Business Columns & Blogs

Not everyone can afford office parties and gifts; don’t make them

Here’s one measure of the financial and emotional toll on lower-paid workers who can’t afford what their higher-paid colleagues can.

A reader wrote, already stressing about this year’s holiday celebration – as in Christmas, as in more than half a year away.

This worker earns less than the other people in her office and lives on a tight budget. She has sacrificed some of her personal “wants” to be able to participate in office events in the past. But she is worried, and not just about finances.

She is worried that if she doesn’t sign up for the office gift exchange, if she declines invitations to parties or office outings, if she doesn’t contribute to office collections for whatever purpose, she will be held in disregard as a team player.

The simple, but not easy, answer is to say upfront, “I can’t afford it.” Maybe that will make the boss feel a bit bad about pay disparity and co-workers feel a bit embarrassed about not understanding.

In real life, though, it’s not necessarily easy to admit financial pressures. And it’s not easy to bare one’s feelings about being left out if one can’t participate.

It should be up to management to recognize that well-meaning events, designed to be collegial, may be just the opposite for some of the workforce. If participation carries an individual price tag, it’s more than some workers can bear.

Especially in small offices, where there probably is greater awareness about pay disparity due to varying job descriptions, it’s everyone’s job to be sensitive about the ability and feelings of the lowest-paid colleagues when they’re asked to pony up, regardless of the cause.

There are solutions.

If a party or gift exchange is an office tradition, bosses who know what their employees make could quietly subsidize participation of the least-paid employees, if not out of their own pockets, at least out of the office kitty.

Expensive gift exchanges could be replaced by “white elephant” or other low-cost presents so fun becomes the purpose, not the accumulation of things. And don’t expect co-workers to buy something for everyone. Do a “Secret Santa” or draw a single name and set a very modest price ceiling.

Group lunches or outings to restaurants could be replaced by in-office buffets for which workers contribute dishes, providing plenty of cost latitude.

In-office collections for goodbye gifts, baby gifts and other causes could be done with a jar placed on a counter rather than face-to-face appeals.

It’s good to remember that some workers who seem standoffish or selfish may be suffering from financial worries. But that doesn’t mean they like being excluded. It doesn’t mean they enjoy looking like a downer who doesn’t care about camaraderie.

Over and over, I hear from workers who like their jobs, their organizations and their co-workers. But it’s seemingly little things like the office Christmas party that can mess with heads, hearts and wallets.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star: stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford, kansascity.com/workplace

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