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updated: 12/23/2013 8:31 AM

Career Coach Q&A: Holiday gifts in the office and other questions

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Career Coach Joyce E.A. Russell answers questions from readers. Excerpts:

Q: I feel obligated to give everyone in my department a small token holiday gift because I've done so every year_ and everyone else does it. But the department is just way too big now to make it practical. We already do a Secret Santa gift exchange. How do I not give out gifts to everyone but not feel guilty?

A: This is a very real and tough issue that many folks are facing. If you can, do more joint events (Secret Santa, holiday lunch, etc.), that helps the entire group. If you can get everyone to do the same thing, to not give small tokens, then this would help you out, too. The other thing to do is to spend some time to write a personalized note to each person thanking them for their unique contributions. While it does not involve money (and would save you in costs), it could serve the effect you want by "touching" each person to let them know they matter to the firm and to you.

Another possibility is to bring up this issue when you have a group meeting to see how others feel about the issue. You may be surprised to find that others also agree with you and would rather stop the small gifts in lieu of some fun community events (maybe the group goes out to lunch or bowling or something else that they can all enjoy).

Q: Is it possible to throw an office holiday party without spending a lot of money?

A: It might be important to watch costs for a number of reasons, including the fact that the firm might be undergoing budget cuts, or there's reductions in salaries or head count. When this is the case, having an expensive holiday party sends the wrong signal and can get employees upset who may see a better use for that money.

So, what's a firm to do? You could have the event at lunchtime or breakfast to save on food (and eliminate alcohol, which is costly). Also, employees often appreciate holding an event during the work day so that they can still go home and spend time with their families.

Many firms have come up with other creative options to celebrate the season with their employees.

How about having a cookie or pie bake-off and invite employees to bring in their special baked goods to share with each other? Let them choose a few judges to give out fun awards (best appearance, best aroma, best taste). Another idea: Close up work early to host games for the afternoon -- could be board games, sports competitions, casino games or table tennis. Maybe you set up space in your lobby or another large area for people to play. A few festive decorations could add to the appeal. Another idea that has been gaining in popularity is the ugly sweater contest, in which everyone wears their holiday sweaters and sweatshirts to work. People often love to be comfortable and casual at work and this gives them the chance to do this.

There are many possible alternatives to a holiday party that might get employees jazzed up about the firm and spending time with their colleagues. Just make sure to use an employee committee to help plan it.

Q: I'm planning to move coasts next year and can't decide if it's realistic to try job-hunting before I'm local or even have a firm move date. It's worth noting that I could use my mom's address so that I appear local, but I obviously can't interview in person unless it's arranged to happen during a pre-scheduled trip. In addition, I'm trying to build my professional network there so I can at least start the conversations online and by phone sooner rather than later. There is also a real possibility that my current employer will let me continue to work remotely as a contractor, if not as full-fledged employee, which gives me reassurance that I won't be without income and could launch a local job search in earnest once I've completed the move. Do you have any guidance on how I should approach this?

A: Good questions! I think it is fine to use your mom's address since she is local. If you get interviews, try to line them up around the same time so you can go out there for those meetings. Also, some of your initial interviews may be by phone or Skype anyway, so you might be OK. Remember that even if you lived out there, you still could be working and not be available at the drop of a hat. Employers know this.

I do think you need to figure out (sounds like you are working on this) when you will make the move since your interviews and start date will depend on this. So, try to identify a realistic start date. If you can work remotely in your current job, then it would be to your advantage to move as soon as you can. Once you are local, l it is easier to job search since you are available for interviews at any time, you can join local professional associations and you can network with people locally.

-- Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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