Work

My Company Is Forcing Us to Use PTO for a Week It’s Going to Be Closed

A woman in a Santa hat makes a thumb-down with her hand. There is an office behind her to one side and a palm tree to the other.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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 this week’s Direct Report, she answers readers’ questions about holidays at work.

Dear Direct Report,

My office announced it’s closing for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, since so many people take time off then anyway. Great! But then they announced that we’ll need to use our PTO for that week, even if we were otherwise planning to work. That makes no sense to me! If we were ready and willing to work, why should we lose vacation time just because the office decided to close? Our unused vacation time rolls over to the next year, so this means we’ll have a week less to use next year than we had counted on having. Is this even legal?

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—Fuming

Dear Fuming,

It’s legal, but it’s a bad policy. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon policy; a lot of offices that close that week handle holiday closures the same way. But when you’re talking about a full week, that’s a significant bite out of most people’s vacation leave.

You and your co-workers can try pushing back! Point out that some employees have that vacation time allotted for other uses, and this will wreak havoc on anyone who needed that week for, say, their kid’s wedding or a long-planned family trip next year. Your employer may or may not budge, but the more of you who speak up, the better your chances of getting it reconsidered.

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Dear Direct Report,

Last year, my company hosted a holiday Zoom “cocktail hour.” I didn’t attend since it was at 7 p.m., and at that time, I am getting my kids ready for bed. I didn’t hear anything about it until mid-October this year. My boss emailed me directly and told me that the company is planning another cocktail hour for the holiday party this year, and it “looked bad” that I wasn’t there last year.

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I’m not in a senior-level high position. I work as a finance analyst in accounting. My day is typically from 7:30–5ish. I told my boss that the time of the cocktail hour does not work with my family schedule. If I were to participate, I would have to be logged into my computer in my house in the evening, which is hard because we have a small house and my office is in the living room. It would be too distracting and, frankly, not enjoyable.

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Is this worth fighting? I feel like this is a weird “requirement” they are asking of me.

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—Already Working 40 Hours a Week

Dear Already Working,

So, the deal with company holiday parties is … sometimes they’re mandatory, even if they’re not called that. Not mandatory in the sense of “if you’re not there, you’ll lose your job,” but in the sense of “if you’re not there, you’ll be seen as insufficiently invested/ you’ll use up political capital/ you might be on the top of layoff lists down the road because we don’t think you care about being part of the team.”

For the record, this is BS, and that line of thinking is the sign of a bad boss. If you do your job well, it shouldn’t matter if you show up for a cocktail hour (virtual or not). And since people have lives and commitments outside of their jobs, if employers really want full participation, they should schedule these events during the workday.

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But that’s how things should be, not always how things are. Tons of managers still see holiday party attendance as obligatory, and yours is apparently one of them. In fact, yours seems to be extraordinarily entrenched in this mindset, given that she went as far as to tell you that your absence last year looked bad, rather than just silently judging you like most managers who suck in this way would do.

Given that, if there’s a way for you to make an appearance at this virtual event, you should do it. You shouldn’t have to—“I have child care obligations then,” or “I have a conflict that night” should be more than enough to take care of it—but clearly in this case, working for this manager, you do kind of have to. But you don’t have to stay for the whole thing: log on, stay for a little while, then beg off with bedtime responsibilities. (And hey, if your kids end up being a distraction that disrupts the event, all the better! Maybe next time your boss will reconsider.)

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Dear Direct Report,

I am the general manager of a staff of 17 employees split into four different departments. All 17 of them are great, but there are three whom I work with directly every single day, whereas the others I see much less often (it’s a large campus). I’ve thought about getting gifts for the three staff members whom I work with daily because they make my work life easier. But since there are 14 other employees under me, do I need to get everyone something?

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I cannot afford to purchase gifts for all 17 employees, unless it’s like $5 gift cards—which is just rude, in my opinion. I did just convince my higher ups to increase everyone’s holiday bonus this year and ensured they all got raises for 2022.

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—Not That Rich

Dear Not That Rich,

Nope, you can’t just buy gifts for the three employees. Regardless of how often you see them, you’re still the manager for the whole team. Buying gifts for only some employees will look like favoritism, and it’s highly likely to make at least some of the others feel overlooked. Whatever good the gifts do for the morale of the three who get them will be outweighed by the harm to the morale of the other 14.

But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck giving $5 gift cards. A good solution when you can’t buy individual gifts for a large team is to do one group gift. Food spreads are often easy—baked goods, chocolate, homemade cider, whatever you choose that takes into consideration any dietary restrictions on your team. (Since you don’t see all of them each day, message them early in the day so they know it’s there.) Combine it with individual cards with handwritten messages of appreciation, and you’ll be set.

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Dear Direct Report,

I work in an industry and at a company that traditionally has very rowdy holiday parties. Smoking, drinking, all of it. I am newly pregnant, but I’m not ready to tell my boss or team when I travel across the country to this year’s party. I haven’t seen any of my team members, as I’ve been working remote, but my first trimester has been rough and I don’t want anyone to know. Do you have any advice for someone who wouldn’t normally avoid partying with their co-workers and doesn’t want to make a big deal of it? I’ve been with the company four years, so it would be pretty obvious if I declined to participate.

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—Sober for Now

Dear Sober for Now,

Do you want to go and just not drink, or not go at all? If you’d like to get out of it entirely, one option is to cite vague medical reasons: “I’ve got a medical thing right now where my doctor is recommending against flying. It’s nothing to worry about, but I can’t make it out for the party.” A lot of people aren’t flying right now because of COVID, so you probably won’t be the only one.

But if you want to go and just fend off questions about why you’re not drinking, feel free to lie! “I’m taking a medication where I can’t drink” is perfectly acceptable when you’re trying to ward off nosy co-workers pushing alcohol. (I’ll leave aside the obvious problems with a company culture that relies so heavily on pushing alcohol to create comradery in the first place.) Alternately, holding a drink that looks like alcohol will keep most people satisfied, and seltzer with lime looks just like a Gin and Tonic.

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Dear Direct Report,

Can you chime in on managers who are suddenly in the Christmas spirit and wanting to get their remote employees together for a holiday dinner (in a restaurant, during a pandemic) less than a week from Christmas?

We’re skipping family Thanksgiving due to COVID numbers increasing in our area and not everyone being eligible for boosters. Our plan for Christmas was for everyone visiting that day to be fully vaccinated with booster shots and limit where they were going out and about in the two weeks leading up to the holiday. So this is quite at odds with that! I hate that my office is putting me in a position where I have to spend personal capital on something that to me seems like it should’ve been a nonissue to begin with, but I’m hoping you’ll tell me if I’m the one who is looking at this wrong.

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—Cautious and Irked

Dear Cautious and Irked,

I tend to think that scheduling any work social event for less than a week from Christmas is a bad move, since so many people’s calendars are booked with family and social obligations at that time of year. And as you point out, we’re still in a pandemic and people’s risk assessments vary enough that expecting everyone to be comfortable eating in a restaurant is pretty out of touch (especially when some employees may have kids who won’t be fully vaccinated yet). Still, though, a number of employers seem to be doing it this year.

It’s perfectly reasonable, however, to explain that you have high-risk family members and won’t be able to attend.

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Dear Direct Report,

I have supervised a three-person team of contractors at a big global corporation for several years. They are part-time and have worked for us for between 20 and 15 years, depending on the contractor. They’re seasoned professionals and highly respected both in and out of the company.

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When the holidays rolled around during my first year of supervising this team, I asked my boss if the contractors were invited to our department’s annual holiday party. I was told no, because they are not employees and the company did not want to give the impression they were. I wasn’t pleased with this response, but I took the team out for a holiday lunch. The contractors appreciated it, but they definitely noticed the lack of invitation for the department party and made joking comments about being the ugly stepchildren.

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However, at that first department holiday party and every department holiday party since, I have noticed that other contractors within the department (often full-time contractors) attend the party and have won prizes for employees, etc. (These prizes are usually gift cards ranging from $50–$250, so not chump change.) In the last two years, even during COVID when celebrations were virtual, I have asked if my contractors could attend, and the answer has been “no, the party and prizes are for employees.” And at each party, other contractors are there, winning prizes.

It really bothers me that other contractors attend while mine are prohibited. It’s small, but it affects the morale of my team who perform an essential service for our department. My plan this year is to just invite my contractors and if I get called out, go whole hog and call out the other contractors that attend. Is begging for forgiveness rather than asking permission the right approach?

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—Second Class Citizens

Dear Second Class,

It seems unkind, but there are sometimes good reasons for companies to exclude contractors from certain work events; it’s one of the factors that gets looked at if there’s a legal challenge to their status as contractors versus employees. But in this case, that doesn’t seem to be the explanation—other contractors are attending, so it seems patently false that contractors simply aren’t invited. It’s just your contractors who aren’t invited.

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I wouldn’t just go ahead and invite them after your boss explicitly told you not to. Not only is that likely to be seen as insubordinate and harm your boss’s trust in you in the future, but it risks putting the contractors themselves in an awkward position. Instead, talk to your boss now, ahead of the party, and ask about it directly! There’s no reason you can’t say, “I had understood my team wasn’t invited because they’re contractors, but I’ve noticed other contractors from our department do attend. Is there a reason they aren’t permitted but other contractors are?” It’s possible you’ll find out that the company distinguishes between part-time and full-time contractors (in fact, that’s my guess) or that your boss simply handles this differently than other managers in your department, but it’s reasonable to ask about it. You can also ask, “Is it possible to get that reconsidered this year? I know it’s had an impact on their morale in the past, and I’d like to keep them happy, particularly in this job market.”

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