7 holiday workplace horror stories (and how to prevent them)

Holidays didn’t feel very jolly this year? Forced fun and infringing on employees' personal time and finances probably didn’t help. Here are seven holiday horror stories, based on an survey from organizational psychologist and workplace management consultant Paul White.

workplace horror stories
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Workplace horror stories

Why did your employees look so glum this holiday season? If you mandated their participation in a gift exchange, forced them to attend after-hours parties or otherwise infringed on their time or their wallet -- it's could be your fault. "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," says Paul White, an organizational psychologist and workplace management consultant, who created the Toxic Workplace Prevention and Repair Kit.

In response to a November 2015 survey, more than 1,200 readers of White's newsletter weighed in on the things they hate most about the holidays, and more than 500 readers shared anonymous horror stories of their workplace holidays. Here are the seven worst offenders.

Reports due
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Are you finished with that report, yet?

Pressure to get year-end tasks finished by New Years' Eve tops the list of "things people hate most about the holidays at work." One anonymous respondent reported they were forced to "stay at work until 8 p.m. to close and submit payroll on New Year's Eve, when guests were already arriving at my house for a party. Other than 'Thanks,' I received no further compensation, time off, or acknowledgement."

"Leave ample time for employees to work on additional year-end tasks and reports, or schedule non-critical tasks for another time of year," says White.

Gift exchanges
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The white elephant in the room

Participating in "white elephant" gift exchanges isn't most employees' idea of fun, especially when it's mandatory; it's especially awkward when you don't like your colleagues.

One survey respondent says, "My boss had a present that a team member was going to 'steal.' My boss threatened the team member's positive performance evaluation if she 'stole' the present -- she wasn't kidding. There was a very awkward silence, and the team member ended up taking another present. Needless to say, no other team member attempted to take it."

Send a card next year
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Maybe just send a card next year

The expectation to buy gifts for supervisors or colleagues is another hated holiday tradition. It's not only an intrusion on employees' time and privacy, but also on their finances, says White. "My supervisor returned a gift, saying she didn't want anything from me. She told me I was not one of her favorite people, and refused to accept a Yankee Candle," says one anonymous survey respondent.

Secret Santa
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Not-so-secret Santa

When asked their most-hated responsibility of the holiday season, one anonymous respondent simply said, "Being in charge of a Secret Santa gift exchange for a group of people who dislike each other." If you're already struggling with workplace discord and shaky relationships, don't make it worse by forcing employees to buy gifts for each other.

Holiday parties
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Holiday parties

"I intensely dislike being forced to attend the holiday luncheon when I am up to my eyeballs in work that has to get done. I cannot be cheerful and happy with a desk full of work and a host of deadlines to make. It seems like my time would be better spent working," says another anonymous survey respondent. Again, try and leave ample time for end-of-year reports and tasks and at the very least, offer some kind of compensation or comp time for the employees that go above and beyond.

Creative scheduling
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Creative scheduling

If at all possible, avoid mandating that your employees work on the holidays. If that's not possible, try and work out creative scheduling; have workers who celebrate different religious or secular traditions 'trade off' so they're not working on days that are important to their faith or infringe on family time, says Dr. Laura Hamill, chief people officer at workplace well-being technology company Limeade. One respondent to White's workplace survey reported having to put in 17 hours of work on Christmas day -- that's not a recipe for good cheer.

Be sensitive to those that work for you
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Be sensitive to those that work for you

Finally, if you're looking to host a holiday luncheon or dinner, provide the food -- don't make your employees spend their valuable time cooking or baking, says White. And be sensitive to employees' personal lives; one anonymous survey respondent says, "Every year our director 'thanks' us by renting a party bus to go drinking together. This is mandatory; I am a recovering alcoholic. She knows this, but I still am required to ride around for hours and watch everyone else get drunk. This is supposed to make me feel appreciated? It is horrible."