ask a boss

Rules for Celebrating the Holidays at Work

Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Elliott Gould in the 1978 Saturday Night Live skit “Mommie Dearest.” Photo: NBC/NBC via Getty Images

Get Ask a Boss delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Every December, my inbox is filled with letters from people facing holiday-related dilemmas at work. Do you have to give your boss a gift? How much should you spend? What should you do when a drunk co-worker starts hitting on you at the holiday office party? And what if there’s a mandatory *dance* performance at that party? (Which really happened — see below). Find those answers, and more, ahead.

Should I give my boss a gift?

My spouse works in a small engineering firm. Every year, the boss and his spouse treat their employees and their spouses to a holiday dinner at a nice restaurant. Some years there are even gifts for everyone. It’s a very generous gesture which we greatly appreciate, and we write them a thank-you note. Sometimes we feel we should do more to reciprocate and give them a gift, but that would be “gifts flowing upward” so I guess we shouldn’t? What if the gift were to come from me?

You’re right. Etiquette says that gifts at work should flow downward, not upward. That rule exists because of the power dynamics in the boss/employee relationship. Otherwise, an employee might feel pressured to purchase gifts for a manager, and it’s not okay for managers to benefit from the relationship in that way.

I suspect you’re thinking of how you might bring a gift to your host at a social gathering, but this actually isn’t a social gathering, even though it feels that way! It’s a business event that your spouse’s boss is putting on for business reasons. A gracious thank-you email or handwritten thank-you is all that’s required.

I’m being forced to perform a team dance at the office holiday party!

What’s your take on “strongly suggested” team activities? Our large holiday party is coming up this month with our department (about 200 people). It’s a nice affair with dinner and a pretty location with a dance floor and stage. Usually during dinner they’ll do company party games, or one or two people will sing karaoke.

But last year, a few senior team members, including our manager, decided our team will do a team dance during dinner (about 30 of us). Everyone was expected to learn this dance, including practicing the steps ahead of time. It was incredibly embarrassing and unprofessional (think kindergarten dancing with props). At the time, a few of us tried to opt out, but were heavily persuaded to join. We weren’t team players if we didn’t get on stage immediately. None of the other teams did any sort of performance, just us.

This year it’s back. The few again decided they were going to do a team dance. No one really wants to do this, but we’re strongly pressured to do it. Some people have already said they aren’t going to the party because they don’t want to be badgered into this embarrassing public performance. Granted, I’m sure some people really enjoy this sort of thing, but for the rest of us, do you have any suggestions for how to avoid it? Or to get them to listen when we say “no thank you?”

What?! A team dance? What a vision of hell you’ve just provided.

You are allowed to opt out of this! Ideally you should be able to go with something like, “It’s really not for me, so I’m going to sit it out this year.” And then if you get a lot of pressure in return, you’d just hold firm — “Oh, no thanks! It’s not my thing.” Sometimes this kind of refusal will go down more easily if you pair it with an offer to participate in some other way, like offering to videotape the performance (thus possibly adding to the nightmare of those still stuck participating, of course) or offering to be the person who introduces the act.

But if you think that won’t work, you have two other options. One is to come up with a reason that can’t be argued with, like: you’ve recently thrown out your back and can’t risk re-injuring yourself. That’s the chicken’s way, but it’s generally effective. The other stronger option is to push back with a group of co-workers who aren’t up for doing this either, and to jointly say, “We were good sports about this last year, but we find this humiliating and it’s the opposite of team-building for us. We’re opting out and need you to respect that.”

My boss wants an expensive gift!

The company I work for has about 12 employees. The owner of the company asks our manager to go around and collect $60 from each person for us to get a present for her. Around this time, she always makes comments about the type of jewelry she likes, or a new watch she saw.

I have kindly let them know that it is simply not in my budget this year as my spouse changed jobs a month ago and times are tight. When I told them that, they said that it’s mandatory and no one is allowed to not participate. I simply don’t have the $60. My spouse and I aren’t even exchanging gifts this year. Am I causing drama for no reason or is $60 a lot to ask of an employee?

Your company owner is a terrible person, and whoever is trying to make this mandatory is out of their gourd. Frankly, even insisting on $5 donations for a gift for the boss would be out of line — but demanding $60 from someone who says that it’s out of their budget is a whole new level of awful.

How firmly have you said no? If you might have soft-pedaled it in an effort to be polite, be more direct: “I literally do not have the money to give. I’m not even exchanging gifts with my spouse this year. It’s not possible for me to come up with money that I don’t have.” And really, you might also consider seeing if some of your co-workers are annoyed by this too and pushing back as a group. As with the previous letter, this kind of thing gets harder to maintain when a bunch of employees speak up and say, “We’re not okay with this.”

Can I send a gift to a potential employer?

A manager at a previous job, who I used to work with but not for, received a promotion. She’s in the process of adding personnel to her department and reached out to me about bringing me back to the company to work as her subordinate. It’s a great opportunity, but she won’t be able to interview me until January. Is there anything wrong with sending her a small Christmas gift?

Don’t do it! Because she’s considering you for a job, it’s too likely to look like an attempt to curry favor. And it’s likely to make her feel uncomfortable, especially if she ends up not hiring you. Stick with a holiday card if you want to send something.

Can I skip my boss’s holiday party?

I work in a small office of about nine people. I have worked at my company about 12 years. There is one person in the office who has a lower ranking position than me. I am in the running for a nice promotion which I am confident I will get. My boss is having a holiday party at his house. His party is a “personal” party where the office is invited along with his friends and family members. On the same night, my good friend is having her holiday party.

I didn’t attend my boss’s holiday party last year. I simply do not enjoy them. To me, it’s a work function and I don’t really like going. I would prefer to go to my friend’s holiday party because all my friends will be there, some I haven’t seen all year. Would it be bad for me to decline my boss’ party again, two years in a row? My boss remembered that I did not go last year.

This depends so, so much on your boss. If your boss is a reasonable person, it will be fine to say, “I wish I could be there! Unfortunately, I have a commitment that night that I can’t break. I hope you have a great time!” (If your boss is only a little bit reasonable, sometimes saying you have a family commitment will be more readily accepted.)

But if your boss is petty, or if he’s the sort for whom “optional” activities are really mandatory, then your best bet is to make a short appearance. You don’t have to stay all night — just show up, make a point of talking to your boss so he knows you were there, and duck out after an hour. If you bristle at the idea of having to do that, think of it like any other annoying work obligation. But you still get to leave and head to your friend’s party afterward.

Is it appropriate to give my intern a gift?

What is appropriate when gifting to interns? In my case, I have a graduate-level intern whose placement is required for her degree who works directly with me. When I did required internships at both the BA and MA level, I received anything from nothing to small gift cards ($5-$10) to the same holiday bonus as the full-time staff ($100 check from the company). Is gifting to someone who is technically your “student” appropriate? I’m thinking about the $5-$10 Amazon/Starbucks/Target gift card route, but what are your thoughts?

A small gift card to a place you know she likes is a great gift. Make sure you really know she likes the place, though. Every year I get letters from people who are mildly annoyed by receiving gift cards to restaurants that only exist two states away from where they live, or for coffee when they don’t drink coffee, or other evidence that a gift wasn’t given with much personal thought.)

Also, keep in mind that the $100 check you received was a bonus that came from the company, not a gift from your manager personally. People don’t expect extravagant gifts from their managers, even if the company itself goes a more luxe route. And frankly, managers don’t need to give their staff gifts at all, although it’s a thoughtful gesture if you choose to.

How should I deal with drunken and flirtatious co-workers at the holiday office party?

Do you have advice on what to do about co-workers who get sloshed at the company holiday party and start hitting on you? I’m never sure how to shut this down without creating professional awkwardness later. Last year a guy I work with was drunk and got way too friendly, and confessed feelings of attraction that I really didn’t want to hear about.

Please, please let the feelings of awkwardness land where they really belong — on the drunken, boundary-crossing co-worker when he wakes up the next morning.

In the moment, though, you have a few options. One is simply to make a quick escape, saying that you have to get another drink, eat more puff pastry, see someone you need to talk with, or so forth. But you can even say, “I think you’ve had a lot to drink, so I’m going to excuse myself now” — which can sometimes jolt the person into realizing that you might not be enjoying the conversation in the same way they are, or at least that they might be crossing the line for a work party. That can be the kinder option if you think someone deserves the benefit of the doubt.

But if someone is outright inappropriate — like making a pass at you — don’t be shy about shutting that down decisively. Depending on how direct you want to be, that could be anything from “I’m taking your hand off my knee and ending this conversation now” to “Whoa, I am not up for continuing this conversation” to “You need to stop touching me.” And if you’re too taken aback to come up with the right words in the moment, it’s also fine to just walk away. You’re not obligated to stay and continue to engage if you don’t want to, especially when a clear line has been crossed.

And of course, if someone has a pattern of making advances on co-workers at work events, consider telling someone in a position of authority over them — because you don’t want people to brush it off as “oh, he just drank too much tonight” when in fact he’s systematically harassing colleagues.

This article was originally published in 2017.

Get Ask a Boss delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.

Rules for Celebrating the Holidays at Work