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,
We’re in a small office—about 15 people—scattered across the country, even though half are in one city and work from the main office. Those who work remotely come to the main office about once every six weeks, which works great because it allows for several days of in-person meetings, conversations, “whole office” meetings, etc. … except in December.
For years, our boss has spent hours, if not days, planning a long, elaborate holiday event for when we’re all together. Think getting to the office for breakfast together at 8 a.m., before leaving for some multihour “fun” team-building (hikes through the woods, escape rooms, arts and crafts, etc.), then a team lunch, then more team-building, sitting around in a big circle to open gifts, capped off by a holiday dinner. It’s exhausting, no one seems to really care, and even though everyone gets along fine, we’re co-workers and it’s A Lot. The boss loves this though—the activities are always things she enjoys—and hasn’t reacted well (snipping and pouting) when several people pushed back slightly a couple of years ago! We were all thinking 2020 would break the cycle but nope! Everything was just held outside.
Is it like getting an ugly sweater from your grandmother that you just have to try on, smile, thank her, and grin and bear it? Are we just stuck? Banning together doesn’t seem possible with this group and the boss pouts when she doesn’t get her way. Plans are already underway for this year’s Forced Fun and we’re all dreading it.
—Just Want to Do My Work
Dear Just Want to Do My Work,
I’m curious why pushing back as a group doesn’t seem possible, because that would definitely be the most effective approach. Ideally a group of you would say, “These are long days with activities a lot of us don’t enjoy. This year, we’d like to just do a lunch.” If your boss snips and pouts, well, so be it. The advantage to pushing back as a group is safety, since the fallout is a lot less likely to land on any one person.
But if your co-workers are unorganizable or too afraid to speak up—or whatever’s preventing group action here—you could take one for the team and speak up yourself, especially if you have a decent rapport with your manager. Yes, she hasn’t taken it well in the past, but if that just means a day or two of pouting, it might be worthwhile. However, if she’s someone who reacts punitively and there could be a professional cost to the conversation, it makes more sense to save your capital for something else. In that case, would you consider just … not going? Why not just develop a conflict with that date (a family or medical thing that sadly is unmovable) or wake up sick that morning?
If no one will speak up and you don’t want to just skip it, then you are indeed stuck! But you’ve got options if you’re willing to try them.
Dear Direct Report,
Holidays are coming up and I’m getting started on planning the gifts for my direct reports. I have a small department so I like to take the time to personalize gifts to the recipient and I can usually get everyone something they like without breaking the bank. This year I’m only buying for three people. For two of them I know the gifts will be alcohol-based. I know these two employees and their hobbies well and I am sure that they will like these gifts (one is super into craft cocktails and one is into the craft beer scene).
My third employee is newer and I haven’t gotten to know them well enough to determine if they drink. I have a gift in mind for them based on conversations we’ve had and some of the stuff around their cube, but I don’t want to offend them by getting everyone else on the team alcohol and not getting them something similar.
Am I way overthinking this? Do I just get the employee the gift I was planning on and let them know I wasn’t sure if they drink? Do I see if I can figure out their beverage of choice through other means?
Get the gifts you’re planning on. Afterward, you can say, “I knew Falcon and Imogen are both into craft cocktails and beer but wasn’t sure if you drank. I know you like Marvel comics though, so I hoped this would be right for you.” If your employee wants to share that they do drink and in fact have an extensive Glenlivet collection that they’d love you to add to next year, this is an easy opening for them to do that. But either way, you’ll have explained your thinking so they’re not left to wonder.
Dear Direct Report,
I work for a nonprofit, which generally means less pay and fewer benefits. But something I’ve noticed is this: The company agrees we can have a holiday party if we (the workers) fund it. So in essence, they’re really not throwing one, right?
When I started in 2014, the holiday party was $30/person (you plus your significant other = $60). In 2015–19, the organization fully funded the party 100 percent, at no cost to employees. Then they stopped doing holiday parties because of COVID. This year, they’re planning to have one again … with the ticket price set between $60 and $75 per ticket (!) for a grand total of up to $150 per couple. DRINKS NOT INCLUDED.
Unsurprisingly, morale around this is very low. This is in addition to raising our health care costs 19 percent this year. It feels like the organization doesn’t care about us at all. Am I insane? Am I overreacting to think that $75 per ticket is a lot for a Christmas party? Does it look bad to decline to attend? It’s optional, so declining to attend is something I can do.
Some employers do charge to attend their holiday parties, but $75 per ticket is high for most fields, and especially for nonprofit workers. If the organization can’t afford to fund the party itself, they should look into ways to throw a lower-cost event, like by holding it in the office instead of paying for an outside venue.
It’s probably too late for that input to change the plans this year, but it’s definitely feedback your team should give for next year! Whoever is in charge of the event needs to hear that the ticket prices are too high and that you’d trade a fancy venue for a lower cost of admission (or even that a critical mass of you would prefer to do away with the party altogether, if that’s the case).
As for whether you should decline to attend, it’s really up to you. There can be professional benefits to putting in an appearance at office parties, and you’ve got to know your office’s culture around social events Does “not mandatory” really mean “you’re still expected to be there”? If so, consider leaving your plus one at home to save a little money. But when they’re charging this much for tickets, no sensible person would hold it against you for declining.
Dear Direct Report,
How do you handle an employee who tries to take off a lot of time during the holidays and therefore blocks other people from taking it? Someone I manage tried to do that again this year and I said no, it’s either the week before or the week after Christmas, not both. We are a customer service unit and her position is support. When I told her no, she got mad and acted very offended. I should add, she’s off the week of Thanksgiving as well.
Since it sounds like she’s in a coverage-based job where not everyone can be out at once, it’s reasonable to have a system that ensures a single person can’t block others from taking any time off around the holidays (especially when they did that last year!).
But do you have such a system? Ideally you’d have rules in place that you could point to, and which your employees could base their plans around. If your system is “whoever requests the time first gets it,” then you’re asking for this kind of situation. You’d be better off with a system that allocates desirable days or weeks more fairly. Some workplaces do that by seniority, some use a rotation from year to year (or holiday to holiday), some ask everyone to have their time off requests in by a certain date and then parcel the most desirable dates out in a reasonably balanced way, and some shrink the competition by offering incentives for people willing to work the dates that other people want to take off the most (like a bonus or an extra day off next year).
If you don’t have a system like that in place now, it’s still reasonable to tell your employee she needs to do her share of holiday coverage like the rest of her co-workers … but you should get a better system in place for next year so everyone knows what the rules are.
Dear Direct Report,
I work at a very small nonprofit. I’m the only full-time staff member, and the rest of our team, including my supervisors, are volunteers. I love the holiday season and gift giving, and I sent floral arrangements to my supervisors last year. (I got a small bonus from the organization, but nothing from them individually.) This year, my salary doesn’t stretch as far as it did, but I feel like I set the expectation of a gift last year. What’s an appropriate gift when inflation and nonprofit salaries have my budget stretched thinner than usual? Can I stop with gift giving once I’ve started?
—Feeling the Pinch
Dear Feeling the Pinch,
You can stop and you should stop! Etiquette says that gifts at work should flow down, not up—meaning that your boss can give you a gift, but you shouldn’t give your boss one. That’s because of the power dynamics in the relationship; employees should never feel pressured to give gifts to the people who control their employment. Even though your managers aren’t paid, the same power dynamics are in play.
This year, switch to sending them cards. If you want to make it more personal, you can handwrite a message inside about how they’ve supported you this year. They probably won’t think much about the fact that you sent a gift last year, but if they do, they’re unlikely to hold it against you. They’re aware of inflation and your salary … and even if they weren’t, it shouldn’t be a big deal that you switched your holiday practices. Liberate yourself from the tyranny of obligatory work gifts!
Dear Direct Report,
I am in the process of trying to get a job with an organization that is closed for two weeks over the holidays. I found out from a contact that this is paid time off, so that’s great.
However, I’m wondering if this means that maybe I won’t get as much time off at other times of the year (I’d want at least two weeks!). My husband is an accountant, so he’s unable to travel in mid- to late-December and all of January due to accounting things. If this two-week period is supposed to be the bulk of my vacation time, it’ll be next to impossible to take time off in the summer for a road trip or to visit family.
I am not yet at the interview stage where it would be appropriate to ask about this stuff. What is typically considered standard with companies that shut down at the holidays?
Companies that shut down for a week or two for the holidays nearly always provide that time off in addition to the regular amount of vacation time they offer employees, not in lieu of it. So you’d have your regular two or four weeks of vacation—or whatever they offer—plus you’d have the paid time off when they close at the end of the year. It would be really impractical otherwise, since so many people have things they need time off for at other times of the year.
That said, make sure you confirm that before accepting an offer in case this is a weird outlier company that only permits time off when the company is already closed. That’s unlikely to be the case, but there’s always an employer out there finding new and strange ways to disadvantage its workers, so you should never assume.