Here are five awkward situations you might encounter at work this month and what you can do to smooth them over.
1. A co-worker gives you a gift and you don't have one to give in return. Some people give gifts to their co-workers and some don't, and you shouldn't feel pressured to give gifts just because others do. It's fine to simply give a sincere and gracious "thank you." However, if you're going to feel awkward about not reciprocating, you can follow up with something small: a card, a gift card for the local coffee shop, cookies, or whatever small token you feel would be appreciated.
One exception: You should never feel obligated to give a gift to your boss, even if she gives one to you. While some managers give holiday presents to their subordinates, the vast majority of managers don't expect—and many may feel uncomfortable with—gifts in return.
2. At the holiday dinner, you're asked to lead your table in prayer and you're not religious. It's fine to bow out altogether, politely saying something like, "I'm not religious, but perhaps someone else would like to?" This way you're welcoming others to pray if they wish to, but excusing yourself from it, which is perfectly appropriate at a business gathering. Alternately, if you're comfortable with it, you might simply suggest a moment of silence for the table.
3. You find out your co-worker is allergic to your gift or otherwise can't use it. If you accidentally gave a chocolate nut ball to the co-worker with the nut allergy or a bottle of wine to a non-drinker, simply apologize and offer to find the item another home. You might follow up with a substitute gift later if you'd like.
4. Your date gets drunk at the company holiday party. If your date is noticeably drunk, leave as quickly and discreetly as possible. If leaving early will be remarked on, explain that your date isn't feeling well and needs to get home. In some offices, a drunken date might simply be amusement for your co-workers, but in others it will reflect poorly on you, so remove yourself from the situation as quickly as you can.
5. You get drunk at the company holiday party. Ideally you'd avoid this happening in the first place; after all, company parties are business events, not purely social ones, and so your drinking should be minimal and controlled. However, if the worst happens and you get noticeably drunk, don't ignore it afterward and hope everyone just forgets about it. Your co-workers might not say anything to you about it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't noticed. If you embarrassed yourself at the party, address it head-on with an apology. Say, "I apologize for my behavior on Friday night; I didn't realize how much I'd drunk until it was too late. It won't happen again."
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.