Holiday Horror Stories and Dreaded Traditions at the Workplace

Employees hate compulsory gift-giving; tell tales of festivities that turn into performance reviews

By Dana Wilkie Dec 14, 2015
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Right about now, HR offices across the nation are likely finalizing plans for workplace holiday parties that may include a white elephant or secret Santa gift exchange.

So they may be interested to learn that despite all their efforts to promote merriment and camaraderie, almost 3 in 4 employees can’t stand compulsory gift-giving at work, according to a survey from the consultancy Appreciation at Work.

In fact, compulsory gift-giving tops the list for most hated holiday workplace practices, according to the online survey of almost 1,300 U.S. workers between Nov. 30 and Dec. 2.

“Holidays are supposed to be a happy time, but when bosses combine ‘forced fun’ with expectations that impact employees’ finances and eat into their personal time, it’s a toxic combination that often results in negative attitudes—the opposite of what was intended,” said psychologist and author Paul White.

Seventy percent of survey respondents reported feeling pressured by compulsory gift-giving at work. Twenty-three percent said they hate white elephant gift exchanges, 21 percent disliked secret Santa exchanges, and 22 percent were unhappy that they’re expected to buy gifts for co-workers and bosses at all.

One in 5 were displeased that they had to give up personal time for “attendance-expected” holiday parties held after hours.

More than 500 survey participants submitted anecdotes about workplace holiday horror stories, including these:

  • “Every year our director thanks us by getting a party bus to go drinking together. This is mandatory and I am a recovering alcoholic. She knows this but I still need to drive around for 5-plus hours and watch everyone get drunk. This is supposed to make me feel appreciated. It is horrible!”
  • “My supervisor returned a gift because she did not want anything from me. She told me that I was not one of her favorite people.”
  • One work Christmas lunch “turned out to be a staff performance review for everyone present. Comments [were] made openly that should have been kept for a private conversation.”
  • At one holiday office party, the electric company arrived to shut off the electricity because the company hadn’t paid its utility bill.
  • An employee was instructed to hand co-workers gift certificates based on the number of years they had worked for the company: $5 for 1-5 years of service, $10 for 6-10 years, and $20 for 11 or more years. “All employees expressed disgust that the low dollar amounts were tantamount to a slap in the face.”
  • One manager banned his team from taking vacation time during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, but took both weeks off himself.
  • When a worker asked why contributions for a manager’s gift were required, the boss’s wife publicly criticized the employee.
  • One employee reported having to work 17 hours on Christmas Day to meet year-end requirements.
  • At one workplace holiday lunch, employees were subjected to offensive gag gifts and inappropriate jokes during a visit from Santa.

Advice for employers who want to make sure employees are enjoying the holiday season, even if they must also work?

“Leave ample time for employees to work on the extra year-end tasks and reports, don't force workers to participate in gift-giving exchanges—explicitly or implicitly—and be sensitive to scheduling issues and time requirements during the holidays,” White said.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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