events. Or asking “but why can’t you go?!” repeatedly like it’s a personal insult you aren’t attending something.

          This is one of my pet peeves.

    1. Anonhippopotamus*

      Usually you order off a menu before going in the dark room, so you’d still have a chance to quiz staff.

      1. Frustrated Optimist*

        As someone with life-threatening food allergies, I would still need to see what I was eating, even if I’d ordered off the menu and quizzed the staff. Mistakes happen. I, too, would decline.

        1. Blurgle*

          Not only would I decline, but the least bit of ‘concerned’ pushback – which I would absolutely see as manipulative – and I would be thinking about a new job.

          1. Ellie H.*

            This seems so over the top. It’s an event that a lot of reasonable people, even if not *everyone*, would find fun. There is no evidence there are any repercussions for not going to the dinner, and it’s not even the only festive end of year event; the employee can still participate in an in-office event. I don’t get why you would be suspicious the LW’s concern is not genuine, it strikes me as ridiculous to consider leaving a job over something so banal and inoffensive (“I quit because someone asked me why I didn’t attend our office’s holiday dinner outing”??)

  7. Dan*


    You’re having a bake sale, secret santa, *and* mystery dinner, and think that everybody will find that fun? Oh hell no.

    I’m ok with a dinner, I’d find that fun. But… the rest of it? Uh-uh. Do you really think that engineers (you mention a key developer in your post) like this kind of thing? Nope. Secret santa? I hate that too. With the santa thing, if you get someone you don’t know, buying for them just sucks. Sure you can ask around, but if someone who doesn’t know you gets you, you’re screwed. A couple of years ago, I got a pen in a box. I would have preferred not to participate, and traded it for some chocolate with someone who doesn’t like chocolate.

    The older I get, the more I want work focused on work. The social stuff is always well intended, but often poorly executed. I want to show up, do my 40, get paid, and go home. I’m down with some social stuff, but when it’s declared “fun” by HR, it usually isn’t.

    1. Knitting Cat Lady*

      I’m an engineer in an engineering department.

      The things we do outside of work for fun is very varied.

      Categorically saying ‘engineers don’t like X’ is rather silly.

      After all the only thing us engineers have in common is that we do engineering type work.

    2. Trig*

      Sounds like these things aren’t voluntary in your workplace, which sucks. It’s been discussed here before that making these things mandatory (or “voluntary” with lots of pressure and reminders), is pretty terrible for morale, as your post shows!

  8. Dan*


    It’s too bad that “having a good christmas” is slang for getting (lots) of presents. When you’re a kid, a good xmas is spending time with people who love you. You forget the material things, you remember who gave a damn about spending time with you.

    1. Juli G.*

      The OP and donating friend want the lady to give her kids a nice time and mention that maybe this money is for a tree, a meal or keeping the lights on. Maybe it’s gas money to get to Uncle Matt’s house an hour and a half away.

      And while I can’t claim personal experience, someone close to me can. Falling on hard times can certainly make you appreciate time with your loved ones but it’s still hard to be the one kid at school January 3rd who doesn’t have a nice present to tell their friends about.

    2. BananaPants*

      Have you been a parent facing serious financial stresses? It’s about being able to buy a ham at Aldi so you can have a “fancy” Christmas dinner, or stopping at the dollar store to find stocking stuffers so that the kids feel like they’re getting something, or being able to buy your kids the mittens and hat that they need to be able to go outside at recess in the winter, or the gas to be able to get to Grandma’s house. Especially once kids reach school age, having NOTHING under the tree at Christmas can be really socially isolating.

      When money is tight we prioritize the kids at Christmas. Mr. BP and I have had one or two years where we gave each other nothing, or floated $50 worth of stuff on a credit card and then returned gifts that we received from our parents in order to pay the bill so that we didn’t go deeper into debt. Still, we had the ability to give them SOMETHING – even if I cried my eyes out after they went to sleep, knowing that the best we could do that year was a clearanced Duplo set, some socks and underwear, books from a Scholastic Book Club order, and my sewing a tutu and knitting a hat and mittens. I can’t imagine being in a position where we couldn’t do anything special for our kids for Christmas.

      Every year we do Want/Need/Wear/Read plus one gift from Santa. It makes it easier in the lean years, and in not-so-lean years we’ll splurge in one or more categories. But I won’t judge someone for wanting to do SOMETHING to make Christmas better for a coworker who’s down on their luck.

      1. OP*

        Yes, this is the kind of situation we’re talking about – and while one of the kids is too young to remember, the other already knows she’s poor, and feels the social pressure, and it breaks the heart of her mother, who felt it herself.

        1. MissGirl*

          Encourage your friend to push through the awkwardness of it. I socially struggle and sometimes I’ve ran from helping someone because I got too in my head about it being awkward. This is such a kind gesture.

          1. OP #3*

            Yeah, this is part of my cunning plan of asking Alison! Because Alison is a guru in my circle, so if she doesn’t say “Noooo! Don’t do it!”, and gives great advice like this, that means “put aside your social anxiety and do it!” :-)

        2. neverjaunty*

          Tell her that people have helped you, and you know that when they are in a better place, they will pay it forward. That makes it a lot less like charity.

      2. Mookie*

        You have no idea how much this comment means to me.

        This was my parents, down a T, including crying out of frustration and grief and guilt when they thought my brother and I were out of ear shot. Please believe me when I say your children are incredibly grateful for what you struggle to give them and infinitely lucky to have you both as parents. I lucked out with mine, as well, and while I can’t ever really repay them, I am so, so proud of them, so happy I was raised by people who wanted me and made sacrifices for me. I wouldn’t have the strength to do what they did everyday (which is why I will never have children of my own). Thank you, thank you, thank you for raising children who will, as adults, make the world a better, more compassionate place. We as humans are heirs to the work of parents long since past, and our future is, at present, being shaped by parents of today.

        I am so sorry for being corny about this, but your comment really touched me. Thank you.

        1. Aurion*

          Both you and BananaPants’ comment made my eyes sting. I think I’ll take my parents out for dinner this weekend, because I can, and I’m lucky that I can.

        2. Jean*

          “We as humans are heirs to the work of parents long since past, and our future is, at present, being shaped by parents of today.”
          This is beautifully phrased. Actually your entire comment is very touching. Thank you.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Same! I’m saving that idea for my own future kids. (Ooh, this also seems like a good rule to give to grandparents, to help keep any overgifting impulses in check.)

    3. Mookie*

      When you’re a kid, a good xmas is spending time with people who love you. You forget the material things, you remember who gave a damn about spending time with you.

      Please don’t speak for all children; toys are not sinful indulgences any more (pace the Heritage Foundation) than cookers or refrigerators are extravagant luxuries. Asceticism is not, in and of itself, virtuous. People strapped for cash like and appreciate and psychologically need treats just as much as anyone else. (Also, the working poor often have to work through holidays, and being unable to celebrate with their children is not proof of lacking any damns.)

      As for Alison’s point about giftcards v cash, from personal experience being temporarily homeless and without access to government assistance, the cash is just more versatile and easier to spend. I’d use Alison’s script and include a nice card. Thank you, OP3, for being such a good colleague.

        1. EmmaLou*

          Is there any way she can give it anonymously “from a friend who wants you to have a wonderful Christmas”? I have been on the receiving end of these and it’s been a godsend. Just “finding” money or getting it in the mail. “Oh! I can pay the power bill!” Sometimes we knew who it was from and other times not. We’d just had friends over and one said, just before leaving, “I’d better use the bathroom before we go!” and much later that evening.. we found a Christmas card in there with a gift card for groceries. We used it to buy stuff we needed but also a couple of holiday meal things that we couldn’t have done otherwise. Blessings on your friend.

          1. OP #3*

            I did ask her about this, and she said there are also reasons why anonymous things might be more a source of stress is this particular instance – but we both love that you had that experience! People are lovely!

      1. Myrin*

        Yeah, I don’t want to burst any bubbles or come across as selfish and greedy but while presents aren’t the only thing I love about Christmas, of course they were what I looked forward to the most. And not only because I was always around those who loved me and whom I loved anyway but just because getting surprise presents is really cool and also because you get new and exciting stuff. I’d even say that honestly, it has become even more about the presents for me now as an adult than it was as a kid. Because as a kid, there was a lot about the atmosphere and the awesome snowy weather and the things we did in anticipation of Christmas and waiting for the “Christ Child” (our “Santa” equivalent, I guess) and fun traditions and whatnot and all of that has kind of fallen on the wayside the older I became. So, yeah, I think people are being overly… “pure” for a lack of a better word (in an “unmaterialistic” kind of way) when they say that children don’t care about presents but about the people who love them; if anything, I’d say many kids only tolerate or actively tread having to deal with their relatives coming to visit and it’s the adults who appreciate the familial or friendship bond more.

    4. neverjaunty*

      It’s easy to “forget the material things” when you always had them and always will.

      Patronizing lectures about how the kids “should” feel about poverty is not really in keeping with the holiday spirit.

      1. OP #3*

        Thank-you. I was struggling how to say this (especially in the context of the year this family have had)

    5. Alienor*

      As a former poor kid, the worst part of Christmas wasn’t that my brother and I didn’t get lots of presents, it was that my parents were *so* stressed out by not being able to make Christmas nice for us. We all lived crammed into a one-room efficiency, and you could have cut the tension in that tiny space with a knife as they blamed themselves and each other. Spending time together under those circumstances was more of a punishment than a happy memory.

    6. One of the Sarahs*

      You must’ve been a far nicer child than I was, because I can’t remember who was at my family Xmas when I was 6, but I can totally remember the ballerina Sindy I’d really wanted, and got. I remember the amazing lego castle I’d been longing for at 9, and how disappointed I was when I was 10 that I didn’t get the BMX I’d really wanted. I remember all that, and more, and I’ve still got the books on my shelves that my aunt gave me as a child, but I can only remember her being there for Xmas Day when I was 15, because I can remember all the family arguments!

      I agree that Xmas is over-commercialised, and I do minimal Xmases myself, and I give books and things to my nephews throughout the year because it’s something I’ve talked with my sister about – BUT I would never begrudge a child a toy on Xmas morning.

      Ugh. Like others, the idea that kids who are growing up poor, or in struggling homes, shouldn’t have presents because they should be grateful for what they’ve got, is ridiculous. I’m trying to imagine a kid going to school after Xmas and, when asked what they’d got, saying “I don’t need material things, my mum loves me and that’s the most important thing”, but it’s not really working…

      In fact, you’ve inspired me to look into how I can donate for kids in my neighbourhood (though I’m sure that’s not what you intended!), so thanks

  9. Kate in Scotland*

    #3 if the friend is older, can she say that she’s ‘paying it forward’ from someone who helped her when she was young and struggling? I think the pay it forward framework somehow sounds reciprocal, even if the actual reciprocation comes in 10 years time when the colleague is back on her feet and can help somebody else. Agree with the Visa gift card.

    1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life*

      I really like this wording. Not only does it deemphasize the suggestion that you expect them to use it in any specific way (like material gifts) when it may be most important to keep the heat on, it reminds someone who is in a potentially (and likely) embarrassing place that they’re not being singled out, that they’re part of a community that cares about them, and it’s ok to accept help on occasion. It’s really hard to accept help when you’re living practically just on your pride. I remember really hating to accept help when that was my situation because it marked me out and made me feel inadequate even when I was fighting tooth and nail to keep us afloat. The people I could accept it from were those who helped me see there was no shame or stigma in accepting a helping hand once in a while, because we’ve all had some help whether or not we knew it.

    2. Blueismyfavorite*

      I was going to say the same thing about paying it forward. I’ve used the term in a similar situation when I wanted to help someone. I’ve been that parent unable to buy Christmas gifts and someone helped me.

    3. kcat*

      I gotta say, I absolutely hate getting the visa gift cards cards. Some places have problems accepting them and it can be harder buying stuff online with them. Plus you add ~$4 to the cost of the gift for no reason other than people think cash is tacky (I guess?).

      I’ve had several of these with less than $5 on them that I could never use because cashiers couldn’t figure out how to take them. Maybe they’ve improved since then?

  10. misspiggy*

    There seems to be a bit of a pile-on beginning over OP1. Can we not attack choices that were made with clearly good intentions? No one is suggesting mandatory fun, and it’s not ideal to say, ‘ooh, I would hate that’, when none of the activities are compulsory. OP is just worrying that someone feels excluded.

    1. ciara amberlie*

      While I agree pile-ons are never, ever good (and likely to send the OP running far away from the comments section), I think it’s important to note that this dining experience is something that many, many people would not enjoy; yet would also not feel able to object to if it was suggested to them in the way OP described (being verbally surveyed when the person suggesting the idea is clearly very excited about it). There are a lot of subtleties to work socializing and just because an event is not explicitly mandatory doesn’t mean that people don’t feel pressured to attend.

      If the OP is worried about excluding someone, and wants to make future events as fun as possible for as many of their coworkers as possible, then the advice to have a more neutral, ideally anonymous, method of providing feedback on prospective events is good. As is an understanding that not everyone likes these types of events at all, or may find this number of activities too much.

      1. Jenna*

        I so, so agree with this. My favorite work fun events are when we’re treated to lunch at a nice restaurant. I absolutely hate when managers try to get creative with activities like walking tours and exercise-type things, or anything else too out of the ordinary. Eating in the dark sounds absolutely horrifying to me and there’s no way I’d go.

      2. Mookie*

        I don’t know, I think the multiple options she’s given the office to participate in (none are mandatory, but they could readily cater to different levels of engagement and comfort in social interactions and celebrations) kind of cover all bases. I don’t imagine she thinks everyone will be available or interested in all or any of the three, but I find what she’s proposing to be thoughtful. Nothing about the letter suggests that this was the OP’s invention or that this year’s programme clashes with the prevailing culture of the office. Also, there’s no indication that the colleague in question was railroaded or feels pressured into accepting the invitation; he’s made it clear that he won’t be attending and isn’t behaving as though he feels he has to justify it. The most useful feedback will be after the holiday season is over, I should think, when staff who participated can air their thoughts about the number of events and their structure.

      3. LBK*

        But if you can get everyone on board with a more unique experience, those can be fun in a special way too and give your team some shared event to bond over that’s more exciting than just taking everyone to lunch or having a normal holiday party. For instance, my team is going to a ping pong bar in a few weeks, which is a neat step up from a regular happy hour and I think will be a lot of fun.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, thank you. I’ve been very vocal here in the past about opposing mandatory fun at work, but that doesn’t sound what this is. It’s possible that the OP’s office genuinely likes the activities she’s proposed and wants to do them. It’s not constructive to assume that they definitely do not, when we have no way of knowing that (and when the OP is in a far better position than we are to judge that).

    3. Stellaaaaa*

      OP1 consciously thinks that she’s setting up a scenario where everyone feels excluded and no one feels pressured into participating, but by asking this employee why he’s not interested in the dinner, she’d be acting in the opposite of her intentions; this letter has a whiff of “I planned this event that I thought would be fun and I’m a bit hurt that some people don’t think it’s fun.” It’s not up to employees to attend events just to make HR feel confident in their event planning choices.

      1. LBK*

        Really? I didn’t get that vibe at all…I read it as genuine concern that she’s ended up excluding someone even after gauging interest and thinking everyone would be into it.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          I dunno, I feel like it’s disingenuous to insist that it’s just a fun thing and that people are free to opt out…but to then wring your hands when someone does, in fact, opt out. When someone politely declines an invitation and then the host/planner follows up to ask why, it often feels like pressure to change your mind, even if that’s not the host’s intention.

          People are jumping on this one because it breeches something that’s socially ingrained in us: OP issued invitations, the employee RSVP’d to decline, and that should be the end of it. By acting like there’s something amiss with that response, OP is indicating that it’s not actually an optional thing in her mind, or that one answer is more acceptable than the other, and that’s not what “inclusive and optional” means.

          1. LBK*

            I don’t think she feels everyone is obligated to attend, but she had hoped that voluntary attendance would still catch everyone.

            If this were a more standard holiday event, I’d totally agree – no need to worry or care about why people declined. But in this case, there’s a particular element that because the OP went out on a limb with the event, she may have added an additional reason that people would declined that would be completely her fault. I don’t think it’s wrong, disingenuous or otherwise inappropriate to feel guilty about that and wonder if she messed up.

            We see this from the other side here all the time – people who write in about some activity their team has planned that they have zero interest in and wanting to know how they should give feedback about it, because they don’t want to just say no and lose out on getting bonding time with their coworkers. Wouldn’t you prefer to know in those cases that the person who set up the event cared about making sure everyone would be interested, rather than being blase about choosing events everyone would actually want to attend?

            1. Stellaaaaa*

              I think the answer is that it isn’t about the party planner’s feelings and no one should feel guilty about declining. If the planner went out on a limb for something without actually making sure that everyone would be interested (as is the case; she thought everyone would be interested but apparently did not ask this one employee privately ahead of time), that’s just the way things go.

              OP mentions that she doesn’t get along with the employee’s boss and that she was hoping to make a show of pleasing this one employee to make a good impression on the boss. She shouldn’t be using an employee in this manner, and it sounds like there’s an odd dynamic that centers around this one employee, so I’d suggest that the OP let it go unless she’s prepared to have a conversation with this boss about treating the employee as a tool.

              I realize that I’m nitpicking here, but I just see a few too many rogue variables here: the fun wacky event that isn’t universally enjoyable, holiday parties in general, the dynamic between OP and the one boss who doesn’t like her, and the employee who is surely aware that OP was trying to position his (the employee’s) attendance at this event as something that would benefit her (OP). OP works in HR. She needs to come up with better ways of dealing with a boss’ cold behavior than trying to buddy up with his friends. There are actual HR-related ways to have these conversations that don’t involve focusing on staffers as easy entry points.

              1. LBK*

                Whoa, I definitely didn’t get any of that from the letter. I really don’t think she’s using the employee (!?) but rather brought up that context to show that this may be an additional consequence of unintentionally excluding him – that given her bad relationship with the manager, this could be one more thing that will make her look bad and further strain their relationship, so the stakes are a little bit higher than just excluding any random employee.

                Maybe we just have to agree to disagree, because it seems like you’re taking the OP to be much more manipulative than I’m seeing here.

              2. LBK*

                OP mentions…that she was hoping to make a show of pleasing this one employee to make a good impression on the boss

                This seems completely fabricated – I went back and reread the letter and I have no clue where you got it from. This is the entirety of her mention of the relationship with the boss:

                I worry that if he does not come (as he’s one of my bosses’s favourite staff members, and I have trouble connecting with my boss as is– whole other story), I’ll be seen as a bad employee for not being inclusive.

                How does that imply she was trying to make a show of inviting him to win points with the boss? It just implies to me that she doesn’t want to *lose* points, which isn’t the same thing.

                1. Stellaaaaa*

                  She’s obviously worried about how this employee’s absence will affect her in the eyes of this boss, and I think that’s playing into her desire to make sure that everything’s okay on the employee end. Her strained relationship with the boss is definitely bleeding into her considerations of how she wants to interact with his work BFF, and I find that inappropriate, especially coming from someone in HR.

                2. LBK*

                  It may be playing into it, but the way you’ve described the situation makes it sound like she arranged the whole event just to make herself look good to her boss, which I don’t pick up at all from the letter. I don’t think it’s wrong to be considerate of how your actions could impact workplace relationships, either, whether you’re in HR or not – I’m not quite sure how being in HR changes that. If anything, you have more an interest in maintaining good inter-departmental dynamics when you work in HR or any other shared service.

                3. Not So NewReader*

                  I got a little concerned that the trouble connecting with the boss is a “whole other story”. I hope it’s not a big deal.

                  OP, I think you would benefit from separating the two issues. All your eggs are not in one basket. You can find other ways to connect with the boss AND still be supportive of this employee’s decision not to attend. Some times inclusiveness can look like this: “We like having you in our group and if you do not go to these events we will STILL like having you in our group.” In other words, inclusiveness would be simply acceptance.

                  It sounds like you have a pretty good turn out for your event. That is a feather in your cap. It could be that this employee has a long history of not participating in group activities which would mean that this is normal. While you are concerned that the boss maybe worried why Bob did not attend, the boss may realize that Bob NEVER attends events and the boss may not give it a second thought.

                  One thing you might consider is saying to the boss, “Gee, Bob is not attending our dinner and I am concerned. Should I be doing something differently?”
                  Not a good question in every situation, but sometimes I can work in questions like this and get solid answers. You kind of have to go by your best guess as to whether to ask this or not.

                4. LBK*

                  The letter says that the employee in question does attend every other teambuilding/work socializing event with no problems. So this does appear to be a break from the trend that may be noticeable to the boss, especially given that it sounds like the boss and the employee are pretty close.

                  If it were any random employee, I would agree the OP is worrying too much, but I don’t think the concern is that the manager will see it as a specific slight against one of his favored employees. Rather, since the employee and the boss are close, I can very easily see it coming up in conversation between the employee and the manager that he chose not to attend because of the nature of the event, and that putting a bug in the ear of the manager who already doesn’t seem to like the OP that she’s scheduling events that may not be inclusive for everyone.

                  I think she’s right to be worried how this might affect her professionally; I don’t think disconnecting the two is the right approach when it seems like a decent possibility that they may, in fact, be connected.

                5. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Thank you, LBK.

                  I have been having a really cranky month due to workload, but for what it’s worth, I think regularly these days about beginning to actively discourage letter-writers from reading the comments because they so often get so nitpicked and criticized.

            1. LBK*

              For a purely social event I’d agree, but there are professional concerns at play here. When it’s part of your job to schedule events, employee satisfaction with those events is part of your job performance. It’s not really valid to apply normal social etiquette rules to something that could have an impact on the OP’s job.

  11. Excel Slayer*

    OP1 – Speaking from a some experience of doing these things now. It is very, very difficult to choose something that absolutely everyone will be happy with. You will encounter people who just don’t like going to events outside of work, and these aren’t necessarily going to be quiet/shy/usually not very sociable people. There will always be one or two people who have other plans for the day. There will be people who don’t fancy the restaurant or activity you’ve chosen. These people won’t reasonably be annoyed at you unless you always plan events that exclude them or are uncomfortable for them (think having a Vegetarian on your team and always going to a steakhouse). You don’t have to feel bad about it, and if your boss is reasonable they will also know that.

    People who aren’t going to work events usually don’t like people pressing them why they aren’t going, so it’s best not to (when I was very new I had someone who didn’t like work events pre-empt any questions by explaining to me that lots of people always ask him why he’s not going and he doesn’t like it, which I’m still grateful for).

    Best of luck for your event, and please try not go get too stressed about it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I tend to think of blind-dining as an unusual activity, however, it’s still a valid point that no matter what activity you plan there will always be some who are not interested for various reasons.

    2. Violet Fox*

      In general for work events outside of work hours, I think it needs to be okay, and no big deal for people to be able to decline (politely, of course) without having to give a reason. It’s an unusual event, it’s a time of year when people tend to be pretty booked, it could very well be that the person has family/personal reasons that they don’t want to attend or simply preference. This is something that needs to be no big deal for them to say no.

  12. Joseph*

    #4: Personally, I actually appreciate it when people cancel interviews (with appropriate notice) if they’re no longer interested in the job. Far better than the alternative – showing up to the interview with no real interest in the job and wasting several hours of everybody’s time, just so you don’t feel like you’re backing out.

    1. Bellatrix*

      Exactly. The companies that are “black listing” such candidates really haven’t though it through.

      When I was job hunting, I applied to a lot of jobs at once and got a lot interviews (my industry tends to recruit around the same time each year, so it was a great time to be looking). I went to two interviews, got an offer within a week of the first (again, they know everyone is hiring and don’t want to lose a candidate)… and had five more interviews scheduled. I called them to withdraw myself from consideration and they seemed quite thankful. I mean, it’s much better than not showing, or wasting everyone’s time and blocking an interview slot.

    2. MsCHX*

      I cannot imagine going through with an interview for a job that I knew, for certain, I wasn’t going to take.

  13. OP #3*

    Alison, thanks for the advice – passed it on to my friend, and she’s not convinced by the gift card, because that limits where the colleague can shop to places that are more expensive/means it can’t be used for bills, food etc, but she really likes the wording, so thank you!

    1. (different) Rebecca*

      I think, and I may be wrong, that Visa gift cards are issued by a bank and can be used any place that accepts Visa. I’ve never had trouble using one in person or online, even for small things, so if the friend of a friend has online bill pay or even if they’re going to the local corner store to pay bills/buy food, they should still be able to use it.

      1. OP #3*

        Those kind of cards can’t be used at places like dollar shops/market stalls, etc – and the colleague isn’t paying bills online. My friend just wants to make things easier for her colleague, and take off a little bit of the stress, and thinks it might make things harder for her to have to plan her shopping differently to use the card (not to mention all the issues of working out how much is on it, as opposed to knowing what’s in the wallet, and paying for two sets of shopping at the tills).

        (My friend also says that to her, using the card would be a reminder of her, which makes her uncomfortable, while once she’s given notes, if the colleague does find it uncomfortable, once she’s the money in her wallet, she can put it out of her mind, and I’m with her on that.) (Reading AAM at work and texting back and forth is fun!)

        1. OP #3*

          (I’m not trying to belittle gift cards, by the way, just explain my friend’s thinking about a gift card looking more “gift-like”, versus the ease of cash in a nice card, that also looks v unsubtle. There are pros and cons on both sides, and I love my friend for worrying about it all)

          1. Persephone Mulberry*

            If it makes you/your friend feel better, I don’t find a Visa gift card to be particularly more “gifty” than cash, and I find they’re often a headache to use.

            Also, seconding the “paying it forward” language suggested above.

            1. Jayn*

              There’s also a chance that it wouldn’t be fully used–I’ve had a few gift cards wind up with pointlessly low amounts on them that wound up wasted, because it’s sometimes an extra pain when it’s not a nice round number, and doesn’t seem worth it for $1.23.

              1. OP #3*

                The other thing is colleague doesn’t have wifi at home, and limited mobile phone, my friend says, so she doesn’t want to give her something she has to use her data to see how much is left.

          2. Kate in Scotland*

            Those are points I hadn’t thought about, thank you for explaining them. I’m now on Team Cash. I’m also thinking that cash could be used for things like school fairs, ‘optional’ school donations/events, or even funfair rides or ice skating.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              I am partial to the cash idea myself. There are some places I do business with and they will only take a check or cash. There are other places that offer a small discount for cash, which would allow the coworker to stretch the money just a little bit farther if she chose to.

        2. Snork Maiden*

          I have received a Visa gift card as a gift (in Canada). I am not sure if the USA is the same but there were several conditions on the use of the card we found frustrating (had to use card within a certain amount of time otherwise there would be service fees deducted, could not use it to buy something larger than the card amount and pay the rest in cash). I would rather receive cash.

          My parents, when they give money, go to the bank and get a brand new bill, which combined with a nice card, helps it feel more like a gift and less of a handout.

          1. OP #3*

            I replied to the wrong person above – meant to say thank-you to YOU about the tip about shiny new notes.

    2. Nic*

      With gift card fraud on the rise, I really like (different) Rebecca’s suggestion of getting a visa gift card from a bank. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to test it there after activation, just in case.

    3. Aunt4God*

      The VISA gift cards are more hassle and a headache than they’re worth…..and if you get the wrong kind, it’s an ongoing cash drain due to account fees and such. Cash is more versatile, and if the coworker wanted to use it for a local christmas tree stand or some such idea, much more accepted than those gift cards.

      1. Another Academic Librarian*

        A family member of mine was given a VISA gift card that no store would accept, not even the supermarket or CVS/Target/etc. They said they had no way of ‘reading’ how much money was on the card. When I looked it up online, I found that a LOT of other people had similar stories, and that a lot of those cards have hidden fees. Personally, I would never give one!

      2. Loony Lovegood*

        As an aside – my workplace frequently gives Visa or AmEx gift cards for work anniversaries, birthdays, or recognition of a job well done. I was often left with small amounts on these cards until I discovered a workaround – you can use the card to buy a gift certificate to Amazon in the amount of what’s left on the card – thus finishing the Visa Gift card and using the balance toward something you want! Because Amazon allows you to give gift cards in any demonization, whether it be a nice round number or $0.36, it’s a very useful trick!

    4. TootsNYC*

      I’ll add another vote for being OK w/ the cash idea.
      I think when your friend says, “I wanted to help you give your kids a nice holiday,” it’ll be OK. People will accept generosity aimed at “treats for their kids” in ways they’re uncomfortable with for themselves.

      And yes, being able to pay the light bill, and having a less-stressed mom, is really worthwhile, and a gift card won’t help with that. But cash will.

      (for that matter, I might round up and try to get some other folks at work to pitch in $5 each to pay off the light bill, in addition. Sometimes you can do that if you know the name and address.)

      1. OP #3*

        Got to say, reading all the comments, I’m thinking of throwing in $15 myself! Thank-you, AAM readers, for the nice comments and lovely thoughts.

  14. lamuella*

    As someone who sometimes ducks out of work related social engagements for social anxiety/awkwardness related reasons, the thought of someone following up on why I had chosen not to attend fills me with pure, naked horror. If this staff member is already quiet and shy, and this is not a required work activity, I’d suggest leaving him alone.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, if the staff person is known to be quiet and shy then that kind of answers the question “why” right there.

  15. Penguin*

    Op #4-
    I noticed you used the plural, did your friend cancel more than one interview with the same company? If it was just one, I absolutely agree with Alison’s reply. But if they cancelled more than one interview with the same company, I do think it could have an impact, as the company starts to think your friend just applies to any open position with no real interest in it.

  16. AvonLady Barksdale*

    OP #1: I’m really claustrophobic, and that type of restaurant brings on serious panic. Personally, I’m not embarrassed to say that, but more private people might be. I mean, it sounds silly to some, because technically the restaurant isn’t a closed space, but claustrophobia and other fears are also about control, which a blind-dining restaurant takes away. Anyway, I would let it go and just remember that these “extreme” experiences aren’t for everyone.

    1. Isben Takes Tea*

      Ha! Yeah, I assume it’s for a charity, though the thought of any kind of sale at work leaves a distaste in my mouth. I don’t want to spend money prepping baked goods on top of then ostensibly buying back the same baked goods, and the thought of other coworkers knowing/judging my spending habits (whether for charity or otherwise) gives me the heebie-jeebies. But it sounds like the OP’s office is set up differently than mine!

  17. Myrin*

    OP #1, I’m going to address your letter in the same way I addressed one several months ago, where a letter writer wanted to build a company blog with her coworkers’ biographies and photos and one colleague didn’t want to have her photo taken:

    You seem very concerned about wanting to be inclusive and I commend you on that. It’s not nice to be an involuntary outsider and it’s great that you’re trying to ward off any such feelings with regards to your team. However, “involuntary” is the key word here; your coworker chose to excuse himself from this particular activity. Chose to. If he feels like an outsider as a result of that, that’s fairly squarely on him (and, from personal experience, he probably won’t feel like that at all). You have done the one thing – everything – you could and should do: invite him to this event just like you did everyone else. There is no need for fear on your end because you 100% have been inclusive through that act alone.

    The only way your boss will be able to think that you’re being intentionally exclusive would be if your coworker lied about not wanting to attend which, absent any other information on this person’s character you haven’t mentioned, seems highly unlikely. I also don’t think that your boss’s opinion of you is going to dramatically change one way or the other because of this one, singular happenstance. I really don’t see any need for you to act at all here, just like Alison says. Acceptance of your coworkers’ choices is definitely the best route to take in such situations.

    1. LBK*

      Eh, I agree that she doesn’t need to feel guilty any time someone declines an event, but I can see that with something a little out of the ordinary that the boss could think “Why couldn’t we have just had a normal holiday lunch that everyone would want to attend?” I think that’s why the OP wants to know the coworker’s reasoning: because if it’s something else like a scheduling conflict or just not wanting to attend an after-hours work social event, that assuages her guilt about choosing something unique when she could’ve potentially picked a more standard option and included everyone. If the guy wouldn’t have shown up either way, then it’s 100% off her shoulders as you say, because at that point there’s no clear reason someone might object.

      1. Myrin*

        That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that! However, I still reckon it’s relatively unlikely that the boss will think that – I don’t know! I don’t know her! Maybe it will immediately come to her mind? -, especially given that there are two alternative office events this particular coworker does seem to be attending. I also don’t think that, even if the OP’s thought process is exactly like you describe, it changes the fact that Alison’s answer is the way to proceed (which I don’t think you’re saying, but I wanted to spell it out anyway).

        1. LBK*

          Yeah, I agree that the boss is unlikely to think that unless they’re prone to seeing include/exclude dynamics in everything (and there definitely are people like that).

          I don’t think it does change the answer, because ultimately there still isn’t really a good way to ask that question without putting him on the spot, and as Alison says it’s not like she can change the event now without potentially making the guy feel worse. I was more just working through the OP’s thought process, since there’s been some pretty uncharitable readings of her intentions in other comments.

          1. fposte*

            I also think that she may have a chance to ask in future–if people like it and she thinks it might be worth doing again, she can ask the employee casually in March or May or some way far away from the holidays date “Hey, this came up the other day–is there a thing you might enjoy more than that blind dining? Some people really liked it but not everybody did, and I was thinking about activities that those people might like more.” No need to be exactly truthful or make clear that the non-attender was the only one; just see if he has an idea when it least matters and there’s no date pressure.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        “Why couldn’t we have just had a normal holiday lunch that everyone would want to attend?”

        There is no such thing and I think that is pretty close to the reality of it all. Of the people attending there are probably a few that are borderline and only attending for [reason]. The key is that we can’t make people WANT anything.
        I remember an individual who got a pay raise, he did not want it, so he quit. What’s up with that? Dunno.

        I wholeheartedly agree with fposte’s suggestion, wait until a non-holiday time of year and ask the employee what, if any, holiday ideas he likes.

        1. LBK*

          I phrased that badly; I didn’t mean that you could create an event that you can guarantee everyone will attend but rather, there are standard work events (like a generic holiday party at a regular bar/restaurant) that are accepted as generally inclusive options. There is pretty clearly a difference between one of those events and a blind dining experience that may inherently exclude more people who wouldn’t feel the need to decline a more traditional holiday party. I think this situation could make the boss question the OP’s judgment in choosing an event that carries a higher/more specific level of interest for people to attend.

          We see it all the time from the other side here: companies that schedule intense physical events or inappropriately personal sharing activities where the letter writer wonders why they couldn’t just do something normal like going out to lunch that would be less likely to turn people off aside from the people who are turned off by any kind of work social event.

  18. Beth*

    #1 – If he already attends “every other company team-building event” then leave this one alone. It’s the holidays, he probably wants to spend it with family and friends. I’m not sure why, nowadays, companies have such separation anxiety. Spending 8-10 hours during the day isn’t enough for bonding, there needs to be an additional 2-3 hours.

    1. Elliot*

      Agreed. I spend all day with my coworkers, when I’m finished working I’d rather be with my son who I don’t get to spend all day with, and definitely don’t want to pay a sitter to spend more time with work people. A holiday party once a year is fine, but I immediately decline almost anything else and feel resentful if I’m pressured to go.

  19. Chriama*

    I *really* recommend cash over a Visa gift card. They often have fees to set up and charge inactivity fees if you don’t use them all at once. Also, sometimes stores have trouble accepting them. Cash is just more practical overall. You can put it in a Christmas card if you feel weird about just handing her an envelope with cash in it. Your message is really great, and making it sound like it’s for the kids is also less embarrassing and more likely to get her to accept it (instead of feeling like she’s accepting charity, it’s just passing on a Christmas gift to her kids).

    1. cataloger*

      Yeah, there can be unforeseen annoyances. I received some kind of gift bank card (maybe VISA) at my wedding ten years ago. Somebody gave it anonymously, just sticking it in the mailbox of the historic home where we had the wedding. We tried to activate it, which required giving the last four digits of the phone number of the person who bought it, and we had no idea who that was! (Maybe from a previous event?) We never found out who it was from, or how much was on it.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Yep! In fact, I’d vote for $10’s or $20’s, not $50’s.

      My MIL gives us $50’s, and they’re a pain.

  20. Jonathan T*

    Original Poster One,

    Perhaps this gentleman you are referring to suffers from some form of social anxiety disorder, or is simply uncomfortable in social situations. It’s also possible he may be keeping it under wraps to avoid offending people or being thought of as a “freak” or to avoid garnering resentment from other people who “sucked it up” in order to attend the function. If this is indeed the case, he probably finds simply attending work and functioning in his daily life to be enough of a rally. In addition to this, he likely has social functions (family gatherings, reunions etc.) that he feels obligated to attend at the holidays, that aren’t exactly fun or enjoyable for him. So when he is given the opportunity to say no to an invite to an event he isn’t obligated to attend, and is able to avoid potentially awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing situations he jumps at the chance to do so. It’s nothing personal, he probably wouldn’t have much fun there or be much fun anyway.

  21. Smeagol*

    Honestly, the reason for the respondent in OP1 declining should not matter in the slightest. If it is not mandatory, then no reason should have to be given. The respondent made it clear he/she does not want to go, and that should be the end of it. If a significant portion of the office refused to participate, then follow-ups would be warranted as to why, but this is one person.

  22. animaniactoo*

    OP1 – Make sure to tell the co-worker you’re concerned about that you’re sorry to hear they’re not coming and that you’ll miss them being there.

    Otherwise – you’ve basically been pretty careful to be inclusive. You’ve done what you can – you didn’t tell people this is what you were doing, you asked for feedback and went ahead based on the feedback you got. You can’t second-guess the hell out of that.

    If you’re concerned about inclusiveness, make sure the next thing you do is something that’s more run-of-the-mill, or if it’s not a holiday party, is not food focused, etc.

    Although, I will backtrack myself a little based on what just happened in my office today. You said you were careful to go around with a verbal survey. Sometimes people can feel a bit put on the spot when that happens and not really have time to think about it and frame their response. For future events, you might want to put something like this in e-mail and give people a chance to think before they respond, making it clear that you’re fine to be told no. You can tack onto that a request for ideas of what people would like to do in general if this idea doesn’t appeal to them. That way, you’re opening the door for them to tell you things freely, rather than feeling restrained to a “yes/no” and “I better pretend enthusiasm so that I’m not seen as the office grinch” responses.

    Question: You say he’s attended all the team-building events, but do you know if he’s attended the holiday party before? Because if not, he may be drawing a line between “company social event” and “company work-related event”. Nothing to do with you or the restaurant.

  23. Newlywed*

    #3…when my husband and I were going through difficult circumstances earlier this year I received a substantial cash gift from the CEO of the company from his family to ours…it touched us so much, and we did not view it as charity at all. You never know when a well-timed gift like that, no matter how small, can make all the difference. In addition, it made me love the company I work for all the more, because it was given out of generosity with no strings attached (that was made clear). Please do give the gift! I hope that we will one day be in a position to help others out in their time of need as well.

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