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.
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Dealing With Holidays At Work: Forced Cheer And Awkward Parties

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Dealing With Holidays At Work: Forced Cheer And Awkward Parties

Dealing With Holidays At Work: Forced Cheer And Awkward Parties

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Hi. I'm Julia Furlan. And this is NPR's LIFE KIT.


FURLAN: This week, we're pinning up some tissue paper and pulling the plastic punch bowl from the back of that one filing cabinet nobody ever opens. That's right, we're talking about holidays in the workplace. We asked you what your thorniest, most awkward and difficult questions were and - whew - did you get back to us. And then, we asked somebody very important to answer your questions, Alison Green, whose blog, Ask A Manager, is one of my favorite corners of the Internet.

We begin our journey with an evergreen question for holidays in the workplace - must I? Alison says this is one of the most common questions she receives, but it's also very tricky. This is from listener Sue Lee (ph).

SUE LEE: I work for a very small nonprofit, seven employees total. And I'm the newest employee there. I've been there for just over three years. The office has a stocking tradition where everybody has a stocking. And we're all 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. It's just uncomfortable for me.

Add to that that I'm kind of the office introvert and I'm already viewed as standoffish because I'm generally pretty quiet and don't join in a lot of the oversharing that seems to go on in the office. On stocking presentation day, everybody goes through their stockings in front of everyone else, which is awkward. And it becomes apparent who put time and effort into it - everybody but me - and who did not - me.

So, yeah, it's 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 just need to suck it up and participate?



GREEN: I don't love this for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is stockings are very Christmas-specific. And that's not a very inclusive thing to be doing in a workplace. And, you know, even if everyone who is there currently celebrates Christmas, as soon as they hire someone who's not, that person should not be the reason that the tradition stopped. They should rethink it now before that happens.


GREEN: So ideally, I would love to see this person point that out and push for some sort of different holiday tradition. She tried to do that last year; it didn't go over so well. But maybe it would help to make this point about inclusivity. If it doesn't and they're determined to stick with what they've been doing, she probably does need to suck it up. She doesn't have to. I mean, she certainly has the option of saying, you know what? This is just really not for me. So you all have fun, but I'm going to opt out this year.

There is sometimes a price to doing that. I mean, it's silly that there is, but that's just the reality of it. She could pay a price, especially if she's already the introvert who's not showing up at the team happy hours. It might be in her professional best interests to just sort of put a minimal amount of effort into it, do it and maybe try to make the argument again next year.

FURLAN: (Laughter) I love your advice because it's always practical and it's not always, like, the thing that sounds like the most fun, which is very work-appropriate, actually (laughter).

GREEN: I mean, I would love to say, no, this is ridiculous. And you should be able to opt out...


GREEN: ...And there won't be consequences. The reality is, offices that are invested - as invested in their traditions as this one sounds like it might be, there can be consequences to opting out. And that doesn't mean you can't do it. You can decide, you know what? I do want to take a stand on this. This is important enough to me that I'm willing to pay that potential cost.

FURLAN: Right.

GREEN: But I just want people to know what that cost could be.


FURLAN: This is our first takeaway for this episode. There may be consequences for opting out of a workplace holiday thing, but that doesn't mean that you don't get to do it. Basically, if everything in your soul screams no, or especially if your workplace is throwing a celebration that actively doesn't feel inclusive, you don't have to go. Sure, people might be a little miffed about it. But fundamentally, it's up to you.

Our next question is from Adele Philippides (ph) and it's another classic - gifts in the workplace. Giving somebody a gift that says, I appreciate you the exact amount that is appropriate for a work relationship is tricky at best. So let's hear what Adele is dealing with.

ADELE PHILIPPIDES: Hello. I was wondering, how do you handle the Secret Santa in all its forms? I seem to have messed this up in every iteration of the game. I used to opt out, but unfortunately, my current workplace is so small you can't. I drew my boss' name one year. And I tried to fulfill the guidelines of the game but apparently didn't do so well.

I gave her roughly one item per week leading up to Christmas. But I noticed some overachievers did things really frequently, like the person for me did something almost every day. One of my things was a baked good and a coffee drink from a nearby coffee shop. But then I found out she didn't drink coffee afterwards (laughter).

Another was I had a cute little book with inspiring quotes. And that wound up on the waiting room table, which was probably fine since it gives patients a light form of entertainment. But also, it just felt like I failed to anticipate what she would like. How do you choose a gift for someone you hardly know?

GREEN: I think with a Secret Santa set up like that, you're not obligated to know the person so intimately that you'll be able to predict with perfect accuracy what they will and won't like. You're going to have some misses in the gifts that you get.

FURLAN: Right. It sounded like this person, like, was uncontroversial, which is, like, step one, right?

GREEN: Yeah.

FURLAN: Like, don't do anything, like, if it's too bold. Be boring is fine, right?

GREEN: Right. You want to be neutral. It is much better to be boring than the other extreme in this context.


GREEN: So, I mean, coffee, that's a really standard gift. Some people won't like it. It's not the end of the world. Hopefully her boss is mature enough that she was able to, you know, pull herself together after (laughter) - after that and move on.

FURLAN: The horrible coffee mistake of 2018.

GREEN: Right. And, I mean, the nice thing about a gift like coffee is that it can easily be regifted if the person isn't a coffee drinker.


GREEN: But I think, in general - like, good general guidelines for gifts at work - I would say stay away from anything that is intended to be put on the person's body, so that's, like, perfume or lotion, clothes, jewelry. Those are all just too personal, usually, for a work context. Stuff like candy or baked goods can go over well. If you know that the person might have allergies, you want to take that into consideration.

Wine and liquor are often appreciated. But again, you want to be careful that you're taking into account what you do know about them, you know? Don't give it to a recovering alcoholic or a Muslim or someone else who's known not to drink. But it's work. We're not expected to have all of these personal details about everyone we work with. And you might get it wrong. But all of those things are pretty easily regifted.

FURLAN: So, like, essentially, if you can give something noncontroversial that can be regifted, it's not a failure.

GREEN: Yeah. It's not a failure. And little stuff - I mean, like little desk accessories, like stress balls or those little figurines or a little mini desk fan, those are all pretty generic. You know, it might not be, like, at the top of the list of what the person (laughter) was hoping for this Christmas. But they're pretty noncontroversial. You're not going to go horribly wrong with things like that.

FURLAN: Are there any other guidelines - like, not anything that you put on your body - right? - like, maybe a key chain? Are there any things that you feel are, like, almost always in bounds - a book?

GREEN: Books are great as long as they aren't books with an agenda. Like, stay away from anything political or religious. But books, like, literature, that's a good gift.

FURLAN: I feel like there's, like, a small amount of, like, noticing that you can do, like, in the weeks leading up to the Secret Santa or whatever. If you notice that they have a particular mug or they, like, like a particular kind of tea or there's something - you know, like, thing - if you do a small amount of sort of paying attention to what it is that they're interested in or what they're doing, that can give you some hints on what you could do. You could just get them something that they already have.

GREEN: Yeah, something similar to what they already have. If they're really into nice pens, you know, maybe you get them something along those lines.

FURLAN: And the No. 1 piece of advice Alison has about gift-giving at work is our second takeaway. Work gifts should not be too personal, so it's pretty likely that they're going to be boring. And that's fine. And get this. You can even aim to give a gift that's going to be regifted - shocker, I know.

GREEN: Just don't feel like you absolutely have to nail it with them. Like, this is not like giving a gift to your mom or your significant other. It's OK if it's not exactly right.

FURLAN: You're free. I kind of like that thought, you know? Like, it doesn't matter so much. And here's a little message for all of you listening to this sitting behind a mahogany desk, those of you who sign the checks with your fancy fountain pens. If you get to decide about giving corporate gifts, consider the best gift around before embroidering any baseball caps.

GREEN: I mean, honestly, money and time off...


GREEN: ...Are the best ones.


FURLAN: Money and time. Did you hear that? There is no paperweight weighty enough and no travel coffee mug that could ever hold that kind of joy.

GREEN: Think about bonuses. Think about giving people additional time off. Some companies close for a few days or even a whole week between Christmas and New Year's. People love that.

FURLAN: So our next question is truly one for the greatest hits album. It's the grown-up version of the group project where that one person does absolutely nothing while everybody else in the group busts their little butts off to get an A. I know that you know what I mean. Here's listener Abbey Diaz (ph).

ABBEY DIAZ: So I have been tasked with organizing the office celebrations and holiday parties. And for the most part, that's been fine without a problem. The issue that I'm having is with one person. He comes to all of the events. He participates, but he doesn't contribute in any way.

And so what really gets me going is that every year when it comes time to these, like, holiday parties, most of my co-workers contribute in some way. This guy doesn't contribute at all, but he sneaks in. He's like a cartoon character where he'll look to the left, he'll look to the right. And then he'll sneak into the room where this party is taking place. So can I make this guy stop?



FURLAN: So much going on.

GREEN: Yeah. I love this question. So it sounds like these are potlucks or people are pitching in money to cover the costs and he is not doing that. But he's showing up and reaping the benefits of being there without contributing anything himself. So I think you've got to decide how much you really care and how much you really want to push it. I mean, this guy sounds like he's a jerk for a number of reasons...

FURLAN: (Laughter).

GREEN: ...And I have a feeling that's playing into how irritated the caller is by this particular thing. I think I would think about how you would handle this if it were someone else who was doing this who you liked. You know, would you draw a really hard line? And I think probably not.

I mean, I think it's fine to say something once, like, hey, you've been coming to this stuff without contributing. We really need everyone to contribute to make it work. Can you sign up to bring a bag of chips or some napkins or something? But if that doesn't work, I would let it go because to really insist on him stopping I think is going to come across as very heavy-handed.

FURLAN: Right. Like, the social costs will be greater.

GREEN: Yeah.


GREEN: So, I mean, this guy's annoying. You know he's annoying. This is one more piece of evidence of that. And it might just be worth internally rolling your eyes and moving on.

FURLAN: Right. I mean, I feel like he's been pretty, like, publicly roasted in this moment. At least you can go to bed knowing that, right?

GREEN: (Laughter) That's right.

FURLAN: (Laughter) You've called him a cartoon character...

GREEN: (Laughter).

FURLAN: ...On National Public Radio. That's close. So our third takeaway for this episode is simply - if you are always stuck being the party planner, it's OK to enlist your co-workers to help. You can even give them some different ways to participate, like bringing paper cups or maybe a bottle of sparkling cider. But being direct is going to be helpful here.

I had one follow-up question for Alison that I think can apply to a lot of situations. What happens when there's some kind of workplace event and only the women or the people of color or the people who are paid the absolute least are the ones who end up organizing it and they're not paid for that work?

GREEN: Oh, I'm so glad you asked about this because so often it falls along gender lines. And it's really bad. You do not generally progress in your career by volunteering for or being assigned the office party planning. And it is vastly disproportionate in how much of that falls to women. So I think the first thing is if you are asked to do it yourself, you should really look critically at whether or not that makes sense for your role, you know?

If you're the assistant for the department, maybe it makes perfect sense for you to be the one doing it. But if there's a bunch of people in jobs similar to yours and none of the men are being asked and only the women seem to be asked, speak up and say, you know, hey, it seems like we tend to really rely on women for this kind of thing. Why don't we ask one of the men this time? Or maybe you don't want to call it out that explicitly. Maybe you just say, I did this the last three years. Can you ask John or Bob to take it on this year? And I think if you see - if you're involved in the planning and you see that a lot of women are volunteering, which often happens because of the way that we're socialized and men aren't - again, socialization - I think you can be very direct and deliberate about trying to change that.

You could say, you know, you volunteered a bunch. Let me see if I can get Bob pulled into this this year. And if it turns out that none of the men or most of the men don't really care to help with it, it might be that as a group, your office isn't that invested in moving forward with whatever this party is or with the way that the party is being held. Maybe people want a more lowkey thing. And maybe it's okay to pull back from the planning.


FURLAN: And here's another possibility. Just make a time at a restaurant or a bar near the office and have people show up there. Alison says that it's possible your employer might even chip in to buy a round. And that means that nobody in the office is taking on that extra labor.

GREEN: And if they don't want to foot the bill and your co-workers don't want to foot the bill, maybe no one wants it enough.

FURLAN: (Laughter) It's OK to not celebrate.


FURLAN: You heard it here first.


FURLAN: Our last question for this episode is one that really broke my heart. It's from Rachel Garrity (ph) who writes, in 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 in 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 - all caps - everyone from the office went each year. I never admitted to this co-worker that her defacto 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.


GREEN: That is terrible, especially that she wasn't even bothering to invite her.


GREEN: You know, I think this is a real case of management negligence. 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, including needing to look around and realizing, oh, this is completely inaccessible and we're leaving out one person because she uses a wheelchair.

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 spaces to do it in.

FURLAN: Yeah. And I think - but the fact that it's, like, a personal party, but everyone was invited, it feels like the person is thinking, like, oh, but it's my own party. It's a personal thing. It's not professional. But you would say, once you invite everyone from the office, it's professional.

GREEN: That's exactly right. You know, she's inviting three people, her own personal friends, fine. Whatever. That's her personal party. But, yeah, when you're inviting everyone, that's become a work event. And you have to think about the same things you would have to think about if it were an official work event.

FURLAN: The takeaway here is a rule I remember from my first grade class. If you're going to have a party, try to be inclusive. Now, I don't think that this means that you have to invite every single person to every single event, but come on, people. It's basic decency that if you're having an event and people are going to be talking about it, you should really make every effort to be as inclusive as you can. And, yes, that means making sure there are nonalcoholic beverages available. And you should be inclusive of people's disabilities. It doesn't matter how good they are, nobody wants apology cookies for a party that they're not invited to.


FURLAN: So as we do every episode, let's wrap up with a little holiday fun round of our takeaways for this episode. The first is that it's OK to opt out, but there might be a cost to it. Next is your office gift doesn't have to be perfect; it can just be boring. Our third takeaway is to notice who's planning the parties and to even out that labor. And our final takeaway is to try and include people even if the party isn't at the office.


FURLAN: And that's it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening. I really hope you learned something. And if you didn't, here's an extra thing. Don't drink too much at the office holiday party. That's really good advice - evergreen. For more from NPR's LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on how to make friends and another one on how to cope when friendships change.

You can find those - they're very good - at And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss a single episode. And here, as always, is a completely random tip. This time it's from listener Myomi Ryujin (ph).

MYOMI RYUJIN: If you get hard, stuck-on food on the inside of your microwave, get a medium- to large-sized microwavable glass bowl and fill it with water. And stick that bowl in the microwave for about 15 to 20 minutes. And when the 20 minutes is done, everything should be soft and should come off with one swipe of a sponge or dish towel.

FURLAN: If you've got a good tip or you want to suggest a topic, email us at This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Clare Schneider is the glue that holds this entire operation together.

I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening.

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