How To Handle Holiday Stress At Work : Life Kit Holiday parties, gift exchanges — dealing with the holidays at work can be awkward and fraught. Alison Green of Ask a Manager shares advice on workplace etiquette around the holidays.

Dealing With Holidays At Work: Forced Cheer And Awkward Parties

Dealing With Holidays At Work: Forced Cheer And Awkward Parties

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Bronson Arcuri and Becky Harlan/NPR
Bronson Arcuri and Becky Harlan/NPR

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There's festive tissue paper taped to the walls and some kind of paper cutout dangling below the fluorescent lights: It can only mean that the holidays have arrived at the workplace, and with them a flurry of invites, requirements and potentially awkward situations to manage. And let's just start with one thing, right off the bat: Don't get drunk at workplace parties! There, now you're already starting in a good place.

We asked Life Kit listeners to send workplace holiday situations that elevate your heart rate and kickstart the anxiety. Then — because Love Actually has brainwashed us into believing that at the holidays you tell the truth — we called on the ultimate expert in navigating workplace situations: Alison Green of Ask a Manager. What follows are a few edited questions and Green's sage advice. Make sure to listen to the full episode of NPR's Life Kit to get the whole story.

We're only using first names to identify those who wrote in with questions, since their inquiries involve potentially sensitive workplace relationships.

How do you choose a gift for someone you hardly know?

Possibly one of the weirder challenges around the holidays is to find a gift for somebody that is inexpensive and thoughtful without being too personal. Most workplaces have hierarchies and power dynamics built into them, which make the act of gift-giving pretty awkward overall. Here's what listener Adele said:

How do you handle Secret Santa? I seem to have messed this up in every iteration. I used to opt out, but unfortunately my current workplace is so small you can't really. I drew my boss's name one year and I tried to fulfill the guidelines of the game but apparently it didn't go so well. I got her roughly one item per week leading up to Christmas, but I noticed some overachievers did things very frequently. One of my things was a baked good and a coffee drink from a nearby coffee shop, but it turns out she doesn't drink coffee! Another gift was a cute book with inspiring quotes which wound up on a waiting room table. It felt like I failed to anticipate what she would like. How do you choose gifts for someone you hardly know?

Green's first order of business is to clarify one thing: You should be able to opt out no matter what. "In theory you should be able to say 'You know, hey, I'm sorry I can't participate this year, or my budget's not going to allow it.' " But if you are participating, Green's guidance is pretty simple: Don't go overboard, and don't put too much pressure on yourself to get it exactly right. "You're not obligated to know the person so intimately, but you'll be able to predict with perfect accuracy what they will and won't like," she says. Green says that being uncontroversial is the first step, and that being a little bit boring is totally OK in a workplace context. You can even try to give something that's easy to re-gift, like coffee or chocolate.

And Green's cardinal rule for workplace gifts is an easy one to remember: Don't give anything that goes on the body, like perfume or jewelry. "Those are all just too personal," she says. Another thing you can do is notice what the person already is using, or what they already have in their workplace — like a particular pen or a mug — and just get something similar to what they already have. "This is not like giving a gift to your mom or your significant other. It's OK if it's not exactly right."

Bronson Arcuri and Becky Harlan/NPR
Bronson Arcuri and Becky Harlan/NPR

Evergreen question: Do I have to?

This question comes up all the time in many different forms around holiday party season. There are a lot of reasons somebody might not want to participate in a holiday thing at their workplace — whether they don't celebrate that holiday or they're on a tight budget — and ideally, everyone should be able to opt out. This letter is from listener Sue:

I work for a very small nonprofit — some seven employees total, and I'm the newest employee. I've been there for three plus years, and the office has a stocking condition where we're expected to stuff the stockings of our co-workers. I don't even exchange gifts with close friends and family and really don't like participating in this activity. Add to that that I'm the office introvert and I'm already viewed as standoffish because I'm quiet and I don't join in the pervasive oversharing that goes on on stocking presentation day — it becomes apparent who put time and effort into it (everyone but me.) So yeah, this is uncomfortable for me and I'm just not into it. Last year, I suggested we draw names and just buy a gift for one person. It went over like a lead zeppelin. Do I need to suck it up and participate?

"I don't love this for a whole bunch of reasons," Green says right off the bat. "Stockings are very Christmas-specific, and that's not a very inclusive thing to be doing in a workplace." Green suggests that the inclusivity argument might be a way for this listener to address the larger discomfort with the holiday tradition. "It's possible that everyone there is a Christmas celebrator but as soon as they hire someone who's not, that person should not be the reason that the tradition stopped and they should rethink it now before that happens."

But as for the age old question of 'do I have to,' Green's advice is clear-eyed: "She certainly has the option of saying 'you know what, this is really not for me' but there is sometimes a price to doing that." Unfortunately, it might not be possible for Sue to opt out of the intense stocking tradition without paying some kind of social price, but she is ultimately the one who gets to decide. "Would love to say 'no, this is ridiculous' and you should be able to opt out and there won't be any consequences," but alas that's not the world we live in or the workplace we work in. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I don't want apology cookies!!!

This next letter presents a conundrum that feels as old school as they come: who gets invited to the party. Listener Rachel writes:

At my last job, a co-worker used to host a holiday cookie party at her home each year. It was a big deal — even the bosses were invited. The thing was, her house was totally inaccessible and I, of course, was the only person in the office who used a wheelchair. My co-worker never invited me to the cookie party, making the assumption that I would say no anyway because I couldn't get my chair into her home. She very thoughtfully brought me a tin of cookies the day after the party each year, but the entire situation was extremely irksome. My co-worker was disability literate so she certainly knew about the importance of inclusion. And even though the holiday cookie party was not an office-mandated event, everyone from the office went each year. I never admitted to this co-worker that her de facto exclusion of me was hurtful, but I guess in retrospect I should have said something. I just don't know why she never considered hosting her holiday cookie party in an accessible space. Several of our co-workers, myself included, were apartment-dwellers and could easily have booked one of our party rooms. Each time she brought me that apologetic tin of cookies I couldn't help but feel like a social leper. Some of those cookies were pretty darn delicious though.

OK, first of all, Rachel is such a good sport about this! "This is a real case of management negligence," Green says. "I know that it wasn't an official work-sponsored event but when you have something that everyone or almost everyone is going to, that becomes a work event and the employer incurs some of the same obligations that they would incur if they were officially hosting it." There's a math answer to this problem, too — if more than half of the group is invited, then everybody should be invited, and therefore it should be treated as an office event, complete with ADA compliance and full inclusivity to everyone. "The manager in that situation should have stepped in and said 'We love that you're doing this cookie party. We need to make it accessible. Let's look at other places to do it," plain and simple. Inclusivity is going to make any party more fun to attend, and any office event more festive. And frankly, there is no tin of cookies as sweet as being a decent adult human who knows that inclusion is important!

Listen and subscribe to all of Life Kit's episodes here and make sure to get all of Alison Green's advice in our full episode.