transcript of “Holiday Mayhem at Work”

This is a transcript of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “Holiday Mayhem at Work.”

Alison: Welcome to the show! Today’s episode is all about holidays at work. We’ve got questions from people about office parties and gift-giving, and we’ve got some funny stories from people about ways that office holiday celebrations went terribly wrong.

Let’s start with one of the questions that I get asked the most at this time of year – about getting a gift for your boss.

Caller 1: Hi, Alison. I started a new job a few months ago. I report into my manager, but I also work a lot with his manager. I want to get them both small holiday gifts, but I don’t  know either of them super well yet enough so I’m not sure what to get them. Is it too impersonal to get them boxes of Godiva chocolate? Also, I tried to answer this question myself by looking at articles online, and I found some that said it’s actually inappropriate to gift up, so I was wondering if I should even be getting them holiday gifts at all. Thank you. 

Alison: So in general, the etiquette rule about giving gifts at work is that gifts can flow downward, not upward – meaning that your boss can give you a gift, but you and your coworkers shouldn’t give presents to your boss. And that is because of the power dynamics and the pay discrepancies that are inherent in that boss/employee relationship. The idea is that otherwise an employee might feel pressured to purchase gifts for a manager, and it’s pretty unseemly for managers to benefit from power dynamics that way.

Now that said, there are definitely offices that ignore that rule, and where gifts to the boss are pretty common. But you’d want to find out what the culture is in your office – you definitely don’t want to be the person who starts giving gifts to your manager if that’s not a thing that’s done there, because it’s going to put pressure on other people to do it too, and once you start, it can feel awkward stopping in later years.

But really, in most offices, there’s zero obligation to give a gift to your boss! If you want to bring in baked good for everyone to share, that’s totally fine. If you want to do cards, that’s fine. But if you can, stay away from doing an individual gift to your manager. Because even if you’re totally fine with it, it’s bad for your coworkers. And it’s bad for your boss too, because it can put them in an awkward position.

Your gift to your boss can just be doing a great job throughout the year and being easy to manage. And that really is enough!

But okay, that’s where your boss is concerned. What about gifts for coworkers who are not your boss?

Caller 2: Hi Alison, my name is Hannah. I work in an office of about 30 people. I would say that I’m various levels of friends with different people. With the holidays coming up, I would like to get my friends gifts. Now, I know that it’s obviously not a good idea to do public gift-giving if you don’t have something to give everybody, but my greatest concern is that of the people I’m friends with, some of them I can afford to give gifts to who are closer to me, and others, who I would still consider myself friends with, I can’t.

I’m happy to give my friends gifts on private time. However, I still feel that there might be some residual awkwardness by them saying, “Oh, Stacey got me this gift,” to somebody else who also thinks they are friends with me, and them thinking, “Why didn’t Stacey get me a gift?” Should I just lay off the gift-giving altogether? As always, thanks for your great show – I read the podcast and the blog every day.

Alison: Yeah, in general if you’re going to give gifts to coworkers, you should either do it for everyone in a similar circle – meaning everyone on your team, or everyone you work closely with, or all the assistants. It’s the same advice that you often hear about who to invite to your wedding invitations – people will say treat people in the same circle the same, meaning with your wedding, if you’re inviting a couple of cousins, you should invite all the cousins so people aren’t offended or hurt. It’s the same thing here –don’t pick and choose among similarly situated people. That said, if you’re just going to give one or two or three gifts to people  you’re particularly close with, that’s fine – as long as it’s not, like, three people in a four person department so you’re leaving one person out. In other words, just think about how it’s likely to land with people who not getting gifts and don’t leave out just a couple of people.

If that’s all getting too complicated, then I think that is a sign to skip the gifts and stick with cards or baked goods for everyone or something like that.

Ultimately these are work relationships rather than social ones, and so you’ve got to consider the way it might impact other work relationships too. So even if you might like to give a gift to your coworker who you’re pretty good friends with, that potentially could be trumped by the weirdness or the awkwardness or the hurt feelings that it could create with other people. So just look at the whole landscape, make sure you’re not creating a situation where people are going to feel left out, and if you think they might, alter your plans.

In addition to holiday gift giving at work, there are a lot of office parties at this time of year, and they can be full of weirdness. Here’s one caller’s story about her office Christmas party.

Caller 3: Hi Alison, I wanted to share a funny and awkward company Christmas party story with you. My organization hosts an annual Christmas party where staff, spouses, volunteers, and board members are all invited. We get an email sent out when tickets are available so that we know when to go ahead and get them.

A few years ago, one of the board members accidentally hit Reply All to the ticket announcement email and asked the organizer to ensure that he wasn’t seated with our volunteer firefighters, since he was stuck at their table the year before and none of them wanted to talk to him. Within a minute, someone else had hit Reply All again saying that he would be honored to be seated with those firefighters, as they’re willing to risk their lives to keep our community safe. A few other emails went flying back and forth congratulating the firefighters for their hard work, and the board member soon sent out an apology email.

To make things even more awkward, one of the people making a speech at the company Christmas party did take a few minutes to commend our volunteer firefighters. I’m sure the board member couldn’t have looked any more uncomfortable as the rest of the room toasted them.  

I’m looking forward to seeing what our party has in store for us this year, and thank you so much for compiling these – they’re going to be fun to read and hear. Thank you, bye.

Alison: Oh my goodness. Accidental use of Reply All has caused so many problems. And yet I would never want to get rid of it because I cherish these stories.

Well, companies do a lot of weird things with their holiday parties, and one of those weird things is making employees pay to attend. Now, to be fair, there are some employers that have no choice in that regard – if you work for the government, you’re generally not allowed to pay for parties with taxpayers’ money, for example. But private employers, who don’t have those same restrictions, sometimes do it too. And that’s this caller’s situation.

Caller 4: I am a care worker for adults with learning disabilities from the United Kingdom. It is approaching Christmas and my manager has organized a Christmas meal at a restaurant which will be for both staff and the adults we support. All of the people we support will be attending, along with their support workers who are on shift that day. There is also the expectation that those who are not on shift will also be attending as well. This is not a well paying job, and our management team will not be subsidizing this meal. Those on shift who attend are expected to eat at the restaurant with the people we support to be social and will pay at their own expense. Practically speaking, all those attending, whether on the clock or not, will unavoidably end up taking take care of the people we support, so all the staff will effectively be doing work, some not being paid for their time. I don’t have a huge income and normally meals out are not in my budget. Am I right in thinking that this is an unfair expectation?

Alison: Yep. It’s one thing to say, “hey, our Christmas party is really more for our clients than for staff” – that’s totally fine. But in that case, it’s a work expense and the company should be covering it. Asking people to pay for their meal when they’re expected to do work that is a contribution to the company’s mission really isn’t okay.  The company should be covering those costs.

Caller 5: My husband is at a small-medium, maybe 100 people, decent amount of people remote, sized tech company, and they are having a Thanksgiving potluck. I volunteered to help out, and the signup sheets had people signed up for stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc. – and the three spots for whole cooked turkey were blank.

I love cooking turkey, so I signed up immediately. But personally, I think asking employees to bring in whole cooked turkeys is a bit much. Should I point out to him that whole cooked turkeys are a thing that is possible for the company to purchase from a restaurant or whatever, and that the company should just provide these while employees provide the other items? He’s got a decent amount of sway in the company, so he would be an appropriate person to raise this issue. Or should I just say, “Okay, well, this is possibly an employee-planned thing. If employees suggested they bring their own turkeys, this is fine.”

I don’t know. What should I do? Who should provide the whole cooked turkeys for the company potluck, is the question.

Alison:  Yeah, it’s one thing to ask people to contribute to a potluck with the usual kind of thing you mentioned – cranberry sauce, soda, napkins, etc. But asking employees to cook an entire turkey is a pretty big deal. Ideally if there’s a particularly expensive component of the meal like that, the company would provide it. that said, because it’s your husband’s company and not yours, you might point out to him, “Hmmm, this is kind of weird, it’s surprising your employer isn’t providing this,” but I don’t think you really need to push it. It’s kind of his thing to handle.

I actually got an update from this caller the next day. And here’s how her situation turned out. 

Caller 5:The next day after I asked the question, HR sent out an email saying they would be providing the turkey. The company did provide a bunch of food for the potluck, it wasn’t only potluck, which is great because it’s a big company. And I am an example of why you shouldn’t have employees bring turkeys because I was planning on still making one and bringing it in. The oven I was planning to use ended up not working, I dethawed the wrong turkey so it was too big and didn’t thaw in time. Thanksgiving potluck could have been ruined if coworkers were in charge of all this and the company wasn’t providing things. So my vote is the company should have the turkey as they did, and it worked out and it was delicious.

Alison: Speaking of enormous meat dishes at the company party, here’s a caller who has a thing or two to say about that.

Caller 6: Hi Alison! I worked for a small company that prided itself on their holiday parties. I mean, these things were big for an under 100-person company: renting out an entire high-end restaurant in DC, an open bar, unlimited food – nearly black tie, honestly.

The company was very concerned with its imagery, and wanted to present a super slick, downtown, savvy sort of vibe. This was evident in everything that they did. After I’d been there for a little while, the owners decided to sell it to a new company that was more laid-back and casual – less concerned with image – and hadn’t really done the whole holiday party thing before, especially because the acquiring company was spread out in different offices around the country.

Anyway, I corresponded with the social chair to confirm that they would have food for vegetarians. It had never been a problem before – they always had one or two items, and the restaurants were always willing. Actually, at one party a restaurant custom-made me something to eat because I was the only vegetarian at the time.

The new company threw their holiday party, you had to RSVP to come, and there were drink tickets that you had to pick up – you got two free drinks, and then everything else you had to pay for out of pocket – and there was food. They did rent out a bar – it was a very, very small bar. It had two floors, and a capacity of I would say maybe, comfortably, 50 people. Over 125 people were crammed into this place. And not only that, but there was all meat. Everything that they had to eat was meat. And when you walked up the stairs to get to where the meat was, there was just a whole pig sitting on a table. I mean, a cooked pig, but it was a little nauseating. I’m sure that some people are really into that, but if you’re not expecting it, it’s really off-putting. But there was literally nothing for vegetarians to eat, or anyone who might be halal, or kosher, or had any sort of dietary restrictions.

My partner and I went, and we had a horrible time. We could not move around, we could not have anything to eat, and we ended up leaving after about 20 minutes or so. It was probably the worst and most isolating event I’d ever been to.

Alison: Companies really have to think about this! You know, you probably have vegetarians on your staff. You might have people who aren’t eating meat for religious, ethical, or dietary reasons, and you’ve got to provide a range of options – a meat-only meal is not cool. In this day and age, it’s just silly not to take that into account.

The same thing goes for companies that still do that traditional thing of giving employees a turkey or a ham for a Christmas gift. That is not going to be an inclusive gift for a lot of your employees. And really, give people what they want – which is money or more time off.

Here’s another caller, with a question about her company holiday party.

Caller 7: Hi Alison, my question is this: for several decades, my employer held a holiday party in the office on a December Friday evening, and employees were allowed to bring anyone they liked: friends, family, significant others. It was sort of a casual open house type of event for all ages. There were drinks, lots of food, carolling, some holiday themed activities for the kids. We have a warm and collegial company culture, so former employees often returned for the party as well. It was a nice time for everyone to catch up with each other. As a childless and usually single person, I would often invite my sister or a friend to come with me so I wasn’t alone at the party.

 Two years ago, some minor property damage occurred in the waning hours of the party – one of the glass doors in the office was cracked and had to be replaced. I don’t know the exact details of what went down, but the damage was done by a former employee who’d returned for the party after he got into an argument with someone.

In response to this, the party was moved off-site the following year, and employees were restricted to only bringing significant others and children. I understand that they want to maintain more control over the guest list in light of what happened, but as a single person I feel that this is not an inclusive policy. I’d like the opportunity to bring a guest and not have it assumed that that guest is my romantic partner. Do I have a leg to stand on here? And if so, how do I address this with my employer?

Alison: Well, it’s definitely not unusual for companies to restrict plus-ones to significant others and sometimes to kids. The idea is behind it is that etiquette has long treated married couples (and now other significant others) as a social unit, so they’re invited to social events as a unit. The idea isn’t “bring any plus-one you want.” The idea is supposed to be “we’re not going to ask you to leave out a spouse/spouse-equivalent during this non-work-hours social event.” And in your company’s case, they’re expanding that to include kids as well.

So I don’t think it’s terribly offensive – there’s a logic to what they’re doing, and it’s grounded in traditional etiquette. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t suggest they rethink it. You could point out it would be nice for people without partners and kids to be able to bring a guest as well and ask if they would be open to reconsidering. They might budge, they might not. But it’s a reasonable thing to ask about. And if you get some of your coworkers to make the request along with you, that might put a little more pressure on them to say yes.

I will say, though, that company parties are generally not a lot of fun for the plus-ones who don’t work there. And ultimately they are intended to be events that build your social bonds with your coworkers. So if your company doesn’t budge, I don’t think they’re being monsters. But I do think it’s definitely a reasonable thing you could ask about.

Here’s a caller with a story about some memorable bad behavior at a company holiday party.

Caller 8: I was my ex’s date at his Christmas party a lifetime ago. One of the middle-aged hotshots sales team members showed up at the party with a scantily clad young woman who was obviously not his wife. And this couple made a spectacle of themselves by drinking to excess, being obnoxiously loud, and displaying horrifying graphic levels of PDA. Someone did say something to the sales guy and he managed to bring things down a few notches and we moved on with our evening. Sales guy and his date were obviously pouting after being told off, and they eventually brought their energy levels back up as the night went on. Lights turned on as the night was winding down and people were milling about waiting for their various methods of transportation, and sales guy said something to his date that upset her greatly. She then cornered the sales guy and loudly began issuing threats and ending each statement with gems like “I think your boss would like to know this, wouldn’t he Mr. Nose Candy, and they sure would like to find out how you got dirty knees and a dusty lip, wouldn’t they, Mr. (insert homosexual slur here). There wasn’t a single head that wasn’t turned in their direction, and almost everyone was standing there in open-mouthed disbelief. We left before the end of this charade, and I was told sales guy was fired the next week when he finally showed up for work. Shocking.

Alison: Wow, yes. It’s weird how often people forget that work parties are still work events, and you need to exercise some judgment about what you do there – and that extends to your date too. It’s generally not a good idea to bring a date who you don’t trust to to not have a meltdown and cause a scene.

I would love to hear sometime from someone who was the date to someone else’s company holiday party and was the date who caused a scene. Why do I never get those calls?

Caller 9: Hi Ask a Manager, I’m calling about a scene from an amazing Christmas potluck a few years ago. I was working at an academic department where there was just really low morale. One thing that had really got my goat is that my boss often brought in her middle school-aged son, and I was expected to help him with his homework – even though I was not in that line of work. He was a good kid, but he was around a lot, and it seemed odd to have us so involved in his homework.

At Christmas time, this boss had organized a holiday lunch potluck, and we were all sort of milling about wishing we could go back to our desks when she brought out the karaoke. This wasn’t the kind of office where people were going to sing along – except for her son, who was there. And so, we all got to stand around and watch this kid sing ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ for about an hour.

I have to say, it wasn’t the worst holiday party I’ve ever been to – this added element of the child singing added a sort of surreal quality that ended up looping the whole thing back to being kind of fun.

Anyway, I ended up meeting my husband at that job – we started dating a few months after this holiday party – and so it’s nice to have someone who remembers this experience and can reflect on it with great nostalgia with me! Thanks so much, awesome podcast!

Alison: That sounds amazing. I don’t know about other people, but I think this kind of weirdness at a party makes it all the better. I really wanted a couple of things to go a little bit wrong at my wedding, actually, which no one ever says, but I feel like that’s where the best stories come from and that’s what people remember.

But not all office holiday stories are funny. Here’s a caller who had a pretty infuriating and ridiculous experience with holidays at work.

Caller 10: Hi! This happened to me a couple of jobs ago, maybe about ten years ago. I was working with a guy who was very decidedly Christian, and very obviously Christian. He wore this big giant gold cross around his neck which he constantly was adjusting to make sure everyone could see it. Now I’m not Christian, I’m Jewish, but I didn’t let it bother me because it didn’t affect how I did my job – I could just ignore it when I interacted with him. So, whatever, he could where whatever he wants, right?

Well, then the holidays ran around, and of course the first thing he does is going over the top decorating his cubicle. I mean, a full-size crèche, giant Santa, a medium-sized Christmas tree with all the trimmings. And again, this doesn’t bother me, it’s his cubicle, I don’t have to look at it, whatever. But I decided I kind of wanted to get into the spirit too, so I brought into work two little magnets. One of them was a dreidel, about two inches big, and one of them was a hanukiah – the candelabra for Hanukkah – that was about one inch, it was really small. And I just put them up on the inside of my wall, you’d have to actually come into my cubicle to see it.

Anyway, he decided that he didn’t like this, and he complained to HR that I was making him feel uncomfortable. And so, I then received a call directly from HR demanding that I immediately take my magnets down or face disciplinary action. Now of course I asked, and they said no, he can keep all the decorations he wants, even if it made me feel uncomfortable. When I asked why, they didn’t give me an explanation, they just said, “This is our decree,” basically. It was annoying and discriminatory, but again, it didn’t matter as much to me, so I just took my magnets down and went along my merry way.

And then the day before Christmas rolled around, and I put on my desk two bowls. I put a bowl full of dreidels, and a bowl full of gelt, which is those little chocolate coins. And anyone who wanted to have one could just help themselves to either bowl for whatever. Of course, this resulted in another call from HR to go in and talk with them. He had told them that I had religious items on my desk that I was forcing him to interact with, which made him extremely uncomfortable – which obviously wasn’t true, they were discreetly placed, nobody had to touch them, I didn’t give them to anybody, you could come and get them. But of course, that’s what he told HR. I was immediately written up, they didn’t really give me a chance to give my side of the story or say, “Hey, what is the company policy,” or anything. They just said, “You’re getting written up, you have to remove them immediately,” and I got a lecture about not being a team player. By the time I got back to my desk, he had given his Christmas presents to everyone on the team, and mine was on my desk – which just happened to be this giant mug with Christian symbols all over it.

After that I didn’t really hang around for very long. The business was a secular business, no ties to any type of religious organization like, say, Catholic social services would or something. To me, it felt very inappropriate, and I didn’t stay there very long. Now I realize that it was religious discrimination and it was probably a really bad move on HR’s part, and I know what I would do, but back then I really didn’t do as much as I think I should have. And to this day – I mean, it’s been ten years – but to this day, every time the holidays roll around I get really tense at work, because I am concerned about this happening again. Thanks!

Alison: I’m so sorry you had that experience. That is not okay at all, and not legal either, assuming you’re here in the U.S.

It’s weird that HR didn’t talk to you about your side of the story, and wasn’t concerned about what this guy was doing himself. To be clear for people listening, employers don’t have to let people decorate their workspaces, but if they do allow it, they can’t pick and choose and say “it’s okay for this religious holiday but not for this other religion.” That’s religious discrimination, and it’s illegal under federal law. And so it’s crazy that they handled it this way. If anyone is ever in a situation like that, point out to your employer that they’re running afoul of federal laws against religious discrimination at work. It should be obvious to people who work in HR, you would think, but it isn’t always.

Speaking of things that are inappropriate for the office, here’s our next caller.

Caller 11: Hi, Alison. It’s coming upon the holiday season and I wanted to get your advice on something that happened last week. I was in a colleague’s office and we were talking about picking out the Christmas tree that we normally get and other holiday decorations we normally put up around the office. She and another coworker brought up kissing balls. They said that the place that they normally go to get the Christmas Tree sells gorgeous kissing balls made out of mistletoe and they wanted to get one for the office. I stayed silent on the subject but I feel like kissing balls and Mistletoe in general are inappropriate in the workplace. Should I have pointed that out? Am I just being a prude? I tend to be more tightly laced than my coworkers and they are both members of the executive team and I am not. How should I have handled this?

Alison: You are not being a prude. Things like mistletoe or kissing balls – where the whole point is that now you’re supposed to kiss – are totally inappropriate for work. And I’d think that at this particular time in our history, companies would be especially attuned to that, but apparently not.

So yeah, ideally when your coworker brought it up, you could have said something like, “You know, I think that would be fine for a social party outside of work, but for a work party, it’s going to look inappropriate to have mistletoe.”

Now, that assumes they were hanging it the way that you hang mistletoe when it’s intended to be a kissing station or whatever – even just saying that really highlights how weird that tradition is, doesn’t it? But if they were just using it as a non-kissing-related part of the décor, like as part of a larger garland or something, I wouldn’t worry about that. But if they’re using it as like “kissing happens here,” then yeah, speak up.

Here’s one more caller, this one sharing the best thing they’ve ever seen their company do for the holidays and the worst.

Caller 12: I am calling with my best and worst for Christmas. My worst is, for our Christmas party this year, our boss gave us tickets to a local production of a Christmas play, with a small cocktail party beforehand. Come to find out, he’s in the play, got the tickets for free, and the cocktail hour is hosted by the theater. Most of the staff declined.

My best is not actually a party, but a company I worked with for almost a decade gave a Christmas bonus equivalent to one paycheck, whether you were salary or hourly.  I’ve never worked for a company before or since that was that generous.

Alison: That is the way to celebrate holidays at work. Everyone likes money, and it tends to give people a lot of holiday cheer.

That’s our show for today! Happy holidays, whatever you celebrate!

You can see past podcast transcripts here.