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The workplace contains numerous hidden traps for the etiquette-challenged leader. There are unspoken rules regarding power hierarchies, office politics, dress, and behaviour specific to each workplace culture. Sometimes the rules are counter-intuitive; sometimes they're easy to forget. Around the holidays, business leaders face additional challenges. Even seasoned managers make etiquette mistakes. Here are seven of the most common ones – and how to avoid them.
Showing favouritism with gifts.
No matter how mature and evolved we think we are, we all feel a twinge of envy when noticing that someone on staff has received a nicer memento or token of appreciation than we have. It's human nature. There's etiquette protocol to follow for office gift-giving, and here's the general rule: It's appropriate to give small gifts to those who serve you on a regular basis, such as the receptionist or your assistant. But if you want to give gifts to others in the office – fellow managers or executives, for example – be sure to do it in private.
Before you give any gift, however, check your company policy to make sure there isn't a rule against it. If your office is opposed, follow the policy.
No matter what, don't use a holiday present to brown-nose a colleague. And keep your costs reasonable – creativity trumps extravagant spending every time.
Forgetting to tip service people in your office.
There are people in your building who make your job easier on a daily basis. These might include the doorman, the mailroom guy, or the after-hours cleaner. Give them cash in a festive envelope accompanied by a heartfelt, written message of gratitude. These workers often make modest wages, and $20 goes a lot farther than a gift card to Starbucks.
Being too casual at the holiday party.
It's fun to unwind and show a more relaxed side of your personality at the office party. Do you have a great Billy Joel imitation? Then by all means feel free to take a turn at the karaoke machine. But bear in mind that any behaviour that reveals too much about you or crosses the line of professionalism will not be forgotten on Monday morning. Your employees will snicker about your gaffe for years to come and may lose respect for you.
It's also smart to dress correctly for the holiday party. A good rule to follow: ask the office manager or party organizer how she or he would like everyone to dress. Then send out a memo so everyone can abide by the same dress code.
Throwing a party that excludes some staff.
It's just not appropriate for a leader to host a private cocktail party that only a few employees are invited to. If you must keep the numbers down (due to cost or space considerations), then ask those whom you invite to be discreet. Hurt feelings can damage workplace relationships.
Letting ho-ho-ho become too gung-ho.
It's the holidays. So go ahead and wear a Santa tie or a reindeer headband. Decorate your office with Happy Hanukkah cards. But also remember that, as the leader whom others look up to, it's essential to be inclusive in terms of people's religious preferences. Save any over-the-top tinsel and blinking lights for the tree at home.
Putting up with gossip and confidentiality lapses.
Nasty gossip, vicious during any season, has a particularly barbed ring to it during the holidays. This is especially true at the end of the year when a lot of companies give holiday bonuses. If you give out holiday bonuses, be sure to remind employees that bonuses are confidential and not to be discussed with others. Don't let poisonous envy develop into bad morale.
Laying people off before the holidays.
We've all heard horror stories about callous bosses who fire workers right before Christmas break or the New Year. Sometimes, it can't be helped, depending on the fiscal-year cycle. That said, layoffs during the holidays hurt a lot more people than just the pink-slipped employee. It ruins the time for the worker, his or her spouse, their children, and even their extended families.
Is someone interested in buying your company? If you possibly can, wait until after the holidays to seal the deal. Big change is stressful for employees, and the holidays are stressful enough.
Vicky Oliver (@vickyoliver) is a Manhattan-based job interview consultant and career adviser, and the bestselling author of five career development books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions