Enduring the holiday season isn't just a challenge we face in our private time, it's also one we grapple with at work. While there's plenty of good tidings to go around, there's also a swell of anxiety and awkwardness in the air.
Below are the three most common trouble areas for how the working world celebrates the holidays, plus do's and don'ts to make it to the new year with your job and professional reputation intact:
Carole Delouvrier, one of the manners and etiquette experts behind the website Right or Rude (www.rightorrude.com), says taking time off during the holidays is sacrosanct. "It's for spending time with family or getting some rest - a time of year when your boss should be more flexible." Still, many departments can't stop working completely at holiday time, plus your boss has the vacation needs of an entire staff of Christmahanukwanzadan-celebrating employees to coordinate and monthly goals to strive toward. If you want to ensure you're one of the lucky employees to take personal days, then make your requests early. Delouvrier suggests asking in October, so that your needs are considered well before Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. When talking with your boss, "have a plan in place for how work will continue to get done, and be as flexible as possible with what you're requesting," she says. "Also ask if your boss will make a decision by a certain deadline, so that you may make travel plans."
Be extra nice to whichever one of your colleagues has been left behind to cover for the work you'll miss. Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, recommends that you compile a work binder or digital folder of how-tos for your basic duties, so that your co-worker has materials to reference while you're out. "This is something that can be used for vacation time at the holidays or any other time, plus you can use it for a step-by-step guide of what's expected if you're out for illness," she says. "It's also a great training manual for future employees. Really, creating this binder is just a win-win."
Last-minute tip: If you didn't submit your request for time off early, consider asking for flextime during the holiday. Perhaps you could telecommute or stagger your hours so that you might still celebrate away from work.
If your employer is kind enough to host a holiday gathering, then you should do your utmost to attend, "even if it's after hours or on the weekend," Gottsman says. "It's an indicator that you value your team and the people you work with." Wendy L. Patrick, business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University, says the holiday party is "an opportunity for team building. This is your chance to interact with those co-workers that you wouldn't interact with otherwise. The important connections that you build in your career don't happen in the office hallway, but at social events."
But the keyword of the office holiday party is "office," not "party," so mind your professional Ps and Qs. Arrive on time, wear something respectable and ration your trips to the bar, because you don't want to careen from the life of the party to the butt of the next-day's water cooler jokes. If you're unsure of whether you should drink or abstain altogether, follow your supervisor's lead, then stay at least a drink behind him or her. Also stick to beverages you know you can tolerate. "Now isn't the time to try out a signature cocktail," Patrick notes. "If the company culture is to allow employees to drink, keep what you order very practical."
Last-minute tip: If you don't drink, then you have your own set of obstacles. To ward off unwanted questions, Patrick suggests nursing a virgin cocktail as you network. "Order sparkling water or sparkling apple cider from the bar, or bring a drink you like with you and carry it around. It's a magic pill against hearing the 'why are you not drinking?' question," she says. If people still ask, "tell them that what you're drinking is your favorite. That shuts down any further inquiries."
[Read: 5 Tips for Gifting in the Workplace.]
It's hard enough plotting out what to give loved ones, but for co-workers there are so many missteps you could make regarding whom to buy gifts for, what those gifts should be and how much money to spend. According to Gottsman, the first thing to remember is that gifts usually flow downward, not upward. In other words, it's a nice gesture to buy a present for your boss, but it isn't a necessary one. "The gift you're giving is your best efforts throughout the year," she says.
Office gift exchanges are fun for some, but pressure-filled for others, so Delouvrier suggests that those who want to coordinate some commemoration of the season do so by bringing in treats for everyone as opposed to planning a gift exchange that might exclude a few. If there is an office gift exchange, "it's perfectly understandable if you don't want to participate because of money, or because it's against your religion or whatever reason," Gottsman says. "See if you can arrange to work from home on those days that exchanges will take place if it makes you uncomfortable, or use the extra time to work on a lingering project."
Last-minute tip: If you're giving gifts in the office, keep these two basic buying guidelines top of mind: One, look for items that cost more than $5 (so you don't look cheap) but less than $25 (so that you don't look like you're trying too hard). Two, be conscientious of the recipient when planning a present - diabetics don't want cookies and teetotalers don't want a bottle of wine. If you're scratching your brain, Gottsman suggests neutral items like coffee thermoses, gift cards and nice writing pens. If you're not planning to give gifts, then you could still distribute generic cards to your boss and colleagues. Write a holiday greeting inside each card, expressing your thanks for the work they've done throughout the year.