The Company Holiday Party: Yes or No Way?

We have to have a holiday party… right?

The holiday season is approaching, and you want to reward your employees for their hard work with a holiday party. But given the risks and liabilities associated with them, it may be time to consider if a holiday party is right for your company.

Is a holiday party the best way to reward your company?

Holiday parties in their best form can foster camaraderie, provide employees the chance to interact with new and familiar faces, and afford employers the opportunity to express their gratitude. But it is no secret that holiday parties pose significant risks: sexual harassment claims, religious discrimination, and drunk driving. New studies have also shown that not only are holiday parties a risky endeavor, they are frequently unwanted and the desired benefits of an end-of-the-year party are rarely received.

Unwanted Benefit

Despite their popularity, office holiday parties are not the preferred benefit for many employees. According to recent survey from Randstad, “90 percent of workers would rather get a bonus or extra vacation days than attend a company holiday party.” Even though this poll is not indicative of the entire workforce, it does demonstrate, when combined with the commonness of holiday parties, a failure by employers to listen and involve employees in the planning of end-of-year rewards. Holiday parties should be planned with the employee in mind, and catered to their needs.

Minimal Interaction

In theory, holiday parties can provide employees an opportunity to interact with new and familiar faces. However, according to a study conducted by Paul Ingram and Michael Morris of Columbia University called “Do People Mix at Mixers“, business persons are more likely to interact with friends at an event than engage with unfamiliar colleagues. This is true even when they had “…overwhelmingly stated before the event that their goal was to meet new people.”

Of course, all workplaces are different. Some are comprised of very outgoing and extroverted people who can take advantage of the social atmosphere parties provide. But most workplaces are comprised of a diverse collection of people, some of whom may not feel comfortable socializing in unstructured events. Organizations should attempt to connect their employees, but the setting and lack of structure in office holiday parties may be off-putting and unsettling for some employees. In these situations, it is crucial that employers accommodate for these differences among their workforce. A holiday party is just one way to reward and connect a workplace, and a risky one at that.

Counterproductive

Research has also found that workplace events can even be counterproductive for minority groups. Cheryl Kaiser, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington noted that even if unintentional, holiday parties can adopt subtle practices “…of the dominant group, all of which can convey a lack of belonging… to groups that do not share those preferences.” As noted earlier, employers need to be more attentive to their employees’ perspectives. Doing something because it is tradition is not an excuse to disassociate a certain group of employees. Employers need to be more cognizant of employee differences and make accommodations for these differences.

Why are you having a party?

Before you even consider having a holiday party, think about why you are having the party. If your goal is to reward your employees, consider other options such as replacing the party with time off or bonuses. Even better, involve your employees in this process by asking them about their preferences.

If your goal, in addition to rewarding your employees, is to foster a greater sense of camaraderie, plan more structured events that can more effectively engage your diverse workforce. Consider hosting a volunteer event that pairs unfamiliar departments, throw a luncheon, or schedule a structured activity or entertainment as an alternative to a traditional holiday party.

There is a reason holiday parties are so prevalent: they can be a fun and rewarding event, especially compared to the impersonal gesture of a bonus. But depending on your workforce’s attitude toward holiday parties, and given the inherent risk, it may be time to reconsider your end-of-year plans. Before making a decision, engage in a conversation with your employees and allow them to voice their opinions.

Additional sources:

Littler: Holiday P-A-R-T-I-E-S Protocol

HBR: 4 Reasons to Kill the Office Party, and One Reason to Save It

Daily Beast: Office Parties are Bad for Business