The holiday party is one of the great corporate American traditions. It’s the time when we start reflecting back on the successes and pain points of the year, and work might slow to a brief but much-needed lull. There are few better opportunities to reward your team and bring departments together for a festive celebration.
While the holiday season is known for merriment and cheer, HR professionals across the country steel themselves in preparation for an inevitable uptick in employee complaints. Furthermore, cliquey or exclusionary social dynamics in the employee population might reveal themselves, which are otherwise invisible during working hours in the office.
Don’t panic, office party planners! It is possible to have a holiday event that’s both fun and safe. A carefully considered and well executed holiday party can be a phenomenal opportunity to reinforce your cultural values and create a renewed sense of belonging among your employees. Set yourself up for success by choosing the right venue and setting, fostering inclusiveness, and inspiring colleagues to put their best selves forward in all work-related environments. Here are some tips.
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Consider the Venue, Setting, and Alcohol
There’s no doubt that holiday parties feel more special at an off-site location, but there’s no shame in hosting your event in the office. In doing so, you significantly loosen the belt on your budget and maintain more control over many potentially problematic dynamics. People will be more prone to maintain their professional decorum, since that’s how they’re used to behaving in that space. Just be sure that you can modify the environment by dimming the lights and playing some music, otherwise it might feel too stiff. Also, appoint or hire a bartender to serve liquor, or keep it off the table. It’s never a great idea for employees to mix their own drinks.
Most companies, however, will opt to go off-site. If you’re planning an off-site event for your company, consider the structure of the evening. Is it a cocktail reception with bar bites, or a dinner? Dinners with a reception to follow can be a best case scenario, as it necessitates food before alcohol and generally inspires elevated decorum at the table. Employees will feel treated to something special and engage in a more meaningful dialogue with those seated near them. Think of the great table conversations you’ve had with strangers at a wedding, and how much fun it was to meet new people!
If opting for a standing party, take careful consideration of the food and alcohol on offer. Open bars are super fun, but can impair judgment or invite substandard behavior. Consider limiting the open bar to an hour or two, after which employees can purchase their own drinks. Maybe only beer and wine are covered by the company.
Whatever you do, don’t under-order on food. Have at least three people review the budget and give their take on the drinks-to-food ratio on offer. Give some thought to your playlist, as well. People react very differently to background music as opposed to dance beats.
Lastly, consider geography — you want as few people driving home from the party as possible. Public transportation might also not be the safest idea later in the evening. If you’re in a major metropolitan area, consider an expense stipend for rides home via a car service or taxi. How will people get from the office to the venue — is it walkable? If people normally drive, what are the overnight parking options? Most car services will pick up in a downtown area, even if the dropoff destination is outside their normally serviced area. Ask HR for a list or overview of employees’ home addresses, and prioritize accessibility when selecting a venue.
Throw a party that most people will want to attend. This doesn’t just mean that it should be a rockin’ good time — it means that your planner should consider the proclivities of the company’s employee demographics. For holiday parties specifically, give especially careful consideration to age, gender, and parental status.
For example, if you have a male-dominated culture it might be a logical conclusion to throw your party at a sports bar. While a lot of people might have a good time, your underrepresented employees may feel alienated or not come at all. A company that’s mostly millennials might be tempted to choose an arcade bar as a venue, but parents and older generations might roll their eyes and question the maturity of the organization’s choices. In a worst case scenario, you could considerably exacerbate existing feelings of exclusion amongst your company’s minority groups.
Start time can play a big role in effectively engaging a diverse demographic, as well. Parents will certainly appreciate an earlier start time, maybe even one that begins before the end of the regular working day. So will employees who live farther from the office, whether due to economic necessity or family obligations. If your employees can attend a special event and also stick to their regular commuting time, participation will skyrocket.
Bring Your Best Self
Set your people up for success and inspire good behavior. Yes, your employees are grown-ups, but the holiday party is HR legend for a reason. You’ll want to toe the line carefully between finger wagging and being too lax.
One solution that’s neutral and nonjudgmental is to reiterate your Code of Conduct policy in advance of the event. If yours is boilerplate or nonexistent (we won’t tell), consider drafting an employee-friendly Code of Conduct that’s written in everyday language and underscores your core values of respect, camaraderie, and inclusion. Call out that the Code of Conduct applies to regular working hours as well as all work-related events — this includes the afterparty. A work event doesn’t have to be company-sponsored; it means any time two or more colleagues are together in a social setting.
Will your party be on a Thursday or Friday? This might have a profound effect on the mindset with which your employees approach the event. Thursdays (or earlier in the week) are often preferable, for at least two reasons. Firstly, you don’t want to impose too much on your employees’ personal lives by occupying their weekend. Second, your people will be more likely to keep it professional (and go home earlier) knowing they will have to show face in the morning. Maybe you want to say in advance that calling in sick the following day should be reserved only for bona fide medical situations.
Planning a holiday party can demand a ton of effort, and requires much more consideration than just event logistics. Make sure HR or a business leader works together with your planner to deliver an event that’s celebratory and fun, but also safe and inclusive. With some careful consideration and thoughtful reflection, you can have your cake and eat it too.