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Looking for Emily…

December 18, 2011, 11:06 pm

Emily Post, that is. Because when it comes to the holiday traditions, I am clueless. Even though I am a Jew, I know the holidays are a time with a LOT of traditions: decorating, parties, gift-giving, food preparation, card-sending, etc. I have never been especially good at planning or executing any of this in my personal life, so the holiday challenges facing me in my professional life are formidable. Add to this the new perspective of being the administrator of a unit, and I have a minor crisis of confidence on my hands, as I face a bunch of questions about what is appropriate.

>>Where do I stand on holiday decorations in the office? Can I draw a line at something openly religious, require inclusiveness in public spaces, or just let people do as they will and know most of the faculty and students are gone anyway?

>>Should we have a holiday gathering for our unit or not? If so, when and where? Alcohol or no? Do I have to cook?

>>Should I send holiday cards to faculty and staff? What about advisory board members and alumni? What about the students who work for me?

>>Should I purchase gifts? And if so, for whom? Do I gift staff or include faculty as well? Do I stop with those staff who report to me, or also send small gifts to staff on campus on whom I rely most heavily, such as people in the Dean’s office and the the budget office? And how much should I spend per person? And how do I explain to my partner that I am spending our money on people at work? (The gf lives in the real world where businesses spend the corporate money on staff members, through holiday bonuses or gift cards, and don’t rely on the boss to spend her own money on people. She is often aghast at the university’s business practices.)

>>Do we adopt a family for the holidays as a unit? Who coordinates this and makes sure it happens? What happens if the faculty don’t cough up any money and it all falls on the staff? Do I pick up the slack?

Another big question that came up is how to handle letting 12-month staff go home early the day before the holiday break. I feel bad enough leaving early or coming in late, knowing that the 9-5 staff have to be there all the time. Making staff stay the whole day before the break is just wrong to me, and I won’t do it. We all know no work is getting done, because everyone else is gone already and no one is starting anything new. When I asked around, the word on the street here is to encourage people to leave subtly, by saying things like, “You know, you could use your comp time to leave around noon, I would think.” And then people have to be quiet about leaving, because if people in other units notice it, you and your staff can get in trouble. That kind of half-ass approach makes me crazy. I like a place where the Dean will write and tell everyone to leave. No harm, no foul, and LOTS of good will. In a time when there is no money for raises, being able to leave early is honestly the least I can do, especially in an atmosphere where most other FT employees (read faculty) stopped coming to campus last week and won’t be back for several weeks.

I will tell you my choices so far this year in responding to the above questions:

  • ignored the rather restrained holiday decoration on the part of my staff members,
  • attended a larger gathering for the college, so didn’t have our own party,
  • didn’t even think about holiday cards (maybe next year),
  • bought small food-type gifts for the staff and faculty administrators and took them to lunch,
  • went in with other administrators to give small presents to a couple important staff folks on campus,
  • gave money to the “adopted family” but otherwise ignored it, and
  • plan to give my staff the subtle go ahead to split early.

My faculty and staff organized a couple presents for me, which was both nice (they like me and appreciate having me here!) and daunting (am I now supposed to get something for ALL of them???). This was how I learned about the gift culture of my unit.

I spoke with other new and seasoned administrators, and there doesn’t seem to be much agreement about any of this. (One administrator did warn me about giving gifts to too many people, as he had to give cookies to more than 50 people one year, based on what he did the year prior. I walked away pretty shaken by the idea of (a) baking (b) for so many people.) Clearly, each department has its own culture and style, and leaders either respond to the departmental holiday culture or shape it in their image. I am guessing I will be more of a responder, as my own image is pretty slack in these areas. (I only hold firm to two major standards: (1) clear divisions between church and state in public schools and (2) no excessive gifting.) I also hope to have administrative staff along the way who can clue me in to “how people do this stuff” at the holidays and remind me to take care of holiday stuff in a timely fashion.

So, how do you folks handle these holiday etiquette questions? Would you do anything differently?

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