Q: In December, my office has a virtual party to celebrate year-end and the holidays. In January, my manager has asked us to visit the Boston office on a Friday evening, enjoy some light appetizers and drinks. We have also been asked to participate in a gift swap. Honestly, it is a challenge for me to head into Boston after hours because I have young kids and work remotely. I also don’t drink, and so events with alcohol are not all that fun for me. I also don’t want to have to explain why I don’t drink. Additionally, I am still nervous about gathering in groups and few (if any!) will be wearing masks. I feel like I am being pressured to attend.
A: Your manager may be trying to encourage in-person events, with the hope that employees can interact face-to-face vs. through a screen. Food and drink often accompany holiday celebrations. Some find these events enjoyable, while others find these events stressful. Either way, employees should be able to accept the invitation if the event is of interest, and decline if they have a conflict or if they are not interested.
Many employers are asking employees to test, with a home COVID test, before arriving for the event. Typically, this testing requirement is done using the “honor system.” You may hope that most test, but there may be some who don’t.
I have several clients who are moving to a more philanthropic theme during the holiday season, which started in December, 2020. The employer may be sponsoring a toy drive or donating gifts. Some are donating food to a local charity. I know of several companies who allow employees a day during the workweek to volunteer at a local non-profit organization, during the month of December. Employees may choose to sort items for a food bank, paint the inside of a locker room for a boy’s and girl’s club, or wrap gifts for those in need. A few of our clients have moved to donating the cost of the event to a favorite charity. This client asks employees to nominate one of their favorite charities, and employees are then asked to vote on which charity should receive the funds. The “winning” charity receives the funds.
Some of our clients are still celebrating virtually only, as many of their recent hires are now working across the country. Via Zoom, they are sharing games like whose baby pic belongs to which co-worker, what was your favorite gift (holiday, birthday or other) ever, or what is your favorite food or dish to celebrate a holiday, even it if is not Christmas.
Remember, there is no one perfect way to satisfy everyone’s ideal celebration. If you ask 25 employees, what their ideal event may be, you would likely receive 25 different responses to the question. For those fearful of COVID, outdoor events are a greater challenge during the colder months in New England.
For those who avoid alcohol, for whatever reason, the holidays can be a minefield. It is important to respect a person’s wishes when they prefer not to attend an event with alcohol, or when an individual decides not to drink alcohol. There may be a variety of reasons that a person refuses alcohol, including substance abuse issues, an interaction with a medication or perhaps they are the designated driver.
In my opinion, holidays are meant to be a season of gratitude and inclusion. Employees should be able to accept or decline. We may never know the reasons behind a decision, but it is in the best interest of the employer to respect a person’s wishes.
Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.