Avoiding the pitfalls of holiday etiquette

    With December and the holidays come a whole host of gifting opportunities which also serve as potential etiquette bombs. Here are some strategies to help you out:

Dear Ms. Maven,
   I have just started a new job this year. I’m not sure what to do during the holiday season. Should I get my boss a gift? My employees?

    Ask around if you can. This does not have to be awkward – of course you won’t say, “Hey, are you giving me a holiday present? I want to know so I can go get you something that looks expensive but isn’t.”
   Rather, you could ask, “What are the traditions in this office around holiday giving?”
   The general rule is to gift down, but not up. So, don’t get your boss a gift, but do get something for your employees. (If you are particularly close to your boss, then you can get them a little something. If gift-giving is not the norm in your office, give the gift in a low-key manner. Outside of work, at lunch, etc.)
   The risk you run here is that fabulously awkward moment when the other person doesn’t have a gift for you and clearly feels embarrassed.
   It can be prudent to have some gifts ready and wrapped that could serve for anyone. Gift cards for coffee houses, local restaurants, or the like are safe and easy.
   They can also be enclosed in a holiday card, making them perfect for situations where dragging around a gaily wrapped poinsettia is a clear sign that you are the one idiot who didn’t understand the unwritten rules in your new workplace.
   For your employees, you can do one gift for all — take everyone to lunch, or have it catered in the office.
   Huge fruit, candy, or food baskets for all to share can also be terrific and easy. If you have the time and energy, choosing small individual gifts is of course the Cadillac of gifting. Truly thoughtful gifts will always be more appreciated than those that are clearly ‘duty’ gifts.
   Giving a five-pound box of chocolates is not the best way to find out that one of your employees is diabetic. If you are going this route, make darned sure your gifts are something the person will indeed like.
   The best gift of all can be some time off. During the holiday season, everyone appreciates a few hours of paid time to go shopping for all the other gifts they have to give. Just be sure you aren’t breaking company policy or creating a precedent that can get you in trouble down the line.

Ms. Maven – Everyone in my office loves to do the Secret Santa routine. I hate everything about it, but don’t want to look like Scrooge. How do I get out of it gracefully?

    Well, this is simple. Just tell everyone you’re allergic to anything that has the word Santa in it.
   Of course the Maven is jesting — but humor can serve you well here. Or you can choose to deliver a lecture about the evils of buying cheap knick-knacks that end up in landfills … wait, that won’t work. This is another one of those can’t-win scenarios. Basically, you can smile and say, “No, thanks. I’m a descendant of Scrooge, and have a family tradition to uphold,” or you can suck it up, go out to Deals Only and buy a bunch of candles, wrap them, and do your duty. Ms. Maven tends towards the latter if everyone else is participating. Camaraderie and team bonding do occur around such activities, even if you don’t enjoy the particulars.
   Another way that many workgroups and offices have found to maneuver this whole thing is to adopt a family to give gifts to in lieu of exchanging gifts with each other.
   This can be a terrific way to have the fun of getting and wrapping gifts and creating camaraderie, as well as the satisfaction of helping others less fortunate.
   Ms. Maven heartily approves of this trend. One of her most enjoyable work Christmas parties ever was the whole office wrapping and delivering hundreds of warm blankets to local shelters. So you could say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about instead of Secret Santa this year, we’re all a Secret Santa for a needy family?” Then if they say no, at least you’re not the one who looks like Scrooge!
   Happy Holidays and Happy Gifting from the Maven.

Ramona Abbott is a management consultant who specializes in on-site training and coaching for managers and supervisors. She can be reached at ramona@essentiallyprofessional.com



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