A Workplace Guide to Harmonious Holidays

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: January 19, 2012

 “The most wonderful time of the year” can seem like anything but when you're worried about family get-togethers, endless gift lists and shrinking budgets. And if you do not celebrate any holidays during this time, you can end up feeling like an outsider.

To top it off, there's often no respite at the office, which can be fraught with potential faux pas and pitfalls during the holiday season. Aside from planning your annual vacation for this particular week, what's an employee to do to avoid feeling like a holiday humbug?

Here's our gift to you -- a checklist for maneuvering through the murky minefield of workplace "merriment."

1. Know the playing field

If it's your first holiday season with the company, be sure you ask around or read the company handbook to determine their specific gift-giving and/or party etiquette.

If there are existing guidelines or traditions, follow them. If there aren't, use common sense and constraint. You don't want to be that person whose inappropriateness is whispered about for holiday seasons to come.

In the absence of any set rules or customs, non-denominational season's greeting cards with a personal message expressing appreciation to the recipient are always suitable, but definitely not required.

2. Play by the rules

Assuming your company's end-of-the-year traditions are appropriate and don't exclude anyone, you should make every effort to get in the spirit and "join in any reindeer games."

If there's a Yankee swap type of event, don't spend more than the set limit, don't criticize gifts, and do be sure to express gratitude for your present, even if you hate it.

Of course if you feel a certain holiday office tradition is actually offensive or disrespectful of your cultural or religious beliefs, do politely decline or contact Human Resources to discuss your concerns.

3. Keep it simple

If you are the boss, or manager in charge of "fun,' be aware that things are stressful enough for people this season. Office holiday events should not add to anyone's anxiety.

If there is a gift swap component, set a reasonable price and offer a list of ideas for people who are truly shopping impaired.

Consider alternatives to present-giving get-togethers, like maybe a festive holiday lunch followed by the afternoon off for shopping or doing other errands.

4. Make it manageable for everyone

Obviously the range of appropriate gifts varies widely among companies and your particular workplace will determine its specific criteria. 

But, for the average office place, it's generally suitable to set a very low price to ensure participation and enjoyment for all involved.

A set price of $20 or less, or even $10 or less, will keep the swap fun and creative without breaking the bank for even the lowest paid employee.

5. Appropriate gifts for co-workers

It is possible to buy great gifts that will be appreciated without going to the dollar store. Some creative ways to make someone happy for $5, $10 or $20 include:

Calendars, playing cards, books, plants, candles, pen sets, desk gadgets, a cozy throw blanket in a notoriously cold office, or coffee gift card, are great generic gifts.

A nice mug for a coffee drinker, a water bottle for the office athlete, or an ice scraper with warm mitt attached for a co-worker with a long, cold commute are great personal, but not too personal, ideas if you know the identity of your recipient.

6. Inappropriate gifts for co-workers

Beware: You will be judged by the gift you give. Don't give extravagant gifts -- especially to the boss. Gag gifts are an office no-no. And personal gifts for co-workers who are friends should be givenpersonally, meaning privately, away from the office.

Many workplaces frown on or actually forbid giving alcoholic gifts. Also be careful with food gifts since many people have dietary restrictions or allergies.

Avoid shopping at dollar or discount stores. You don't want to be seen as a cheapskate. Similarly, do not present a poorly wrapped present. This is a great opportunity to shine, so wrap beautifully, even if it means enlisting help.

7. No shopping on company time

Barring the aforementioned shopping afternoon off for good behavior, any extra errands or shopping you need to do this month, you must do on your own time.

Resist the temptation to shop online, even if things are slow around the office right now. For one thing, you could be discovered, and, anyway, it is unethical. 

If you are just too busy this time of year, plan ahead and take at least one personal or vacation day to get things done and lower your stress levels.

8. Employers: It's time for employees to shine

No matter how big or small your company, when planning a year-end party your most important goal should be to make each employee feel included and appreciated.

Whether you're having a companywide, extravagant bash or smaller get-togethers arranged by each department, be sure no one feels left out or slighted.

There's nothing worse for the morale of the "lower rung" workers than hearing about big bonuses for bigwigs -- especially when their own year-end reward was a holiday turkey or ham.

9. Remember the reason this season

Typical office cocktail parties have a reputation for inviting scandal and gossip. Rather than risk humiliating anyone, perhaps it's time to change your party tune.

The point of holiday parties should be to thank your workforce for a job well done, to relax together and enforce the notion that you're all part of one big team.

Consider choosing a charity to donate (time or money) to as a team. Perhaps everyone can give small gifts to a children's toy drive rather than to each other.

10. Be sensitive to holiday surroundings

Consider religious and cultural differences and be sensitive to the kinds of decorations and music that employees are exposed to daily. 

Some workplaces recognize the diverse holidays and traditions of all their employees and others avoid specific holidays altogether so no one feels excluded.

In the latter case, offices usually focus on the days off associated with the federal holidays and center their celebrations on ringing out the old and anticipating a successful next year.

11. Tips for the partygoer

The holiday party is an opportunity to kick up your feet a bit and relax. A great time to socialize with bosses and co-workers you might not see on a daily basis.

Use this time to get to know people better and chat about "safe," fun topics, like hobbies, travel, restaurants and children; not potential land mines like work, religion, politics, etc.

If there is alcohol at the party, plan ahead to have only one or two drinks. Relaxing a little is fine, but getting inappropriately chummy with the boss or freaky on the dance floor are not good career moves.

12. Coping with the holiday lull

Are your offices eerily quiet the last couple weeks of the year? Is it hard to get anyone to return a phone call or email? Don't be tempted to waste time.

When so many people are on vacation or distracted by their personal responsibilities, it can be hard to get them to follow through on projects or tasks you're working on.

Use this time to your advantage. Emails can be put in order, files sorted and drawers cleaned out so you'll be organized for next year.

13. Maybe you should take some time off

If you are not going to be very productive during the holiday season, why not take some time off?

If your family celebrates Christmas, you could definitely use some extra time for shopping, cooking and, especially, spending time with loved ones.

If you don't celebrate Christmas, have you considered just getting away for a few days? It could be the merriest decision you make this year.

End the year right for a future that's bright

To sum up our holiday season advice: Be respectful, be appreciative, follow the rules, and take some time to organize your life, enjoy family and friends, or take a much-needed breather. 

If you can close out this year thoughtfully, there's no doubt you'll be ready to ring in a fabulous new one.