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A common-sense guide to navigating the holidays at work

We can do this

The holidays are upon us, and the inevitable signs of the season are cropping up everywhere — even the office.

If all this good cheer is leaving you a little more wary than merry at work, you're not alone. Celebrating anything in your place of business can feel a little strange, and since not all the end-of-year holidays are celebrated by everyone, the month of December can quickly turn from festive to fraught.

Don't worry. A few common-sense strategies can get you through the entire holiday season at work with your relationships — and your career — intact.

The Office Party
You've received an invitation to the annual office party. Should you go? Do you HAVE to go?

Yes. If you are free, respond promptly with thanks for the invitation. If you have another obligation at the same time, immediately send your regrets with an explanation. Not only have your employers gone to the trouble and expense of holding an event just to show you how much they appreciate you and the good work you do all year, they have also provided you with a valuable opportunity to expand your networks, both in and out of the office. An inclusive social occasion like a holiday party offers you the perfect chance to connect with and make an impression on colleagues you don't know well but who might be useful to know in the year to come. Even better, many of these fellow professionals will bring spouses or partners, thus increasing your networking potential even further.

Shy or introverted? It can be hard to enjoy yourself in such an environment, but think of the office holiday party as the perfect place to practice the conversational and social skills you need to move up the career ladder. You're all on the same team, after all, and everyone should be in a good mood.

Speaking of: It should go without saying, but sometimes the spirit of the occasion and the spirits often so freely available at such festivities can tempt a nervous novice to overindulge. Don't. If you drink alcohol at all, stick to the one-glass rule. The road from "Jolly" to "Folly" (with a possible detour to "Unemployed") is paved with too much spiked eggnog. It may feel like a party, but make no mistake — you are at work. And it doesn't matter how much mistletoe is incorporated into the decor. Do. Not. Kiss. Anyone.

Gifts
Some businesses have instituted a "no presents" policy for employees during the holidays, specifically to avoid this particular minefield of merriment. Issues of appropriateness, scale, and reciprocity lurk inside every gift box and envelope exchanged at the office. If such exchanges are allowed where you work, turn to a more experienced colleague and ask for the straight scoop on the culture of holiday-giving at your particular workplace. Then follow suit.

Choose something tasteful and appropriate to your budget, tie it up in a bow, and enclose a nice note thanking each recipient for something he or she has done for you over the course of the year. Give everyone the same thing, and just in case, wrap two or three additional presents and stash them in your desk. If it turns out you have forgotten someone — or if you receive an unexpected gift from another coworker and feel reciprocation is necessary — you won't be left holding the gift bag.

Strapped for cash? Put on your elf hat and get creative. Gifting colleagues needn't be expensive or elaborate; one of my favorite holiday presents ever was a beach rock with my initials painted in the pretty blue of our organization's logo. An intern once hand-printed a coupon good for the fetching of one cup of coffee, just the way I like it, anytime in the new year.

Truly, when it comes to all kinds of gifts, it's the thought that counts. Show you are aware and respectful of your organization's unique culture and traditions just as you are thoughtful and appreciative of your co-workers.

Side note on "Secret Santa," "White Elephant," and other more involved giving games: If someone posts a sign-up sheet for one of these activities in the break room, consider it an opportunity to opt in or out. If you like this kind of thing and have fun engaging, then do so with generosity and good will. If, on the other hand, you are too busy and/or you might end up finding yourself tempted to give lumps of coal to a colleague you dislike, then don't be a Scrooge. Just don't sign up.

Happy Holidays? Merry Christmas?
No matter what holiday you celebrate at this time of year (if you observe any at all), keep in mind that our culture has, for myriad reasons, chosen this period as a time to wish each other well. Keep that spirit in mind as you navigate the holidays at work. Be thoughtful of your colleagues, ready to accept their expressions of the season just as they accept yours. Be patient, open-minded, ready to smile, even when you're not feeling particularly merry yourself. Who knows? All those valuable skills might just carry over into your New Year. May it be a good one.

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