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Holiday Season Etiquette Tips Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Office Parties, Presents and Presence of Mind

Common levels of conduct at office holiday parties:

Level 1: Guests are conversing quietly, nibbling at their hors d'oeurves, and calmly sipping their drinks. Later, some of them gather by the piano to sing old favourites, while others chat up their bosses and colleagues in a convivial manner by the ornamented ''festive tree.''

Level 2: Guests are talking loudly, wolfing hors d'oeurves, and drinking straight from the bottles. Some people gather by the piano to sing Pink Floyd's greatest hits while others berate their bosses and rearrange ornaments on the festive tree.

Level 3: Guests are arguing wildly among themselves and tossing hors d'oeuvres at those whose disagree with them--at least those that haven't passed out. The quiet loner from Accounting is pounding at the piano, belting out ''I Can't Get No Satisfaction'', which can barely be heard over the sound of ornaments being smashed. A small group is breaking branches off the festive tree to use as weapons on their cowering bosses.

Level 4: Guests, with hors d'oeurves smeared over their semi-naked bodies, are performing a ritualistic dance around the burning festive tree. The piano has been shattered to smithereens for bonfire kindling. Several members of the senior management team have been tied to stakes and the flames are licking at their heels. Everyone else is badly slurring the song ''Drunk and Hot Girls' by Kanye West.

Party Propriety
Okay, so I'm pushing things a tad. But do outrageous things happen at office holiday functions? You betcha. More reputations have been ruined at these things than Google has ads. Sloshing down a bit too much grog. Making a pass at an unappreciative colleague. Or saying something irrevocably dumb to the person you report to.

It happens every year. And the advertising world is famous for it. All that year-end tension getting blown off at once. Suppliers pitching in for the party favors. Who could resist the chance to get laced?

You should, for one. A good rule of thumb to follow: at an event from work, any event, you're still at work. And here's another: people, especially bosses and those who might be out to get you, retain memories in direct proportion to the stupidity of your actions.

Does this mean you should only drink Perrier and be on your best behaviour? Nah, letting down your guard a bit and having fun is what it's all about. Allowing it to spiral out of hand is where problems start.

Sensible Makes Sense
Here are some tips on making the scene properly:
  • Dress appropriately. This is not the time for your mosh pit finery.
  • Eat before you drink. It coats your stomach and absorbs some of the alcohol.
  • Sip your beverages slowly, or else fill your glass with cola and ice with a twist of lime if you want it to look like you're not being priggish.
  • Stand under the mistletoe sparingly, and for heaven's sake no lip locking with someone who doesn't want to.
  • Save the dirtiest jokes, you know--the ones you tell so urbanely after that fourth gin and tonic--for the cab ride home.
  • And speaking of cabs, spring for one if the company doesn't should you appear even remotely tipsy (perceptions count here).
  • Now's not the time to pester your boss for a raise.
  • Have a buddy system so that you can tell each other if one of you is looking berzerko.
  • If you're slurring your words, go grab a coffee, stuff your face with cake, and say nothing to no one till your tongue responds to your brain again.
  • Leave when everyone else does if possible. Too soon and all eyes will be on you. Linger afterward and rumours will fly.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Another common area for misunderstanding is the ritual giving of gifts for the season. Who do you give one to? How much should you spend? What present is appropriate for a specific person? And do you really have to shell out for that grouchy curmudgeon in traffic? (Quick answer -- yes to the latter, if you want your workflow processed ever again.)

Fear not, however, as expensive presents do not guarantee you'll be viewed favourably. In fact they may even backfire. Especially if you're exchanging gifts and the person at the other end has been, well, frugal. Or if the person you hand the Rolex from Birks to sees through your largesse and resents your attempts to manipulate them.

Giving gifts at work is an area where most people lack expertise. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Office Depot Inc. found that, while nearly one in two people plan on buying a holiday gift for at least one business associate, 90 percent 'are baffled about the etiquette associated with workplace gift-swapping.'

Here, then, are some generally accepted guidelines to help sort things out:
  • Follow the customs and policies of your particular workplace. If you're not sure what they are, ask around. And check to see if there are published rules about gift giving. Some places restrict the type and maximum dollar value -- or tell you who can give to whom. A few even ban workplace gift exchanges outright, in part to prevent the excesses your co-worker is probably planning.
  • Choose who you give a gift to wisely. One approach is to target only those whose efforts you've appreciated most throughout the year. Then arrange it so you give the gift in private if possible (outside of work if necessary). This will minimize potential hard feelings from any folks you leave out.
  • Avoid controversial presents. Tempted to buy that new guy in marketing something flashy to adorn his fabulous physique? Figuring on getting everyone those cutesy coffee mugs with a stunning Christmas motif? Think twice before you plunk down your credit card. Conservative and secular is the way to go so as not to inadvertently offend. (Same goes for the wrapping). (And the card, duh).
  • Spend modestly and customize if you can. The better you know someone, the more you can choose a reasonably priced gift you're confident they'll appreciate.
Remember that in multi-cultural Canada the reasons for gifting work-wise at this time of year are to celebrate your group's accomplishments, recognize your colleagues in a small but meaningful way, and improve overall camaraderie. Keep these principles in mind and your pretty much sure to please.

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