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@Work Advice: How to avoid gift exchanges, and other survival skills for the office holiday season

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Reader: Each year at our annual dreadful holiday party, our department head insists on having a gift exchange where people can “steal” other people’s gifts. Some people enjoy this. I hate it — so much that I can’t suck it up and go. People get upset, snarky, argumentative. It’s not pretty. Suggestions that we instead donate to charity in one another’s names are ridiculed. How do I get out of what is apparently a tradition set in stone? I’m tempted to just have something “come up” all of a sudden, but then there’s next year. ...

Karla: So I guess saying it reminds you of your own family gatherings won’t win you a pass?

I’m a fan of the “first in, first out” approach to bad parties. Show up early, drop off your gift, nosh, schmooze for an hour. Before the gift exchange starts, grab your coat, thank your host, and regretfully announce that you have another commitment. If the party takes place during the workday: “I really have to get back to this project — I promised to finish it by the end of the day. I’ll just take whatever is leftover from the gift grab.”

If you’re especially clever, you can contribute a gift so dreadful — make sure you save the receipt — that it will inevitably be hot-potatoed back to you. (“A cat-themed Nativity scene? Oh, I shouldn’t have!”)

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While we’re on the topic, here’s my proposed holiday gift list for the office.

Employers: Give your workers the freedom to spend their holiday hours and dollars however they like. Whether you host a party at a swanky hotel or in the office kitchen, ask nothing more of your workers than a timely RSVP. No forced attendance. No mandatory collections to buy gifts for a boss who earns 10 times what the employees make. No twisted, humiliating traditions (see reader’s question); that’s what matching-sweater family portraits are for. In fact, in this economy, gift cards or a free day off might do more for morale than a platter of cold cuts and two tickets for some watered-down drinks.

Employees: If you attend an office party, remember who you are during the week — a professional among professionals — and where you are — a work event, not a kegger. Sure, loosen the tie and upgrade the sensible pumps, but keep your pants on and your hands to yourself. And try to be social. Letting colleagues see you in a different context can forge useful connections back at work, provided that context doesn’t involve doing anything on the copy machine that you wouldn’t want to find posted on an office bulletin board come Monday.

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You also can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook, www.facebook.com/KarlaLMillerAtWork.

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