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Ask HR: Do you need to attend office holiday party? Should you give your boss a gift?

December is the season of holiday celebrations with friends, family and work colleagues. While the winter festivities bring cheer, they also can create confusion about how to handle parties, time off, gifts and other holiday-related issues at work.

Let me address some of the common questions that employees have at this time of year.

Will I get paid if my company is closed for a holiday?

Maybe. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are the holidays most likely to be observed by U.S. businesses as paid holidays, but there is no legal requirement that employers pay employees who don’t work those days.          

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Generally, if you are salaried and exempt from overtime, and you worked the rest of the week, you should be eligible to be paid for a holiday. If you are nonexempt and have been given the day off, it’s up to your employer as to whether you are paid.          

Am I entitled to overtime pay (time-and-a-half or more) for working on a holiday?

No. Federal law does not require it, but the good news is more than one-half of HR professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said they pay a premium as an enticement or reward for working on a holiday.          

Can I swap the company-paid Christmas Day for a holiday that I do celebrate?  

This is a tricky one. Because employers aren’t required to provide any company-paid holiday, they don’t technically have to allow you to swap Christmas Day for other holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Chinese New Year. But I encourage you to ask your employer. Some allow employees to take a day off in lieu of a recognized holiday because it’s just good employee relations and helps retain happy and engaged employees.          

Because some of these holidays could be religious observances, an employer may be required under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide time off as a religious accommodation unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the business. Keep in mind, however, that an employer could require you to use paid leave for that time off.          

Should I give my boss a gift?

It’s up to you. If you’re like me, you love giving — and getting — gifts. But be careful about gift-giving in the workplace. Some employers follow the “never gift-up” rule. That means you don’t give a gift to a supervisor or anyone higher up. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule.          

Whether you give your boss (or any colleague for that matter) a gift depends on the nature of your working relationship. If you have a good rapport with your supervisor, and you would like to give him/her a gift, go for it. Make sure the gift is workplace-appropriate (nothing too personal) and don’t purchase extravagant gifts, as this might be perceived as trying to earn brownie points.          

What if I don’t want to participate in the time-honored office holiday gift exchange?

Don’t. The good news is you don’t have to, as this should be a voluntary activity. If you can’t afford a gift or you are not comfortable or interested in participating, “gently” let the person organizing the gift exchange know.          

Do I have to attend the end-of-the-year company party?

No. Many businesses — about two-thirds — throw holiday or year-end parties. While you shouldn’t feel required to attend, keep in mind that such events can be a good way for you to get to know your co-workers better and celebrate accomplishments, which can create a more collaborative working culture year-round. But if you want to decline, be gracious in letting your supervisor know you won’t be attending. 

Finally — and you knew this was coming — if you do attend the party, remember that it is still a workplace function, and you should adhere to the company’s code of conduct and dress code, even if the party is off-site and after hours. Enjoy yourself and the company of your colleagues, but don’t drink too much, kiss anyone, dance provocatively or aggressively pursue your company’s executives for conversation.  

This is the season of celebration to be enjoyed by all. With a little common sense and attention to workplace rules and culture, your workdays will be merry and bright.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human-resources expert, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest HR professional society.

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