Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
’Tis the season of mandatory workplace merriment, inappropriate gifts from co-workers, and office holiday party debacles!
There’s nothing like cubicles mingled with carols to bring out the weird—and at this time of year, my inbox at Ask a Manager overflows with glorious accounts of work holiday celebrations gone awry. Here are some of my favorites.
Low-wage workers asked to fund a ski trip for the CEO’s family
Every year, I hear from people who resent being pressured into donating to gifts for their managers, but this account is by far the worst I’ve heard:
This morning, I received this email from the second-in-command of my organization:
“Dear [staff], Each year we have done a holiday gift for [CEO] to recognize his leadership of [organization] during the year. Given the very busy holiday season, I’d like to start the ball rolling on the collection early this year in order to present him with his gift by December 18th at our annual retreat day. Please send your contribution to me and I will take care of purchase, etc. Last year we presented him with a two night stay at [resort] mountain for him and his family to go skiing and they loved it, so why not repeat the appreciated gift?”
Please note that the CEO is the highest paid person in the organization, and I am an hourly, part-time employee being paid less than the industry standard. I am incredulous at the expectation here.
The boss who doesn’t understand Hanukkah
As a Jew myself, I know firsthand that many people don’t realize Christmas isn’t our holiday, but this boss takes it to a new level:
I am a Jewish 26-year-old. I’ve been on the job about a year and I moved from a large city to a smaller suburb of NYC for this job …
My boss, a usually nice lady, has taken it upon herself to educate me about Christmas this season. She is super into the holidays, which I appreciated for Halloween, but has been declaring to the whole office how this is “Savannah’s First Christmas” and taking that opportunity to spend well over $500 on Christmas decorations which she has strategically placed mostly around her and my office. She has bought me my own Christmas stocking and ornament which says “Savannah’s first Christmas” with a date and her signature on it. … She also has invited me to her home for Christmas because “no one should celebrate their first Christmas by themselves.” … I tried to discuss with her the fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas and that’s where the whole “Savannah’s First Christmas” was born. Another time when I mentioned something about celebrating Hanukkah instead of Christmas, she went out and bought this Hanukkah-inspired contraption, which was really just eight round traditional ornaments with a light in each of them. She said they were Hanukkah balls.”
The holiday party gone wild
There’s nothing like an out-of-control holiday party with colleagues, and this is one of my favorites:
The CEO threw an evening holiday party at his house, and gave me a half-day off to shop for food and drinks, set everything up, and decorate. I did my best but since I was a billing coordinator, not a party planner, it looked a little… askew.
The actual party was like a frat house run amok. The A/P director drank too much and threw up shrimp cocktail on the white shag carpet. The plant manager got into a screaming fight with his wife in the driveway. The chemist was found making out with the loading dock supervisor, who was about 30 years her senior and more importantly not her husband. And I accidentally walked in on the sales director peeing in the unlocked hallway bathroom (which I thought was the coat closet; we were both surprised). The president himself got completely hammered and went around telling people totally inappropriate stories, gave me a giant bear hug that lasted a little too long, and broke the sliding door to his patio.
The inebriated Santa Claus
Office parties and alcohol don’t always mix well—even for Santa:
My company thought it would be cute to hire a Santa to sit at the entryway of the party for photo ops, and people were having a great time taking pictures with Santa. He looked very realistic and never dropped character, which was a little weird but manageable.
Manageable at least until he started hitting up the open bar, then started wandering around our party hitting on the ladies, still in costume and acting in character as Santa! They hired a different Santa next year, with the strict requirement that he NOT drink.
The Christmas party that wasn’t
It’s true that office holiday parties are business functions, not social ones, but this company took that too far:
This was a few years ago back at my toxic job. Morale was fairly low, but we got an email for an all-hands afternoon meeting. Said email looked like an invite, had festive red and green, and was in a invitational-type font, so we all assumed it was a holiday get-together. Nope. It was a meeting to determine why morale was so low, with managers basically sitting there and asking us to start telling them the problems. Since most of the problems were due to horrible management, everyone just sat there in awkward silence until management begrudgingly left the room. So then we spent a couple hours that we thought would involve snacks and socializing detailing all our issues with management, workflow, etc. Good times. It became known as “The Christmas Party That Wasn’t.”
The frozen flasher
There are no words to describe this one:
One time, I worked at a government agency where the head of HR was a reformed alcoholic who had found religion and was thus now very religious whilst also being a teetotaler. Every year before the party we’d get an email about how under employment law the party was an extension of the workplace and bad behavior would not be tolerated, etc. etc. She wasn’t very well-liked in the office for other reasons but no one hated her and often she didn’t come to the parties as she found them too rowdy.
The year her marriage broke up, she came and got so drunk at the party she flashed her boobs over the metal railings of this rooftop bar we were at … and because of the snow/light rain, the side of one of her boobs fused to the railing (kinda like if you lick something frozen and your tongue gets stuck!). Seeing her two (female!) HR admins blowing on her boob to release it whilst shielding her modesty with scarves is a sight that will never leave me.
The holiday skit gone wrong
There’s nothing like taking revenge and making political points via a Christmas skit:
I used to work for an organization that was dysfunctional in the extreme. Each Christmas one particular program director, who thought he was an artist, would write a skit for some staff to perform. There were choreographed dances, original songs, and worst of all, the entire skit was meant to be a parody of a particular issue that had come up in the past year. In the right hands and with enthusiastic participation this might have worked, but believe me when I say that all of the jokes and plot points were in the worst possible taste—mocked people, brought up sore points in a condescending way, made those acting in the skit the butt of jokes about themselves, made off-color jokes about senior staff members. It. Was. Excruciating.
The epic post-party email
This post–holiday party email will make you regret missing the party:
The second year I worked at this company, our holiday party was held on a dinner cruise boat. Our boss footed the bill for dinner and an open bar, and a few other companies also hosted their own parties on the boat at the same time. Since I was underage at the time I did not drink, and actually left early with my date. Everything was fine when I left. The Monday after, I rolled into the office—the first person there—and was greeted with this email from our boss [identifying details removed]:
“Good morning to all. I hope all of you had time to recuperate and reflect about the unusual chain of events and circumstances at this year’s Christmas party. Some of you went home early and did not take in the full range of events.
Unfortunately, some of our staff got out of hand, including the spouses. Things were said, and things were done, that quite frankly were very inappropriate. Also, we had people from the adjoining group that decided to take advantage of our open bar and co-mingle with our group.
In regards to the inappropriate behavior, I am not going to go into all of the details, but let it be said that the root cause was probably due to the open bar. Some of our staff decided that the open bar meant that the drinking could be unlimited, not only in how much, but how they drank.
As a result, some our staff and spouses decided that shots were OK. Shots were ordered for some who do not even drink. Shots are not OK at a company Christmas party. Other staff and spouses got multiple drinks at once for themselves and for people not even in our group. Others decided it was OK to get openly drunk and belligerent, to the point of making racial slurs. I, myself, am guilty of attacking someone from the other group after he decided to retaliate by groping my wife.
Having thought about the circumstances and the fact that we have to work together as a firm and team, some of you need to apologize for your behavior and/or for the behavior of your spouse. We specifically implemented a no fraternization policy and some of you could get fired on that alone, while other staff exercised no restraint over their spouse for their drunken condition. It is not OK for a spouse to misbehave, just because he or she is not an employee. Many careers have been destroyed, and people get fired, due to the conduct of their spouse. You are expected to exercise constraint over your spouse, or take them home. And if that cannot be done, then you should not bring your spouse.
In regards to the Firm’s policy on drinking, there will be no more open bars. Unfortunately, some of you and your spouses exercise extremely poor judgment. Because of this poor judgment, it puts the Firm at risk. Given the poor road conditions that night, some of you could have ended up dead. It is also unfortunate that a few have to ruin it for the whole group.
I would like to start the apologies by stating I am sorry for not handling the situation that I was confronted with in a different manner. I feel embarrassed, and it was not conduct befitting of the firm’s president. I also felt betrayed by some of you for patronizing the one individual from the adjoining group, who’s behavior was lewd and offensive, not to mention the outright theft by running up our bar tab.
I invite others to make some form of apology, either by email or in person for what they did or said, or what their spouse did or said. You can do this voluntarily, and you know who you are, or I will confront you by Wednesday of this week. I do not intend to ignore what happened. If I have to confront you, you could lose your job. I will be available Monday and Tuesday late afternoon, or you can email me and/or others. Let’s not let this one incidence stop us from being [No. 1 company in field]. We have a lot going for ourselves and let’s keep it going.”