Ask HR: How Do I Decline the Invitation to My Company’s Holiday Party?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like him to answer? Submit it here.


Q: My company is moving forward with its annual holiday party and is strongly encouraging everyone to attend. In normal times, I would be excited. However, I don’t want to be around large crowds before the coronavirus vaccine is available. How do I politely decline but also not make it seem like I’m not aligned with the company culture? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Yes, you may absolutely RSVP no to your company’s holiday party. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advising against large gatherings, not attending this event could be the safe—and smart—thing to do.

First, I want to be clear: It’s not unheard of for employees to miss corporate gatherings— whether due to a sick family member, prior engagements or a last-minute schedule conflict—even when they are encouraged to attend.

But before you decline, consider asking your employer or HR department how they intend to implement and maintain social distancing and other safety measures during the party. You might be pleasantly surprised by the planned precautions, not just for this event, but for those to come that may or may not be mandatory.

Since employees are often allotted one guest, it’s easy to imagine a situation in which the number of attendees makes social distancing difficult. So I’ll also share this: If you have an underlying medical condition or an at-risk family member, let your employer know immediately.

However, if you do not have an underlying health condition but you reasonably believe the event will be unsafe, you could have a right to refuse to attend under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Tactfully discuss your concerns with your employer, and be transparent—you might find you’re not the first person to mention it.

Employers have a responsibility to provide a reasonably safe environment for their workforce. I’d be surprised to find an organization that isn’t thinking about the safety of its employees first and foremost.

Have a safe and happy holiday!

Q: I’ve been working for a few years now, but I’m not as confident as I’d like to be. Do you have any tips for combating impostor syndrome and becoming more comfortable in a leadership role? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Thanks for posing such a great question that’s relevant for virtually everyone, not only at work, but in life, too. And let me tell you, as a long-time executive and the current CEO of SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), I know that nobody should ever stop growing or learning to lead.

Here’s one suggestion: Sit down, alone, with pen and paper and reflect. What are your strengths? And where do you feel “weak”?

These sensitivities will reveal much to you about yourself, and, more importantly, they will illuminate the steps you need to take on your path forward to growth. Maybe those steps include earning a new certification, asking HR about professional development or getting coffee with a mentor you admire. These are small actions that can, over time, help you discover and tap into that inner potential you just know is waiting to be brought out into the world.

Now, the exercise above is certainly far easier said than done. If you’re not in the habit of reflecting or meditating, sitting still and taking a clear, honest look at your faults can be painful. So if you need help clearly (and kindly) assessing yourself, turn to a friend or family member—someone you can trust, someone who loves you.

Share your question with that person, and try to find traits or patterns he or she has noticed. Then, together, think back to situations within the workplace. Sure, we may like to think of the workplace as a separate world, and there are, doubtless, many people with workplace personas. But the truth is that certain habits of action or patterns of thought are so ingrained, they eventually become invisible to our own eyes but remain clear to those who see and know us well.

Alternatively, you could turn to a trusted colleague and discuss your workflow or relationship. If you do, go with the right vibe. Don’t approach from a position of weakness or insecurity. Instead, strive to be upbeat and positive, and simply ask if there might be ways—in communication or process—to streamline collaboration. By approaching in this spirit, you’ll both feel safe and secure because it’s not a roast or critique session of either party; it’s just a conversation intended to make life better for both of you.

If 2020 taught us one thing, it’s that reality very rarely follows the orderly plans we had in mind. There are days when managing or leading is really challenging—and sometimes seemingly impossible. You won’t always be right; errors and accidents happen. Yet it’s also true that these things happen, too: days when a tough decision pays off, you exceed an ambitious goal, and you learn and grow together with members of your team.

Ultimately, though, don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, the painful awareness that you could be better is a blessing because it means you are meant for more—and that’s a beautiful thing. Now, to become that, you need the willpower. Trust yourself and your instincts, and never forget: You were chosen for this job for a reason. 

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